Director Maneesh Sharma’s third feature film, the small-scale Bollywood love story “A Random Desi Romance,” is a beautifully made rocky-road-to-love comedy in which many obstacles intrude before the right people finally get together, although not in quite the way you might expect. Gorgeously filmed in the pink and terraced northwestern city of Jaipur, in Rajasthan — a tourist destination even within India — and cast with a fizzy mix of attractive newcomers and expert veterans, the film is a cake-box romance with something surprising at its center. Having bowed Sept. 6 ahead of its Toronto gala premiere, it’s already recouped its production costs with more than $4.5 million so far.
As scripted by Jaideep Sahni, “A Random Desi Romance” marks a concerted effort to get on the right side of changing sexual mores. It isn’t just the highly visible fact that Hindi cinema’s famous taboo against kissing has fallen by the wayside, or the nonchalance with which characters tumble into bed. It’s the underlying agnosticism toward the sacredness of marriage itself that is the kicker in this winning movie from what has been, up until now, the most marriage-fixated movie industry on earth.
What’s novel in this treatment is that it’s the young characters’ skittish attitudes toward marriage that create obstacles to happiness. A narrative motif has various characters running, taking a powered sprint with minutes to spare, just as garlands are about to be exchanged. And the film finally works its way around to implying that those crazy kids might have a point.
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“When marriage is a transaction,” says our putative hero, Raghu (Sushant Singh Rajput), “how can you persuade anyone to marry?” Raghu’s view, however, may be slightly skewed. When he isn’t fleecing tourists at a street stall, he works as a part-time “barati,” or fake wedding guest, dressing up in pointy shoes and turban to graze on free food at the lavish ceremonies planned by his favorite uncle (a wise rogue played with effortless zest by the almost completely spherical comic genius Rishi Kapoor).
The marriages we see in the film — including Raghu’s own, in the first sequence, from which he takes off like a roadrunner — are arranged from afar and staged as elaborate spectacles of buying power. But they also loom over the characters as the only acceptable course of action their culture allows for people in the throes of passion.
It’s possible that the two impressive neophyte actresses playing poor Raghu’s love interests are too much alike in their challenging steeliness. Both Parineeti Chopra, as a go-it-alone English teacher who understandably takes some convincing after watching Raghu rabbit from the alter, and Vaani Kapoor, as the betrothed left behind to seethe, have a similarly clipped verbal delivery (easily surpassing Raghu’s) and the same kind of proud, sharp-eyed determination not to be toyed with. (It might have been more interesting if Raghu had a clearer choice to make. Couldn’t one of these ladies have been a metalhead, or a PETA supporter?)
Both are more direct and self-aware than the dithering Raghu, who doesn’t cut a very impressive figure in his dealings with these striking women. Rajput seems to have put most of his energy into perfecting his twitchy dither, an assortment of blinks and shrugs and wide-eyed suggestive pouting that inexorably chip away at female resistance. Neither of them ever slaps him during one of these spasms, which is a bit of surprise. After last year’s off-Bollywood indie hit “Kai Po Che,” Rajput was already earmarked as a rising star; he may want to weed a few of those winsome gestures out of his box of tricks, if he’s really serious about pursuing mega-fame.