A colony in Delhi is known as Badnaam Gali in Ashwin Shetty’s film of the same name. Populated by middle-aged women who spend more time on the balcony and in their WhatsApp groups than in their rooms, the reason for the colony to earn this epithet and the supposed disgrace is the presence of an unmarried pregnant woman, Nayan (Patralekhaa). When we meet her for the first time, she is standing at her gate smiling and participating in the gossip surrounding her. Flashy cars and men with six-pack abs frequent her place, we are told. The source of these comforts escapes the rest, and her pregnancy, without a definitive sign of a husband or a partner, does not help. Thus, when Randeep Singh Sodhi (Divyendu Sharma) visits his aunt to stay with her, he is told sternly to stay away from the daayan (witch).
Seven years after Shoojit Sircar’s funny and poignant Vicky Donor informed the world about virile men and their sperm which they can donate, Shetty’s film shows a woman doing something similar – not donating sperm but offering her womb. Nayan is a surrogate mother.
In many ways, Badnaam Gali seems like a companion piece to Sircar’s delightful film. For all you know, this Patralekhaa-starrer could be unfolding in the alley next to Vicky’s: surrounded by nosy neighbours, a shadow of mystery hanging upon their ‘profession’ and the sudden influx of television and car intriguing people around them. But by placing a woman at the centre of the narrative, the ensuing reactions of the rest serve as a fitting commentary on society: everything that was perceived as a marker of success for Vicky, albeit sudden, is considered to be transactional gifts for Nayan, the donor or the doer with the change of gender becomes disgraceful or badnaam. She is constantly taunted by the ‘aunties’ and is considered to be the sole reason their alley is badnaam.
The gender-swap in the film serves as an interesting social experiment and the novelty in Shetty’s film — that seeks to show how societal parameters for judging men and women are stilted — is not unfounded. Nayan suffers from what most women do: being hastily judged and dismissed even with more disdain. No one tries to find out what exactly goes on inside the house and Nayan plays along, refusing to give any explanation or justification for her actions, till Randeep, her new neighbour, arrives and after a series of chance-encounters, comes to know of the ‘truth’.
For a film like this, that is attempting to make a statement on society’s prejudices and dispel gender stereotypes, it becomes important to not vilianise other women or keep a hero on the sidewalk, who can appear suddenly, occupy the centre stage and take the story away from the female protagonist. Shetty’s film, that works as a middling entertainer, for the most part, ends up doing precisely this and comes across as a familiar tale of women pitted against one another.
By some odd design, it is only women who happen to judge Nayan. The men, in stark contrast, appear to be strangely understanding. It takes Randeep less than a week to know the reason why men frequent her place, while the rest are still busy hatching conspiracy theories. His father too — who on when being told about his son’s misdemeanour by his sister, rushes to Delhi, furious — takes just one glimpse of a perturbed Nayan, and changes his mind.
It is also ironic that the film, which revolves around Nayan’s surrogacy and seeks to normalise it, treats it as a big secret itself. It is not revealed until much later. It is Randeep who does it and when it is finally out, it is accepted so willingly by the rest that it remains baffling why it was never shared earlier.
Much like Sircar’s film, Shetty’s Badnaam Gali uses humour to inflate the narrative as well as to draw the point home. Snarky lines and impressive performances do manage to keep one invested. Sharma is convincing as the purposeless, pugnacious small-town boy, who is self-righteous and uninformed at the same time. But the true triumph lies in casting Dolly Ahluwalia as Randeep’s aunt. Incidentally, she had also played Vicky’s mother. And, in one of the scenes in the film where she warns her nephew to stay away from Nayan saying, “Daayan hain, woh daayan. Uske upar Bangaalan”, one almost feels like she has come from the adjoining alley Vicky stays in, to Badnaam Gali. She is still angry with Bengalis and still waging her war against them. Alone.