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Shukranu-Hui Emotion ki Nasbandi, Review: Tale of forced sterilisations lacks potency

In modern Indian history, the Internal Emergency, proclaimed in 1975 and in place for about two years, is regarded as a highly controversial phase. During this period, buses and trains ran on time, attendance in government establishments increased astronomically, corruption was all but eliminated and prices of a host of essential commodities were controlled. But all this was accompanied by curbs on freedom of speech, jailing of prominent opposition leaders, iron hand censorship of films and full-scale government propaganda on state-owned radio and TV (there was no private radio station or TV channel at that time). Also, the forced mass sterilisations drive, to curb population growth, led by Sanjay Gandhi, the firebrand son of the then Indian Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi. The last-mentioned has inspired Shukranu.

In a voice-over and through captions, Shukranu-Hui Emotion ki Nasbandi  (Sperm-Emotion Sterilised) declares that more than 10 million forcible sterilisations were carried out during the emergency, of which 2,500 resulted in death of the men put under the scissors. Small incentives were given to those who underwent the operation or got others to ‘agree’ (some were conned into submitting) to it, worth $1-2 at current rates of exchange. Some operations were botched, thanks to the targets set for doctors for a daily count. Shukranu is the story of one hapless bachelor, Inder, alias Bittu, who is forcibly sterilised, shortly before getting married.

Inder (Divyenndu Sharma), a lowly-paid factory supervisor, claims to be an expert in the art of hooking up with girls, and his best friend (Aakash Dabhade) wants to learn the art. Up to the challenge, Inder takes on a girl who is accompanied by her friends. To his grave misfortune, the girl, Akriti (Sheetal Thakur) is the daughter of a wrestler and has three wrestlers for brothers. The brothers beat the hell out of him. He is still fixated on her, but when he is told that some others who had tried to woo her in the past were beaten to death and that she is a ‘Manglik’ person (born with the stars in a position that rules out marriage and can cause disaster if marriage is attempted), he withdraws. But to his surprise, she begins to start liking him and reveals that the stories about her suitors and stars are all false.

Meanwhile, Inder is subjected to forced sterilisation at a camp, and realises that marriage to Akriti would mean facing terrible consequences at the hands of her family. Since he does not want to expose his condition, he agrees to marry a girl, Reema (Shweta Basu Prasad) picked by his family, in his native small town, thinking that it will be easier for him to deal with the problem there. Though he manages to keep his impotency under wraps, the family gets suspicious, after initially attributing his reluctance to have sex to his shy nature. They convince his wife to seduce him, and even play seductive songs to get him aroused. Soon, his marriage leave gets over and he leaves for the city, to resume duty. Sometime later, he gets a letter from his family, informing him that his wife is pregnant. Impossible, thinks Inder, unless she has had sex with another man. Unable to confront her, lest he is forced to acknowledge his disability, he turns once again to Akriti, who is waiting for him with open arms.

Three films have been made in India, on the subject of fertilisation and sterilisation. The first was Nasbandi, made by the master of satire, the late I.S. Johar (actor, producer, writer, director). As corny as his other works, maybe even more so, it starred several clones of popular heroes and heroines. Though it was targetted at the Emergency, and made in 1975 itself, it was denied release till the Emergency and the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi lasted, hitting cinema screens only in early 1978. Vicky Donor, as the title suggests, is the story of a sperm donor who takes up the cause as a well-paying profession. Most recently, we had Good Newzz, about In Vitro fertilisation and the accidental swapping and transplanting of sperms. Shukranu comes at a time when the political dispensation in the country is very similar to that of 1978, and late Mrs. Gandhi’s party, the Indian National Congress, sits in the opposition, with a small number of seats in the Indian Parliament.

Whereas the 1978 film suffered on account of its tacky production values and the lifting of the emergency before its release, the 2020 edition, written by Sudhir Singh, director Bishnu Dev Halder and Ravi Kumar (dialogue) takes the premise as a mere page from history that viewers might find hilarious and touching in equal measure. Unfortunately for them, the hilarity and sensitivity sort of cancel each other out and the film becomes a bedroom farce play, rather than an enjoyable comedy or satire. Events of that ‘dark period’ are highly underplayed and the plight of the individual character of Inder is highlighted, which is not universal. It would appear that either no statistics were maintained by the regime about failed sterilisations, or such cases did not come to the light of the government at all. Who would want to go and report that his sterilisation operation had failed? Therefore, the protagonist’s plight does not find an echo among viewers. If 10 million were sterilised and 2,500 died, most likely scenario of botched operations would be negligible.

Except for the wife and her pre-marriage male-friend, no major character draws sympathy. Inder believes he is a womaniser and has a full-blown affair after marriage. Akriti uses Inder to fulfil her sexual needs, after getting him beaten black and blue for trying to make a pass at her. Her father (Rajesh Khattar) and his three hulky sons come across as mentally challenged and constantly posturing musclemen. Inder’s best friend does draw some sympathy, but one would have expected him to show some spine and put his foot down, rather than play act to save his wayward friend. Of course, you do feel for Reema’s family, which is at the receiving end of Inder’s physical condition, and his continued infatuation for Akriti. But then you also guffaw when they try to get him to copulate with his wife, an act that he tries to avoid at all costs, and the numerous cures they propose for his condition.

Some scenes are better written and directed, like the montage of remedies suggested to ‘cure’ Inder’s disorder, which is perceived as erectile dysfunction rather than surgery induced impotency, and his visits, first to a Hakeem(traditional Unani medicine practitioner) and then a doctor, who has been part of the mass sterilisation programme. In contrast are the first few scenes and the entire track with the wrestlers and Akriti, which do director Bishnu Dev Halder (Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Kolkata, alumnus; Bagher Bachcha, Pratyabartan, I was Born In Delhi, The Diary of a Refugee) no credit.

Performances are routine, all around, with Divyenndu, in an ill-defined difficult role, striking a false, note on a few occasions, giving the impression that he deserved a better deal and has got into this set-up only under compulsion. Shweta and Sheetal contrast well, not only in character delineation but also in physical features. Aakash is full of beans, but his dialogue delivery is more native Marathi accented than the supposedly Bihari accent he should have put on for the character. Rajesh Khattar makes a fine wrestling patriarch, with a macabre sense of humour. Sanjay Gurbaxani, as Inder’s father, gets to mouth a line that goes, “After my wedding night, they had to replace the broken bed.” Raj Bhansali gets to play Reema’s buddy, who is suspected of having impregnated her, and he does a fairly decent job, in spite of one poorly picturised scene, where he gets beaten up by Inder. The voice-over is by actor Vijay Raaz (who else?), who, for a change, has done a commendable job.

Music by Sanjay Jaipurwale, Advait Nemlekar and Harish Sagane, cinematography by Sayak Bhattacharya and film editing by Deven Murdeshwar are the other credits on Shukranu, which is an original ZEE5 release, on the web platform.

A welcome change from watching routine fare, Shukranu-Hui Emotion ki Nasbandi falls just short of meaningful cinema. It suffers from an inability to slot the film in the right direction, saddled, as it is, with tragi-comic plot and a satirical background of events that occurs 42-43 years ago. Also, it could have done better with more potent (pun intended) comedy and some quality acting, even of the poker-faced variety, never mind the bedroom farce of a premise.

Rating: **