(AiyohWAIT: Before you go any further This piece contains spoilers)
When a film puts a man in the place of a woman, the male character’s understanding of what it feels like to be a woman in Indian society is a crucial depiction, that if done right can send out a strong message, whether through humour or drama.
Dream Girl is an out-and out comedy and nobody really expects it to be too deep. But the film’s subject lends itself to the gender perspective quite organically, and cannot be viewed in isolation.
The film revolves around Ayushmann Khurrana, who plays the role of an unemployed man named Karamveer, living in Gokul, desperately in need of money to pay off his father’s loans. He has no other option but to take up a job at a hotline, thanks to his talent of mimicking the female voice. The deal is that he has to take on a woman’s identity and talk to men on the phone in a female voice, which he has been good at doing since he was a kid.
One good thing to take away from Dream Girl is that despite being a comedy packed with men, the male gaze and tons of jokes and punches, it stays away from cracking sexist jokes. There are some ageist jokes, but that’s a whole different story.
Dream Girl is a complete laughter riot. Writer and director Raaj Shaandilyaa takes a cue from the writing he has done for stand-up shows on television like Comedy Nights With Kapil and Comedy Circus, when dealing with the dialogues of the film. He packs in one punch after another and there is barely any respite or time to think, especially in the first half.
But, towards the end and especially after you step out of the theatre, there are a few things that you need to mull over when it comes to the portrayal of Pooja as a woman, the references from Sanskrit epics, and the message the film puts out.
Sita, Draupadi & Radha
Radha, Sita and Draupadi, three of the most popular female characters from Sanskrit epics, make their way into the story-line of Dream Girl. Ayushmann assumes all three avatars through the course of the film.
In the beginning he performs at the Ram Leela as Sita, which he has been doing throughout his childhood. And Ayushmann’s entry as a grown-up also happens in Sita’s avatar. Karam is all things good at this stage.
Next, we see him as Draupadi. This comes at a point when Karam has made a lot of money by playing Pooja but it has also gotten him into big trouble. Four men and a woman are enchanted with Pooja’s voice, and are now chasing after her.
When Ayushmann is rehearsing to play the role of Draupadi in a local theatre, he starts daydreaming. In that dream he sees those five admirers who are chasing him, or rather Pooja, as the Kauravas and himself as Draupadi.
This scene is significant because Ayushmann’s character talks about how the Pandavas had no right to put Draupadi at stake in a game of dice without her consent and if this had happened in today’s times, the Kauravas would have been put behind bars for what they were doing to her.
In the end, he dresses up as Radha on Janmashtami for a stage act. This is where the climax unfolds. Ayushamann has to confront the five people who have been chasing after him (or Pooja). But Radha obviously ends with Krishna, and so does Ayushmann. Still dressed up as Radha, he walks away with Nushrat Bahrucha, his fiancée.
So these three mythological references have been smartly incorporated into the story. And that really added depth to the film.
The Portrayal of Pooja
First, Ayushmann’s character looks so comfortable assuming the role of a woman. And so does Ayushmann! There was no scene where Karam was mocked or made fun of for portraying a woman. And he got a lot of respect in his neighbourhood for that too, but that was only because he plays Sita at the local Ram Leela!
As Karam, Ayushmann never seems uncomfortable about being able to do the female voice. It’s also because Ayushmann looks so much at ease and displays earnest when he portrays Pooja. He brings an endearing quality to it. So, this normalizing of gender fluidity is something to take away from the film.
But, what if Pooja was actually a girl, and not a man in the disguise of girl? Because all these men claim and declare Pooja as theirs, and somehow her consent doesn’t even seem to matter. And THIS should have been the greater message to give out here. One is ready to leave his wife for Pooja, one his religion, one decides to give up his pledge to be a brahmachari (spinster), and one of them even slits his wrist for Pooja.
All this even after Ayushamann, in a humorous moment, has mouthed Amitabh Bachchan’s famous dialogue from Pink, “No means no.”
There is also another sore point, a dialogue that I was surprised was even there in a film that is centred around the trouble a woman, though fake, goes through. When Ayushmann finally quits his job after being blackmailed by his boss for several months, giving it back to him, he says “Aap bhool gaye ki Pooja ek mard hai (you forgot that Pooja is actually a man).”
He says the dialogue after stopping his boss from slapping his fiance. If Pooja was actually a girl and was being blackmailed for some reason by her boss, wouldn’t she have had the strength to fight back? Because that’s exactly what the dialogue sounds like. You don’t need balls to fight back, do you?
Stereotypical Female Admirer
One of Pooja’s admirers is a woman, Roma, a magazine editor, and her portrayal is the most stereotypical one in the film. She has had three failed relationships and she blames the men for breaking her heart, to the extent that she has turned into a man-hater, even torturing her male employees at work.
Perhaps the director wanted to make a case for the men. In one of the scenes, Ayushmann does make a valid point about dhoka not being gender-based. Even women can hurt men.
But why was Roma’s sexuality not clear. Why was she a man-hater and not bisexual? Instead, she is just made into a jilted straight person looking for love in a woman? Homophobic much?
The Diluted Message
So in the end, Ayushmann says Pooja is not really about gender. Pooja stands for anyone you can talk to – a friend, girlfriend, boyfriend, family member – anyone you can share with. The message is that in this digital age, we need to reconnect with the people in our lives and share our feelings with them, instead of relying on an adult hotline. While I really like that Dream Girl touches upon this aspect, as it’s surely relevant, I would disagree with that being the endgame here. Because gender plays a huge part in Pooja’s story.
Even though there is tons to like and laugh about in Dream Girl, the greater issue related to gender equality, which seemed like the crux of the whole story, is not brought to the fore in its ending. A film where a man voices a woman should have had more of the female voice in it.
It’s unfortunate that the writers do not grab the opportunity to send out a strong message of more importance. A girl being chased by four men and a woman – and they even begin fighting with each other over her – despite her saying no to them and resisting their advances, is a relevant gender issue in today’s times not just at the time of Mahabharat.
So even though there is tons to like and laugh about in Dream Girl, the greater issue related to gender equality, which seemed like the crux of the whole story, is not brought to the fore in its ending. A film where a man voices a woman should have had more of the female voice in it.