It seems that 2012 is shaping up to be the year of the sleeper hit. The year isn’t even half over and we have already seen three modest films outperform expectations at the box office, first with Paan Singh Tomar, then Kahaani (although Vidya Balan’s success with The Dirty Picture makes qualifying this as a true sleeper debatable) and now Vicky Donor, a romantic comedy about a young man who earns his living as a sperm donor for the fertility specialist Dr Chaddha, which was made for five crore rupees and has grossed about seven times as much. Personally, I paid almost no attention to the promos of this film prior to its release. Positive word-of-mouth led me to check out the trailer, which left me underwhelmed, and frankly more than a little skeptical that a Hindi film could handle the topic of sperm donation without descending into vulgarity. More positive word-of-mouth following the film’s release piqued my curiosity so when Dolce and Namak suggested going to see it, I was happy to comply. Sadly, my skepticism did not prove to be entirely unfounded.
The strength of Vicky Donor lies in the romance between Vicky and Ashima, played by extremely easy-on-the-eyes newcomers Ayushmann Khurrana and Yami Gautam. The romance itself is really sweet, while the fact that Vicky is Punjabi while Ashima is Bengali (and the resulting culture clash between their families) adds a lot of humour – in fact, their Punjabi/Bengali wedding, depicted during the song “Rum & Whisky” is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a while, as well as having some genuinely touching moments. However, as I mentioned, the way the issue of sperm donation is treated prevented me from enjoying the film whole-heartedly.
First of all, for a film that deals, basically, with the issue of infertility, I was surprised at how quickly Vicky and Ashima gave up when her ‘tubal blockage’ was discovered – they did not even attempt any alternatives like in vitro or surrogacy. Related to this, I was horrified when Ashima dismissed Vicky’s suggestion that they adopt because “who knows if we can love someone else’s child as if it were our own” (or something to that effect). Spreading this kind of sentiment about adoption infuriates me, especially since there are so many children in the world who could use a good home – and what a blessing it is to be the person that is able to give one (or more) of them that good home. It is also worth mentioning that at the end of the film Ashima uses a dreadfully racist term, which actually made several people in our theatre gasp with shock, and had me squirming with discomfort. Finally, I was really put off by his family’s overreaction when Vicky reveals how he has been earning money – his mother rants and raves that what he has done is disgusting, and that he has disgraced the family’s honour, etc., etc., while Ashima gets so upset that she leaves Vicky and goes back to her father’s house where she proceeds to cry a lot. Although at the end of the film Dr Chaddha demonstrates to Ashima and Vicky how Vicky’s donations have brought happiness to so many families, I thought this theme should have been emphasized even more to make up for all the histrionics earlier in the film.
It’s interesting to compare Vicky Donor to Starbuck, a French-Canadian film released last year that is almost like ‘Vicky Donor twenty years later.’ Patrick Huard plays 42-year-old David Wozniak who, between 1988 and 1990, donated sperm at a fertility clinic under the alias ‘Starbuck.’ Eventually – like Dr Chaddha with Vicky – the clinic’s doctor started giving David’s sperm to all of the clinic’s clients; as a result, David is the father of 533 (!) children, 142 of which have filed a class-action lawsuit against the fertility clinic, asking that Starbuck’s identity be revealed. I absolutely loved Starbuck – the script is strong, and the performances are strong. David starts out seeming like nothing more than an irresponsible 42-year-old, but we soon discover that he has an incredibly warm and generous heart and the consequent great ability to love and take care of people.
Starbuck is funny and touching, and David’s situation is effectively used to explore ideas of parenthood and family. It’s also a very lovely film visually, with a lot of thought obviously put into the various locations – David’s apartment, his father’s house, the family butcher shop, as well as the different places around Montréal where David goes to surreptitiously see his children. When news of the class action suit against Starbuck hits the media there is a backlash, with people calling into radio shows to condemn Starbuck as a pervert, David’s buddies cracking jokes about getting paid to masturbate, and David’s (pregnant) girlfriend infuriated by the abnormality of it all. However, Starbuck’s children earnestly state that they don’t consider him a pervert, but ‘someone who gave happiness and life to people who really needed it.’ Ultimately, Starbuck does a much better job at emphasizing this theme, as well as the themes of parenthood and family, than Vicky Donor does – if I’m going to watch a movie about sperm donation it better be for a reason, and not just for easy jokes and a convenient way of separating two lovers before their inevitable happily ever after. I don’t regret going to see Vicky Donor – I had a good laugh – but I’m not sure I’d watch it again. Starbuck, on the other hand, I would definitely watch again, and happily recommend it to other people as well.