In Riteish Deshmukh’s Ved love meets madness; but it is no Devdas, Rockstar or Aashiqui 2
Riteish Deshmukh and Genelia D'Souza-starrer Ved is a story of two people cursed by their love, who finally meet in the middle.
Spoilers ahead for Ved
A sprawling romantic saga at a time when we’re starved of them, Riteish Deshmukh’s self-assured directorial debut Ved captures multiple shades of romantic love – tragic, unrequited, selfless, self-destructive, hopeful, and healing. At over two-and-a-half-hours, the runaway hit from Marathi cinema (a remake of Telugu film Majili) is a whole lot of movie. A familiar mesh of romantic and masala cinema tropes, on the surface, Ved walks and talks like just another tragic love story. But where the film stands apart is in the more curious creative choices it makes along the way. Also read: Riteish Deshmukh-starrer Ved becomes second-highest grossing Marathi film after Sairat, earns ₹44.9 crore
The film (now streaming on Disney+Hotstar) opens with an unconscious, alcoholically compromised Satya (Riteish Deshmukh – here reminding us what a capable performer he is) passed out on a beach. He’s located by his friends and urgently whisked away to a local cricket match where his old team is losing badly. That is until Satya gets involved and, through some magical backseat coaching, wins the day. It’s a thrilling opening sequence that speaks to Riteish Deshmukh’s impressive command over masala storytelling. That swag-fuelled “superstar entry scene” of him being urgently sobered up by dousing his face with soda. Not to mention how he then grabs victory from the jaws of defeat by micromanaging the batsmen on the pitch. It’s the kind of glorious hero-introduction sequence that you could just as easily have found in a Vijay film.
After his team wins thanks to his efforts, Satya is Indifferent to the celebration around him. A Kabir Singh-style gruff, bearded Satya lives in a prison of his own pain. Before long, we flashback to 12 years ago, when there was still a twinkle in his eyes. We’re introduced to a younger Satya who only dreams of cricket. At a wedding, he meets and falls for Nisha (Jiya Shankar who has a striking resemblance to a more compact Tamannah Bhatia). Here too we get sparkling, lighter masala moments. Take the playful scene where Satya first speaks to Nisha. As their eyes meet, the light bulbs in his hands start flashing to match his beating heart. Or then take the hilarious sequence that follows where the entire wedding descends into an all-out brawl after Satya spreads some unintentional rumours about the bride and groom.
What follows is Satya and Nisha’s growing love story - the equation that’s supposed to justify 12 years of his inner turmoil. But the film fails to sell their equation as little more than attraction. We barely get a sense of the kind of defining, all-consuming connection Ved is going for. It’s partly down to Jiya Shankar’s limited performance but equally Nisha’s wafer-thin character. She’s little more than another male-fantasy-dream-girl (but more on the film’s female character-sized problem later.) Ved fails to make us feel their love, and, as a result, it limits our ability to entirely feel Satya’s pain of later losing her. It’s also why this portion of the film (the hour leading up to the interval) has the least to say. The narrative drags its feet, seesawing between Satya’s love of cricket and Nisha. It’s here that Ajay Atul’s soulful album and cinematographer Bhushankumar Jain’s dreamy visuals, which are essential to giving Ved its soul and sense of scale, do most of the heavy lifting.
Then there’s the matter of the reason Satya and Nisha are torn away from each other - Bhaskar Anna (a suitably menacing Raviraj Kande). Every masala movie needs a villain. In Ved, that bad guy comes in the form of local political goon Bhaskar Anna. More narrative device than character, he’s the evil dude who pops up intermittently through the film, whenever it requires some drama or dishoom dishoom. Bhaskar Anna lusts after Nisha. When he fails to get some nonconsensual creepy time with her, to set up the gut punch interval sequence, Bhaskar Anna spreads rumours about Satya to Nisha’s father. As a result, Nisha is forcibly whisked away to another city by her father, never to return, leaving Satya shattered, and thereby inspiring his decade-long self-destructive alcohol-fuelled Kabir Singh shtick.
As the obstacle that tears young love apart, Bhaskar Anna’s actions make sense within the world of the film. But in the second half, he’s reduced to an inconsistent narrative device that’s summoned and sidelined as and when convenient to the proceedings. For example, post-interval we see Bhaskar’s men troubling Satya’s now-wife Shravani. But it isn’t clear why. What happened in those 12 years? Do Bhaskar and Satya merely coexist and casually clash? Or did we just need some fodder for fight scenes thrown in there? We later see Bhaskar berate and belittle Satya in a bar during one of his daily binge-drink-his-problems-away sessions. We then see our villain one final time towards the end of the film. When Bhaskar is attempting to trouble young Khushi and risk wrecking another key relationship in Satya’s life, Satya swings into action and dishes out a historic beating to Bhaskar and his men. In some sort of cathartic, climactic showdown. Are we to believe then, that there are no consequences to this? The murderous gangster is just happy to take the beating? You gotta love a well-behaved bad guy who pops up just when you need him, but never overstays his welcome.
The second half is also where Ved springs to life. It’s where the film goes beyond the familiar man-defined-by-his-heartbreak template to less conventional, more intriguing territory through Ved’s biggest (almost) triumph and greatest failure - Shravani. In something of a twist, we find out that in the 12 years since Nisha was yanked away from his life, Satya reluctantly married his neighbour’s daughter - Shravani (Genelia who lights up every frame she occupies). As we see in the heart-wrenching, perspective-shifting Besuri song sequence (I’ve never heard a ‘sad song’ quite like it) Shravani was always there. Constantly around a corner, forever in Satya’s peripheral vision, patiently waiting on the sidelines to tell him how she felt. But before she got her chance, for Satya, love happened and life stopped.
