Raksha Bandhan review – women get a bad deal from dowry melodrama

Indian film-maker Aanand L Rai gives his very mediocre melodrama a campaigning message about the culture of dowry-paying, though you’ll have to sit through a lot of un-feminist movie to reach it. In truth, Raksha Bandhan is primarily a vehicle for Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar, and its social purpose plays second fiddle to fanning his stardom.

Kumar plays Lala, a chaat seller in Old Delhi. Like Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Lala is in the predicament of finding husbands for his four sisters. He promised their mother on her deathbed not to tie the knot himself until marrying them off. The financial burden of saving for four dowries is a strain, and although his childhood sweetheart Sapna (Bhumi Pednekar) is waiting devotedly for him, her father issues an ultimatum: he’s got six months to offload his sisters.

What follows is some painfully unsubtle comedy poking fun at Lala’s apparently unmarriageable sisters. The exception is the eldest (Sadia Khateeb), conventionally beautiful and obedient Gayatri. Next in line Durga (Deepika Khanna) is overweight; Lakshmi (Smrithi Srikanth) is dark skinned and thus deemed unattractive; the youngest, Saraswati (Sahejmeen Kaur), is a scrappy tomboy. The script throws out a line or two in their defence: in one scene Durga refuses to be bodyshamed. But mostly, it feels like the audience is being invited to laugh along at their expense. The film’s message about women being in control of their own destiny comes too late to rescue these four; they are more a collection of stereotypes than actual characters.

Really, all the development and character depth is reserved for selfless, noble-souled Lala. He hires a matchmaker (Seema Pahwa) and is willing to spare a kidney to pay for his sisters’ dowries. Late in the day there is a genuinely moving section featuring a woman in post-marriage life, harassed by her husband and in-laws who see her as a cash cow – with awful consequences. Here’s that message about the ills of the dowry culture, and a bit of sincerity – not quite enough, and too late.

• Raksha Bandhan is out now in cinemas.