Luck By Chance, Zoya Akhtar’s first and best film, is also one of the most dispiriting movies ever made. You know those books you find in the self-help section? This was the exact opposite. Consider its… lessons, if you will. Everything’s a fluke. All the hard work in the world may not get you what you want. You may have to sleep around to get ahead. Your friends may not be all that happy for you when you succeed. But that probably won’t matter, as you’re going to have to trample over their feelings if you want to get anywhere. It doesn’t matter if you’re a self-absorbed prick; great things may still happen to you. No wonder the movie bombed. It was too much like reality. Akhtar learnt her lesson and went on to make Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, which was pure fantasy. One small road trip with best buddies is all it takes to teach you to seize the day, gaze at the stars, have lots of great sex, mend relationships, and have all manner of life-altering epiphanies. It’s the kind of thing people like to hear. It didn’t hurt that the film looked like the love child of a glossy tourism brochure and Kate Middleton’s wedding cake. To put things in perspective, Hrithik Roshan was only the fourth or fifth most beautiful thing on screen.
Akhtar’s third film, Dil Dhadakne Do, takes its title from the song that played over the opening credits of Zindagi, and like that film, this, too, is a road movie –rather, a sea movie. A super-rich Punjabi patriarch – Kamal Mehra (Anil Kapoor) – and his wife Neelam (Shefali Shah) invite family and friends on a cruise to Turkey and Greece to celebrate their thirtieth wedding anniversary. As with Zindagi, the metaphors write themselves. Families are like a cruise – you’re stuck with the same people. Sometimes, the voyage is choppy. Sometimes there are clear skies. You may find yourself adrift, but, at the end of the day (not to mention the end of the movie), your family is your lifeboat, saving you from drowning, getting you safely to shore. In an early scene, Kamal sees his son Kabir (Ranveer Singh) in a spot of trouble during a business presentation, and he jumps in to save Kabir. There’s an echo of this at the end – Kamal literally jumps in to save Kabir. Some people learn screenwriting from Syd Field. Zoya Akhtar appears to have learnt the craft from a shoelace. Everything crisscrosses and loops around just so, in neat little bows.
Of course, there are worse things than fetishistically engineered (some might say twee) feel-good movies – and at least the idea behind Dil Dhadakne Do is a good one. This is essentially an update of a 1960s family melodrama. It’s all here – the line about how, after marriage, beti parayi ho gayi; the concern over log kya kahenge when they hear about a divorce; the mangni toot gayi tragedy; a father’s expectation that his daughter should gift him a grandson; the rich girl falling in love with her father’s manager ka beta… These tropes are refracted through a soap-opera prism, and staged with an emphasis on setting and character that those older films did not bother too much with. Neelam, for instance, is a stress eater – she worries about her weight and is often seen in front of mirrors. Kabir likes to fly. Kabir’s brother-in-law Manav (an ill-fitting Rahul Bose; just wait till you see him attempt a wolf whistle in a song) – he’s married to Kabir’s sister Ayesha (Priyanka Chopra) – is a mama’s boy. Mama, meanwhile, keeps announcing that she’s suffering – from vertigo, from asthma, from arthritis. And the family pet, a bullmastiff named Pluto Mehra, likes to dispense trite observations in Aamir Khan’s voice, neon-highlighting the goings-on. Maybe this is Akhtar acknowledging that Khan is the industry’s top dog.
On paper, this is a can’t-go-wrong situation. A lot of good-looking stars, many of them good actors. A director who has the most exquisite taste. And a complicit audience, aware that this is one of those times we are at the doctor’s reception room and, after a cursory glance at the magazines, are going to choose People over The Caravan. But the film never finds its footing, and it’s not just the language. I have spoken earlier about the LHHE syndrome in the Akhtar siblings’ films: “Listening Hindi, Hearing English.” Kamal hears of Kabir’s relationship with Noorie (Ridhima Sud) and asks, “Tumhaare iraade kya hain?” It’s an American father from the fifties asking, “What are your intentions, young man?” Couldn’t he just say something like “Us ladki ke saath tum kya kar rahe ho?” Elsewhere, from a broken-hearted Noorie, we get this gem: “Mera fiancé ne mujhe mandap pe chhod diya.” Oh no, sweetheart. You’d have said you got dumped.
After a while, it’s easy enough to overlook this – it is what it is. What’s unforgivable is the complete absence of life. The only heart that’s beating here is the one in the title. There’s a difference between finely detailed and just… slow. Sitting through the 170 minutes (seriously?) of Dil Dhadakne Do is like entering a five-star hotel. The outside noise disappears. It’s all very hush-hush. You feel you’re stuck in an elevator and the damn muzak won’t stop. When Karan Johar made a similar multi-starrer about a dysfunctional upper-crust family, he infused the proceedings with deliciously vulgar energy. The look may have been five-star but the feel was like that of a ghee-soaked dhaba. It was silly, it was fun. Scene after farcical scene in Dil Dhadakne Do cries out for Almodóvarian camp, but Akhtar seems to think she’s staging Chekhov. All those silences. All those meaningful looks. All those carefully calibrated line readings. You may wonder if, after filling out the soapy plot with Reema Kagti (whose Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. was another journey filled with dysfunction, though on a bus), Akhtar experienced some kind of soap-opera twist herself, amnesia or something. What else could explain the disconnect between the material and the movie?
Every problem is a cliché. Every outcome is preordained. And there are too many characters with too little to do. Son wants to step out of domineering dad’s shadow, daughter wants to end an unhappy marriage, and so forth. Had any one of these issues been stretched to movie length, it may have been affecting, but with Akhtar directing with a finger on the fast-forward button, there’s nothing and no one to care about. Yes, this is a light film and not really a drama, but it’s so airless that even the screwball bits – except the ones that involve Kabir; Ranveer Singh is a lot of fun– don’t get a chance to breathe. I liked the subplot with Ayesha, who’s a fascinating character. She’s an achiever, but her successes haven’t given her much confidence, probably because she’s been so undermined all her life. There’s a great scene where she pushes Manav away in bed and then feels sorry (or guilty; or maybe both) and reaches out to him again. These terrific shadings deserve a life-size portrait. We get a picture postcard.
The parts with Kabir and Farha (Anushka Sharma) have some zing. I loved the cut to Ayesha’s face when Kabir tells his parents about Farha. You expect a cut to their horrified faces. But here, we see Ayesha thinking, Dude, did you just say what I think you said? It’s nice to see Anil Kapoor’s eighties-style intensity bounce off Farhan Akhtar’s two-decades-later nonchalance. The latter plays a Caravan-style journalist named Sunny, who’s slightly bemused in the midst of all these People. I wanted more of him. His last scene is a joke – not the nice kind. Note to Zoya: The next time you make one of your life-is-a-journey movies, probably on a plane, with Louboutin-heeled stewardesses, write a bigger role for your brother. Even if his costar is just a Hermès bag.
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