Less than a year ago, in the film Helmet, when a group of young men peddle condoms, they cover their faces with motorcycle helmets. So it is a giant leap of progressiveness, to have a woman sell rubbers, with a complete lack of embarrassment, in Janhit Mein Jaari.
Written by Raaj Shaandilyaa and directed by Jai Basantu Singh, the film is set in picturesque Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh, because all films about subjects-that-cannot-be-mentioned-in-polite-company are set in North Indian towns, which, presumably need to be dragged into the 21st century. Even in big cities, women would feel awkward buying contraceptives from the neighbourhood medical store, and this in a country that marketed Nirodh as a family planning method in the 1960s.
The leading lady, played by Nushrratt Bharuccha, is called Manokamna – which means heart’s desire– an atypically poetic name for a young woman from a traditional family, that expects her to get married, when she completes her education—a double MA,useless in the employment market. Manokamna wants to get a job before she settles down, and is given an ultimatum of a month by her mother, fed-up of the daughter’s rudeness to prospective grooms. Interestingly, she belongs to a family of three sisters and a brother, quite a common occurrence in son-obsessed India, that caused the failure of the governments ‘Hum Do Hamare Do’ slogan, that hoped in vain to control population.
After failing several job interviews, she lands up in what she thinks is an umbrella company, but actually manufactures the ‘Little Umbrella’ brand of condoms. The owner, Adarniya (Brijendra Kala, without whom no small-town film can be made it seems) is worried about declining sales, and believes that a woman would be able to draw interest in his product.
Manokamna finds that it is not easy to convince men to buy condoms, and she is either laughed at or scolded for doing such disreputable work. She has a best buddy in Devi (Paritosh Tripathi) – oddly her only friend– with whom she guzzles beer, and whose lovelorn gaze she does not notice; she falls for Ramlila performer, Manoranjan (Anud Singh Dhaka) and breaks Devi’s heart. She boldly propositions the guy, who is so scared of his father Kewal Prajapati (Vijay Raaz), that he ‘arranges’ a meeting between families, so that they can approve; the caste and status are equal, the writer does not even raise the possibility of a unsuitable match.
Manoranjan’s large clan accepts the goodies the daughter-in-law’s earnings buy them, and her spineless husband does not have the courage to tell them just what his wife does for a living. Till this point, the film is enjoyable, with witty lines and endearing characters. There is the predictable hullabaloo when Kewal finds out about Manokamna’s job, more so because he is standing for elections.
Then, a tragic incident turns Manokamna into an activist, and the film descends into the sanctimonious preaching of a public service ad, the Janhit Mein Jaari messaging that gives the film its title. It goes on for much too long, as Manokamna pushes contraception as a method of women’s reproductive health and birth control. The humour that marked the first half of the film is lost, and it gets tediously heavy-handed.
Still, the film raises some important issues, and exhorts women to take charge of their own well-being, which is saying a lot in a conservative society where women have so little power.
Nushrratt Bharuccha is perky and bravely speaks for the young woman of today, who wants to make her own choices—whether in career or marriage. The supporting cast of mostly newcomers is fine, even though they have little to do. Devi, for instance, did deserve more, or why have a spare wheel around at all? The running time of the film could have been trimmed, because once the shock value and comic potential of a woman selling condoms ran out, it also lost its mojo.
(This piece first appeared in rediff.com)