It’s in these glorious opening 20 minutes of the second half that the film is at its most potent and promising. Ved goes beyond heartbroken man archetype and, (partially) evolves into a tale of two parallel tragic love stories - Satya’s and Shravani’s. Despite his dead-man-walking state, Shravani demands to marry him so she can take care of the man she loves, regardless of what he’s been reduced to. She finally gets the man of her dreams but it now feels closer to a nightmare. The battle’s won, but the war lost. Satya is no longer the same person. A ghost in an empty shell and shadow of his former self, leaving Shravani to care for the empty husk he’s become. The implication is that Shravani’s selfless love is the antidote to Satya’s self-destructive longing. Her love heals his broken heart as he learns to embrace life once again.
It reminded me of the recent Telugu film Dasara in which our hero Dharani (Nani) finally gets the girl he’s pined over his entire life, Vennela (Keerthy Suresh), but under the worst of circumstances. Vennela fell for and married Dharani’s best friend. Just as Dharani is coming to terms with that pain, his best friend is murdered, which leads Dharani to then marry Vennela himself in order to spare her a lifetime of being shunned as a window. Life finally gave him the chance to be with the girl he’s been forever in love with, in the cruelest way it could.
Ved’s (and by extension Majili’s) plot is also reminiscent of another Nani-starrer. The deeply affecting 2019 Telugu film Jersey offered a similar cocktail of love, cricket, and second chances. In Jersey, talented cricketer Arjun falls in love with and marries his college sweetheart Sarah (Shraddha Srinath). But, as a result of dirty politics his cricketing career doesn't take off, leading Arjun to live in his own failure and rot in regret as theirs becomes a fraught marriage of resentment and anguish. Years later, when Arjun gets a second chance to live his cricketing dreams, as he begins to heal, so does his marriage. Ved is in many ways Jersey except if the college sweetheart and eventual wife were split into two separate characters.
With Shravani, Ved briefly flirts with the idea of making this a story of two equals. But instead of committing to and following through in giving us Shravani’s perspective, she is quickly sidelined. Not to mention painfully underwritten. Like Satya, Shravani is a fascinating tragic figure who’s trapped by her love. But the film merely gives Shravani the illusion of agency and depth, gradually reducing her to just another brand of male fantasy.
What’s the only thing men want more than the freedom to fall into a drunken stupor of living in pain? To have a too-good-to-be-true-forever-devoted wife to mother us along the way. Shravani not only sympathizes with Satya’s pain, she also enables him and funds his chemical coping lifestyle. We’re literally told that she’s a headstrong badass at her job, but when it comes to her husband, she’s a pushover who submits to his whims. The film even goes as far as to tell us that she lives in constant fear of him wanting to leave her, rather than vice versa. (All this while also clearly highlighting the fact that Satya isn’t abusive or malicious toward his wife, as if this is a thing we’re supposed to celebrate him for). Shravani’s selfless love comes dangerously close to an utter lack of self-respect.
A lack of interiority and dimension aside, Shravani’s character is also quickly sidelined to make way for young Khushi - the latest in a rich history of insufferable movie kid characters. I liked the idea of Satya finally accepting a cricket coaching job as a means to start living again, but that alone isn’t enough for the film’s lofty ambitions. Instead, the child he’s asked to coach happens to be Nisha’s daughter, Khushi, who now lives with her grandfather after her parents died in a car crash, because of course they did. Somehow this quickly escalates to Khushi moving in with Satya and family, and she then becomes the catalyst to heal his heart and mend his marriage (this movie has about three movies’ worth of plot). Before long, Nisha’s now gentle grandfather allows Satya and Shravani to adopt young Khushi, the daughter of the woman he loved.
I get the idea of life-comes-full-circle messaging but Khushi’s force-fit arc robs Shravani of hers. It’s also interesting to me that, based on the casting and writing, out of two, Nisha and Shravani, Ved deems Shravani the (relatively) more significant character in Satya’s life. The “healing” romantic interest is more important than the one that got away. I couldn’t help but think of the Malayalam gem Premam where these two roles are reversed. In Premam, George's (Nivin Pauly) relationship with Malar (Sai Pallavi) is the love that steals the film and our hearts. It’s why it hurts that much more when Malar’s accident leads to her forgetting who George was, meaning they can no longer be. Years later George meets Celine (Madonna Sebastian) who puts back the pieces of his broken heart and becomes his happily ever after. But ask anyone who's experienced the magic of Premam and they'll tell you that Malar is the defining love of George’s life. Celin is merely the end to his story. It's why the film makes us feel as much as it does. What’s lost hits far harder than what’s eventually found. Perhaps if Ved had made Nisha the more significant character, perhaps if Genelia had played her, we would have felt Satya and Nisha that much more, and subsequently we would’ve experienced his pain more than we do. It’s why Satya doesn’t quite join the ranks of the tragic lover hall of fame made up of characters like Devdas, Rockstar’s Jordan, Aashiqui 2’s Rahul and Laila Majsu’s Qais, to name but a few.
It's in its closing train station scene, where Satya stops Shravani from leaving him that Ved brings Shravani back in focus and gives us a glimmer of the film Ved could have been and, briefly, was. A story of two people cursed by their love who finally meet in the middle. Love meets madness.
- Riteish Deshmukh