Author’s note: Thanks to my friend, Melanie, for loaning me her Blu-ray of Dum Laga Ke Haisha! Check out her Letterboxd page.
Without flashy effects or a lavish budget, Dum Laga Ke Haisha tells an enchanting tale that is as fun and immersive as any film out there.
The title — which is translated in the English subtitles as “Heave Ho, Carry That Load” — has a double meaning. It refers metaphorically to shouldering the burdens of marriage but also to a literal race in which a husband carries his wife, the setting for the film’s climactic scene.
Prem Tiwari (Ayushmann Khurrana) is a 25-year-old high school dropout living in Haridwar in 1995. He’s essentially a professional maker of mixtapes, working in a little shop full of cassettes that best exemplifies the film’s excellent production design. His family hopes to improve their financial situation by finding Prem a wife with a job, so they settle on Sandhya (Bhumi Pednakar), a teacher.
Despite the fact that Prem is a man of limited prospects — Prem’s nemesis, Nirmal (Chandrachoor Rai), buys the town’s first CD player, spelling doom for Prem’s business — he’s insulted that his family wants him to wed a woman who is overweight. He accedes to the marriage, but refuses to consummate it. Well, at least for one night.
The story follows Prem and Sandhya as they struggle to reconcile their previous expectations of married life with their actual experience of it. Their potential for happiness hinges on Prem, who hides his deep self-loathing and feelings of failure behind a shield of pride.
In Dum Laga Ke Haisha (DLKH, henceforth), marriage is depicted as more of a public institution than a private one between two people. When Sandhya moves into her husband’s family’s cramped home, she relinquishes all personal privacy. The one telephone is in the hall near the kitchen, so every conversation is overheard. Her in-laws and her husband’s aunt sleep on cots right outside to the matrimonial bedroom. Everyone in the house knows whether or not Prem and Sandhya are having sex.
It’s fascinating to see sex dealt with so frankly in a Hindi movie. The act is a matter of public importance in the sense that, once the marriage is consummated, it’s more difficult to back out. Prem’s mother hears the bed creaking in the other room, and her first instinct is to call her daughters and tell them about it.
The Tiwari family home is a frequent setting in DLKH, and shots featuring too many people crowded into too small a space are reminiscent of Ankhon Dekhi, a terrific movie in which Sanjay Mishra also plays the patriarch.
Director Sharat Katariya and cinematographer Manu Anand also evoke memories of Wes Anderson films in their use of camera pans and in absurdly humorous scenes, including one in which the leader of the local men’s club hoists one of its members onto his back in order to demonstrate proper wife-carrying technique.
Everything in DLKH depends on Prem deciding to take responsibility for his own future, rather than blaming everyone else for his failings. He comes just close enough to causing the audience to lose faith in him, but he doesn’t thanks to Khurrana, who plays the put-upon everyman as well as anybody.
More importantly, we never give up on Prem because of Sandhya. She’s such a complete character — snarky but sensitive and with a sense of justice — that we trust her judgment. If she sees potential in Prem, it must be there. Padnekar is so endearing and funny, she makes Sandhya impossible not to love.
The supporting roles in DLKH are rich and well-defined. As frustrating as Prem’s catty aunt is, we understand why she is the way she is. Same with all of the parents in the film, who react to the possible breakup of Prem and Sandhya’s marriage as though they are the aggrieved parties.
Katariya’s take on marriage is fresh, insightful, heartwarming, and hilarious. DLKH is an absolute must-see.