Chhatriwali (2023) review: Hindi cinema has been on a spree to make sex education more palatable to a purportedly puritanical audience ever since Ayushmann Khurrana’s sperm-donating Vicky broke sex taboos a decade ago. Khurrana pioneered a subgenre of North Indian middle-class films that addressed sex taboos while disguising their messages within typical Bollywood fare. Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017) discussed erectile dysfunction, Badhaai Ho (2018) destigmatized geriatric pregnancy, and the most recent Doctor G (2022) saw Khurrana playing a male gynecologist.
Helmet (2021), starring Khurrana’s underrated sibling (Aparshakti Khurana), battled prejudices on condom usage. We also had a feminist take on the subject when Nushrratt Bharuccha became a crusader for safe sex in last year’s Janhit Mein Jaari (2022). In a similar vein, the new year ushers in Chhatriwali (2023), a sex-positive drama about encouraging contraceptive use.
Chhatriwali – directed by Tejas Prabhaa Vijay Deoskar – begins with two families who are negotiating a marriage proposal. But the auspicious ceremony is soon thwarted when it is accidentally revealed that the groom works for a condom-manufacturing company. Hearing the profane word, the bride’s family withdraws their proposal. Exasperated by repeated marriage rejections based on his profession, the prospective groom resigns from Cando Condoms. Mr. Lamba (Satish Kaushik), the company’s owner, is dissuaded by the loss of his employee and begins looking for a new person to fill this much-maligned position.
Enters our titular character, Sanya (Rakul Preet Singh)—a chemistry graduate struggling who is struggling to make ends meet by giving chemistry lessons to students. Mr. Lamba’s chance encounter with Sanya leads him to offer her the position of quality control head at his factory. Sanya is initially hesitant because of the vilified nature of her job. But she has no choice, given the financial crisis her coaching classes have landed her in. Sanya accepts her position on the condition that Lamba keeps her role confidential. Sanya lies about her work being related to an ‘umbrella’ manufacturing MNC to avoid societal scorn, leading her to become the eponymous chhatriwali (woman with umbrella).
However, Sanya’s disguise is hard to keep when she marries Rishi (an always reliable Sumeet Vyas), who runs a Pooja store. Adding to her problems is her incredibly prudish brother-in-law (Rajesh Tailang), a biology teacher at a high school who makes his students skip lessons on the reproductive system. However, after an accident at home sends her sister-in-law (Prachee Shah Paandya) to the hospital, Sanya realizes that she must not only embrace her profession but also break the societal taboo against contraceptive use. Despite her determination, Sanya quickly understands that old traditions die hard and that she must start at home if she is to effect wider change.
Chhatriwali (2023) will undoubtedly draw a comparison to Janhit Mein Jaari (2022) and Helmet (2021), two similarly themed films on contraceptive use. All three films follow the tried-and-true formula of a social-awareness Hindi drama film that uses humor to drive home its message. While not all innuendos and one-liners work in Chhatriwali, director Tejas Deoskar employs innovative montages and imagery to enhance the film’s humor.
In a crude homage to the coyness of Hindi cinema, Deoskar inserts shots of a wolf howling and droplets descending a leaf to highlight a sex scene between Rishi and Sanya. Chhatriwali also rehashes a sequence from Helmet about the awkwardness of purchasing condoms from a chemist shop. But despite these similarities, the film’s exploration of stigma and taboos around sex is more pronounced.
While Helmet had a rather simplistic approach to men’s inhibition in using condoms, Chhatriwali withholds a nuanced feminist approach to the problem. Chhatriwali makes a more perceptible critique of unsafe sexual practices by focusing on the difficulties women face when negotiating condom usage with their male partners. When Sanya begins a free sex-ed class later in the film, she is arrested by the local police for her allegedly profane lessons.
There is an interesting commentary here about state regulation of female bodies (extremely urgent given the latest women-led protests globally). Nevertheless, the film refrains from expanding on it. There is also a naïve montage sequence that showcases women refraining from having sex without a condom, much to the dismay of their partners. Though meant for laughs, this episode glosses over the gendered power structures of a heteronormative alliance and the risk of sexual violence that always hangs over women’s bodies.
Rakul Preet Singh leads the film’s competent cast as the headstrong Sanya, a woman determined to change her equally tenacious society. Vyas as her husband Rishi brings the same naïve boyish charm that made his Mikesh Chaudhary such an affable presence in Permanent Roommates. But the standout performance in the film comes from Rajesh Taillang as Bhai Ji, the conservative and stubborn brother-in-law.
The film channels its criticism of sexual conservatism through the figure of the brother-in-law, the microcosmic symbol of the institutionalized patriarchy in the nation. Film scholar Jyotika Virdi in her seminal work The Cinematic Imagination has argued how Hindi cinema regards the family as a stand-in for the nation. Virdi claims that in a Hindi film, resolving conflicts in the familial household epitomizes resolving national problems.
Much true to Virdi’s observation, Chhatriwali deems change within the patriarchal brother-in-law as symptomatic of the larger societal change. Even though the film remains rather timid about mounting critiques on larger structures of patriarchy and moralism, it does its best to sex-educate within its genre limits. If recent statistics are to be believed, India is set to surpass China to become the most populous country in the world. In such an age, a film about contraceptives (however flawed) couldn’t be more timely!