During the bustling opening number in the Bollywood romantic dramedy “Husband Material,” a performer lyrically insists: “Old-fashioned love stories need an update.” But that turns out to be just a tease: Director Anurag Kashyap (“The Gangs of Wasseypur”) and scripter Kanika Dhillon don’t stray very far from the clichés and conventions common to scads of similar masala movies in this lightly engaging but thoroughly predictable trifle about an independent-minded young woman torn between an irresistibly sexy bad boy with commitment issues and an impossibly understanding fellow who’s the very embodiment of the film’s title.
Taapsee Pannu is by turns appealing and annoying — and in some scenes, both simultaneously — as Rummi, a free spirit who lives with her tradition-conscious extended family in Punjab state, but refuses to conform to societal norms that might curtail her pursuit of pleasure. She makes only half-hearted (and largely unsuccessful) efforts to hide from disapproving elders her ongoing friends-with-benefits attachment to hunky Vicky (Vicky Kaushal), an impetuous would-be DJ given to tonsorial extravagance and sexual swagger. When anyone in her family suggests she settle down and accept an arranged marriage, Rummi does everything short of belching fire to express her revulsion.
Early in “Husband Material,” however, Rummi indicates there are limits to her unconventionality: She really wants Vicky to finally put a ring on her finger after all their wild times together. (She makes a passing reference to her needing to have had an abortion, a mildly shocking thing to hear referenced in a Bollywood extravaganza.) When he unsurprisingly balks, Rummi takes aim at his ego — “You fire your gun in under a minute! You should join the army!” — and promises her family that if Vicky isn’t interested in marrying her, they can go ahead and locate someone who is.
Enter Robbie (Abhishek Bachchan), a gracious and attractive fellow who has returned home from his banking job in London for the express purpose of making his own tradition-conscious family happy by finding a suitable wife. One thing leads to another, thanks to the manipulations of the wily matchmaker Kakaji (amusingly played by Saurabh Sachdeva of the Netflix original series “Sacred Games”), and soon Rummi and Robbie are betrothed.
Mind you, Rummi initially agrees to the union only to make Vicky change his mind about matrimony. But when her inconstant lover once again demonstrates his unreliability — which, to give fair credit, Kaushal demonstrates most persuasively — Rummi accepts her role as Robbie’s dutiful wife. Sort of.
For a lengthy stretch of “Husband Material,” Robbie stoically endures Rummi’s obvious ambivalence about their marriage — yes, he knows all about her not-entirely past relationship with Mr. Wrong — while patiently and hopefully waiting for her to truly fall in love with him. Indeed, it’s difficult to recall the last movie husband who evinced such gentlemanly self-restraint when it came to actually consummating his union to a reluctant partner. Kent Smith in Val Lewton’s “Cat People,” maybe?
But eventually, inevitability, Robbie tires of waiting for his spouse to be less of a stranger. And when he witnesses a platonic yet impassioned close encounter between Rummi and Vicky, he is pushed over the edge, and toward an annulment.
Bachchan appears so incensed when Robbie learns of Rummi’s seemingly undiminished desire for Vicky that if this were almost any other melodrama about a romantic triangle — especially one of the non-Bollywood variety — the audience might expect one or more crimes of passion were in the offing.
But no: The happy resolution is never seriously in doubt. Although Kashyap gets a respectable amount of mileage from the movie’s borderline-trite premise, and manages to keep putting pedal to the metal in modestly diverting fashion long after he starts running on empty, “Husband Material” only sporadically offers more than typical Bollywood song and dance and romance.