In the initial portions of Homi Adajania’s Cocktail, Meera (Diana Penty) is a freak, a misfit in the modern world. She’s been dumped by Kunal (Randeep Hooda), her cad of a husband who took her money with promises of a life in London and now wants nothing to do with her. In a desperate attempt to convince him, she extends a photograph of them taken after their wedding, and he sneers at her “ghatiya Third World ke khayal.” Now in London, she’s homeless, friendless – and also helpless. Weeping in a washroom, she runs into Veronica (Deepika Padukone), a free spirit, the kind of sexually confident girl who picks up a stranger at a nightclub and positions his hand on her bottom. Meera – even that name is so traditional, so Third World – and Veronica, in that washroom, couldn’t be more different, but they’re linked by their attire. They’re both in pink – the colour of Veronica’s bra peeking out of her mini, and the colour of Meera’s salwar kameez and the clip holding her hair. They’re sleepover-ready soul sisters. They could be called Naughty and Nice.
Veronica, who’s loaded, takes Meera home and they become best friends. The surprise of Cocktail (written by Imtiaz Ali and Sajid Ali) is how slyly it toys with gender stereotypes. When Veronica hooks up with Gautam (an unconvincing Saif Ali Khan, playing the world’s least likely software engineer), Meera begins to feel crowded. She tells Veronica that she’ll move out. But Veronica dissuades her, saying that she’s a good influence and that she’s made their apartment a home. (In an unguarded moment that follows, they embrace, and then pull away awkwardly.) They’re practically playing house, with Veronica bringing in the money (and sharing locker-room information, like the fact that Gautam’s “awesome in bed”) and Meera rearranging the books on the shelves. (Gautam, meanwhile, does his bit for gender equality by dressing up in drag.) For a while, Adajania situates his film in a free-floating bohemia where no rules apply, and when Gautam insinuates himself between Meera and Veronica, we anticipate a gender-bender version of Jules et Jim, a romantic triangle redefining love for this generation.
But bafflingly, what we get is a gender-bending update on Sangam, right down to a titillating-for-its-time shot that showcases the heroine in a swimsuit. Gautam’s relationship with Veronica is simply the one between lock and key (all right, an extremely amicable lock and key), but in Meera he sees a soul mate. He transforms, under Meera’s gaze, from self-obsessed prick to soulful poet. He’s in love. And he thinks Veronica (whom he affectionately calls Veeru paaji) will understand this love, because they were just friends who brought along benefits. Veronica says, first, that it’s okay – but of course it’s not okay, and we’re trapped amidst tropes we never thought we’d see again: play-acting for the benefit of a haranguing parent (Dimple Kapadia), smiles through tears, two best friends splitting up because of a man (usually it’s two men driven apart by a woman), and sacrificing one’s love for the sake of the best friend.
There may be something to Adajania’s contention that however modern we become with regard to clothes and music and attitude, we’re still old-fashioned in matters of the heart, that we still hold on to those “ghatiya Third World ke khayal.” At first Meera appeared the misfit, with her prayers and her insistence on labelling the skirt-chasing Gautam obnoxious, but now Gautam and Veronica come off as the misfits – as poseurs even, affecting a nonchalance they don’t really feel deep down. As the film progresses, we see Meera partying with a beach crowd, while Veronica (who secretly craves parental affection) withdraws to spend time with Gautam’s mother. But the film is too hip to commit itself fully to these transformations, and we come to face with the real triangle here – of a filmmaker torn between the melodrama inherent in his material and a multiplex audience that has no interest in (or patience with) melodrama.
Some of Adajania’s updates work nicely, like the pre-intermission scene of Meera and Gautam kissing, with just the whisper of waves as accompaniment. (In an older Hindi film, this development would have jangled with a hundred violins.) But Cocktail is too long, too taxing – after a point, we know exactly what’s coming, and we just wish it came soon enough. Most of the high points belong to Diana Penty, who manages the considerable feat of upstaging Deepika Padukone in the same frame. Gautam, in an attempt to instil in Meera a sense of self-worth (she’s still hurting from being discarded by Kunal), calls her smile a social service, because it lessens the tensions in the world. He’s not very far off the mark. The memory of Penty’s smile, asterisked by a ghost of a mole on the side of her philtrum, may be the only thing lessening our tensions while enduring this film’s leaden latter half, flooded with today’s equivalent of Dost dost na raha sentiment. When Gautam proposes at the end, he’s almost teary, but we sit there dry-eyed, feeling nothing. And to add insult to injury, after these purported heights of transporting feeling, the film brings us crashing down to earth with an inexplicable blooper reel, which has Saif breaking wind. Maybe that’s his desperate bid to infuse fizz to this flat cocktail.
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