This is #CriticalMargin, where Ishita Sengupta gets contemplative over new Hindi films and shows. Today: Kartik Aaryan's Satyaprem Ki Katha.
(Spoilers Ahead. Tread with caution)
IT is June and Satyaprem Ki Katha is Kartik Aaryan’s second theatrical release of 2023. Rohit Dhawan’s Shehzada released earlier this year. Honestly, it is hard to tell the difference between the two and not least because they share the same garish aesthetic. The songs sound more of the same (if ‘Pasoori’ was a person, it would have been declared dead), the characters cannot be told apart and in both, Aaryan shoots off a monologue the moment someone asks him, “Toh problem kya hai?” But what really ties them together is the positioning of the actor. In both outings, he plays the role of a middle-class boy, who wakes up cursing his fate and goes to sleep doing the same. He is dismissed by his family members (father and sister in Shehzada; mother and sister in Satyaprem Ki Katha), not valued highly by others and yet, he is the hero of the story.
In Shehzada, it is achieved through a backstory which reveals that Aaryan’s character is the heir to the millionaire he works for. Social mobility validates his heroism. In Satyaprem Ki Katha, where he is a jobless bloke who couldn’t clear his LLB and only dreams of getting married, he takes the route of a social cause. No different from Akshay Kumar. Make no mistake: Shehzada was a bad film that did not pretend to be better. Satyaprem Ki Katha, on the other hand, pretends to know better. Unfortunately, the only thing it truly does know, is how to present the male protagonist as someone — the only one — who truly knows. Everything.
Satyaprem Aggarwal or “Sattu" (Aaryan) lives in Ahmedabad with his family. His mother (Supriya Pathak) teaches garba, and his sister Sejal (Shikha Talsania) teaches Zumba. His father (Gajraj Rao) and Sattu don’t do anything. The lopsided financial status results in the men of the house doing the chores, like making breakfast, washing dishes and also calling the women names. At one point Rao’s character calls his wife “girgit”. Sattu’s lack of employment delays his marriage prospects, much to his dismay. In his heart, he nurses a crush on Katha (Kiara Advani), a girl he had met at garba a year back. Back then she had a boyfriend and he was still single.
When the narrative moves to the present day, Katha has broken up. It is dandiya season and Sattu expects to see her. But she is nowhere to be found. Her parents, owners of a thriving dhokla store, tell them she is unwell. Prompted by his father, Sattu goes to her house to share his feelings. By the time he evades the guards and climbs her balcony, Katha is all teary-eyed, ready to collapse. And collapse she does with blood oozing out from her hands. She has attempted suicide.
What happens next needs no telling. Sattu saves her life. Her family is grateful. Her father is impressed. Her parents propose marriage. This is Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi waiting to happen. Much like Taani, even Katha is unwilling. But no man has to die to convince her. Katha’s father threatens her with suicide if she doesn’t agree. They get married but she refuses to share bed with him. She complains that his snoring doesn’t let her sleep. Sattu, who had ‘safeguarded his virginity for his wife’ tries various remedies but to no avail. When he asks her if all this is a ruse to defer sex, Katha says she is asexual.
This is when I sat up straight. Hindi films don’t generally go there. But because it is a Hindi film I was unsure where all it could go from there. I said a silent prayer under my breath: ‘Let this not be an excuse’. Because asexuality is not an excuse but a sexual orientation that remains shrouded in misconceptions. It turned out to be an excuse.
Written by Karan Shrikant Sharma, Satyaprem Ki Katha is two films in one. In the second half, the narrative shifts, the genre changes. The characters too undergo drastic transformation. Rao’s character, a hitherto harmless, timid man rises to the occasion as a chest beating patriarch. Pathak, who was presented as a crabby woman, becomes empathetic. When push comes to shove, it is she who behaves differently from what her son had apprehended.
It is jarring but I was willing to take it. When you like a film, much like a person, you figure out ways to justify its flaws. For instance, one could argue that no matter how progressive some men think themselves to be, their conditioning reveals itself in moments of crisis. Rao was no different. But in the case of Satyaprem, it is difficult to make such a reading. For one, it never becomes a good enough film to demand this. And more tellingly, because its intent is corrupt.
It is bizarre that across the thematic shifts, Sattu remains the only one who knows better. And yet, the film gives us not one reason to justify his objectivity and protagonist syndrome. How did he turn out to be different from his father, even when they always hung out together? When her asexuality turns out to be an excuse, Katha shares that she was raped by her boyfriend and she had to undergo an abortion.
It works out perfectly because this gives Sattu an adversary, a roadmap to be the hero. He then does what any man in a Hindi film would do: he becomes the saviour and makes everything about himself. He goes and fights with the guy, tells her to file an FIR. Sattu is not written as an ally but a stand-in almost. Much later he says he will be a ‘supporting actor’ in her story but by then the film has done everything in its capacity to glorify him as the protagonist.
It is tempting to imagine what a Varun Dhawan would have done in this role. Dhawan’s filmography is dotted with essaying roles of men who know no better. His characters stand in the crowd of socially conditioned men who learn to be better by wanting to unlearn. On the contrary, a character like Sattu feels both far-fetched and vacuous. More crucially, he feels like a reiteration. A woman is wronged but the man has made everything about himself, earning her gratitude by telling her what to feel and how to. Wonder where we have seen this before.
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of OTTplay. The author is solely responsible for any claims arising out of the content of this column.)