You might think that the woman named Happy would be the main character in a movie titled Happy Bhag Jayegi (“Happy Will Run Away“). You’d be wrong.
Happy (Diana Penty) is a plot catalyst rather than a real character. She exists to cause problems that other people must fix, ostensibly in the name of getting Happy what she wants, but really in order to advance their own character development.
Of the film’s four major characters, Happy is introduced third, ten minutes into the film. The first character we meet is Bilal Ahmed (Abhay Deol), the film’s true protagonist on whose emotional growth the story depends.
Bilal’s father is a prominent Pakistani politician determined to make his son follow in his footsteps and “change the future of Pakistan.” Bilal meekly walks his predetermined path, too timid to speak up for what he really wants.
The Ahmeds visit Amritsar for an agricultural summit aimed at fostering ties between the neighboring countries. Elsewhere in town, a local goon/politician named Bagga (Jimmy Shergill) takes the stage to perform at a celebration before his upcoming wedding. His bride-to-be — Happy, appearing onscreen for the first time — waits until the show is underway before secretly leaping out of a window into the back of a truck. Only instead of landing in the vehicle owned by a friend of her boyfriend, Guddu (Ali Fazal), she mistakenly jumps into a truck taking goods from the agricultural summit to the Ahmed family home in Lahore.
Bilal scrambles to find a way to get Happy back home without creating an international incident (and without his father finding out), but Happy won’t leave unless her marriage to Guddu is secured. Bilal enlists the help of his fiancée, Zoya (Momal Sheikh), and the police constable, Afridi (Piyush Mishra), to pull off a complicated cross-border scheme.
Happy meets the minimum requirements for a generic Bollywood romantic comedy female lead in that she’s beautiful and feisty, with a penchant for drinking and a domineering attitude that make her irresistible to male Bollywood romantic comedy characters. But that’s all there is to her.
In contrast, Zoya is refreshingly complex. Bilal’s childhood friend and the daughter of a wealthy businessman, Zoya and Bilal have been betrothed since birth. She views Happy as a problem to be solved, but Bilal’s infatuation with the interloper makes Zoya question whether her own romance with him is one-sided. She doesn’t want to be a constant reminder to Bilal of the choices he wasn’t allowed to make for himself. Yet Zoya is a team player, and she doesn’t let her doubts interfere with her duties, nor does she resort to trickery to keep Bilal and Happy apart.
Another unfortunate feature of Happy’s character is her lack of agency. After making her fateful leap into the truck, she spends most of the film in jail, in hiding, or kidnapped. When she receives her father’s blessing at the end, it’s not because of anything she’s done but because of the actions of one of the men.
It’s also worth pointing out that, after Happy runs away, both Guddu and Bagga continue to express their desire to marry her. However, her father grabs a gun and says he’s going to kill her. Even if he doesn’t mean it literally, it’s not the kind of joke you can make when women and men who elope are still murdered by their families with alarming regularity in Pakistan and India.
Unlike the cookie-cutter title character, the men in Happy Bhag Jayegi are thoughtfully written. Bilal has spent his life resisting his future in politics only for Happy’s plight to show him that he’s a good leader. Guddu’s future is as amorphous as Bilal’s is fixed, plaguing the young lover with doubts about his ability to provide for his beloved. Bagga is a goon, but also a decent guy who genuinely cares for Happy.
The performances from the likeable cast are generally quite good. It’s clear that Penty is capable of more than the material she was given. The plot unfolds at a decent clip and heads in some unexpected directions.
One more knock against Happy Bhag Jayegi may only be relevant to international viewers. Many of the jokes are wordplay humor, especially involving the different meanings of words in Urdu versus Punjabi or Hindi. These jokes aren’t translated with context, so it’s impossible tell what’s supposed to be funny.
There are the elements of a good movie present in Happy Bhag Jayegi. If only the title didn’t feel like a bait-and-switch.