The father wears a shawl that says, ‘Radhe Radhe.’ Another character has the word pasted on his forehead. The people of Mathura are obsessively devout. Yet, their fixation on religion and mythology seems touched by the illicit — Radha, after all, was Krishna’s dearest consort. That’s pretty much the conceit of Raaj Shaandilyaa’s debut directorial Dream Girl, the flames of desire that stoke the piety above.
This is standard Ayushmann Khurrana terrain. The actor essays a young man called Karamveer Singh — a Dharmendra-worthy name that belies his flushed cheeks and unemployed status. One of Karam’s sales pitches to a potential employer is that he can embroider ‘a dancing peacock on a sweater.’ His other talent — one that earns him a job at a downstairs befriending centre — is mimicking a woman’s voice. In this way, Karam becomes Pooja, a faceless seductress whose silken voice and consoling tone give the runaround to Mathura men.
Dream Girl is consistently funny, but structured too much on Ayushmann’s own Vicky Donor to draw a fresh response. Here too, the actor finds himself in the thick of a clandestine profession. He is again lying to his fiancée (Nushrat Bharucha, rudely clipped). The laughs are situational but never vulgar, and are clearly building towards a final ‘message’. There’s Annu Kapoor once again, cracking up. The setting is North India, so the bursts of slang and pop-culture references (Daler Mehndi, the mom in the Santoor ad) are not up to much. The phrase ‘badhaai ho’ is hurled many times, another distracting reference to Ayushmann’s past successes.
What keeps the film alive, though, is the supporting cast. Vijay Raaz plays a poet-policeman who extends FIRs into couplets. Raj Bhansali has his moments as a punk named ‘Toto’. TVF’s Nidhi Bisht is entirely wasted, while Abhishek Banerjee plays ball as a mild-mannered milkman. All of these oddballs invariably fall in love with Pooja, with the exception of Smiley (Manjot Singh), whose latent attraction towards his best friend is only hinted at and never confirmed.
Ayushmann can talk sexy on the phone. Therefore, it’s weird that his best bits in Dream Girl turn on him pretending to look butch — like when he goes to threaten Toto at a hospital. Towards the end, we are told how lonely his customers really are. Yet there’s no particularly trenchant conversation to validate this, just jokes and crosstalk. There’s a moment’s machismo in the film — when Karam blocks an errant hand and glowers angrily — that feels especially wedged in. His love story with Mahi (Nushrat) is more cut-and-dried: two songs and a confession.
Seven years into an illustrious career, the Ayushmann Khurrana formula is beginning to fray. Perhaps it’s not yet time for concern: he has already shown a spark of out-of-turf originality in last year’s AndhaDhun. Future projects will speak for themselves. Still, some course correction appears to be in order. The dream is running itself out. Is this a wake-up call?
Film: Dream Girl
Director: Raaj Shaandilyaa
Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Nushrat Bharucha, Annu Kapoor, Nidhi Bisht, Vijay Raaz, Manjot Singh
Rating: 2.5 stars
(This story originally appeared on cinemaexpress.com)