“Dear Zindagi”… Overlong, a tad simplistic, but buoyed by great performances

Posted on November 26, 2016

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Spoilers ahead…

In a sense, Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi is a greatest-hits compilation of Alia Bhatt’s career. Bhatt’s character, Kaira, suffers from insomnia (we saw that in Shandaar). She has abandonment issues (Shandaar, Kapoor & Sons). She gets long scenes in which she dredges out a painful past from a repressed corner of her psyche (Highway, Kapoor & Sons, Udta Punjab). She gets longer scenes in which decades-dormant issues against family erupt, as others sit around stupefied (Highway). In a sense, Bhatt has always been on the couch – with friends and scruffy abductors serving as impromptu therapists, healing her soul scars. But this time, the therapist (Jahangir ‘Jug’ Khan, played by Shah Rukh Khan) is really a therapist. He comes with an MBBS degree, and he charges 3000 an hour. He’d better accept cards, else there’d be no movie – Kaira would be standing at ATMs all day long.

Do films on issues senstitise us to them? Or do we just watch films as entertainment, make clucking noises for a couple of hours, and return to our homes, to our default settings? If you believe the former, Dear Zindagi is a quiet little revolution. Mental-health issues in our films have always been about ten-ton conditions: Asperger’s (My Name is Khan) Alzheimer’s (U Me Aur Hum), schizophrenia (Raat Aur Din, Karthik Calling Karthik), autism (Barfi!), or in the films of the 1960s, mental-health patients cowered in bed as the nurse advanced menacingly, holding voltage clamps. Kaira ends up in therapy just because. There’s nothing wrong with her. She isn’t hurting herself (though she certainly is hurting), and she isn’t hurting others. She’s in therapy the way she’d be at the dentist’s because of an aching tooth, or at the family doctor’s because she was running a temperature of 101. This normalisation of a process that’s still something of a novelty in our country is the film’s biggest achievement. It’s a wonder they didn’t rope in NIMHANS for a product-placement deal.

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In an early scene at an airport bar, Kaira orders a Coke. She tells her amused companion, “I drink only on two occasions. When I’m in love and when I’m not.” It’s a curious confession, for what other state is there? Shouldn’t she always be drinking Coke? And then we find out. Kaira keeps falling in love and before she can fall out of love, she bolts. She exists in a romantic limbo. And for the longest time, Dear Zindagi seems to exist in a narrative limbo. I found myself simultaneously itching for something to happen and grateful that the film was content to just drift along, with characters bobbing like corks on a tranquil lake. Shinde uses this pace, this time to let us get to know Kaira, to be with her as she rips open boxes that have arrived from eBay or breaks up with boyfriends or asks her mother about a doll she had as a child. The film is as absorbed with Kaira as she is with herself – but not unreasonably so. Kaira asks a gay friend if he’s in therapy so he can tell others he is gay. He says it’s so he can tell himself he’s gay. This is what therapy is. It’s an inner journey, and at least half your baggage is self-absorption.

You could argue that there isn’t really all that much to Kaira that couldn’t have been expressed in half the time. And you’d be right. Shinde’s characters don’t cut very deep. Kaira’s friends are all stock figures defined with one or two telling details: the tart, sensible, sorted BFF (Ira Dubey, who’s wonderful; I wish she’d had more to do); the flaky yoga practitioner (Yashaswini Dayama); the Faulkner-quoting gay guy. Here’s Kaira’s family: nosey but concerned uncles and aunts; an achiever of a brother; a father who’s proud of Kaira’s self-made career and yet keeps wanting her to be more… “normal.” (How marvellous that our cinema is finally recognising that parents can be benign monsters.) Here are the boyfriends: interested but won’t wait forever (Kunal Kapoor); owns a restaurant (Angad Bedi); somehow escaped being targeted by the MNS (Ali Zafar). Here’s Jahangir: divorced, with a son. And a talent for fixing things: cycles, side-table tchotchkes, psyches.

But within these broad strokes, Shinde gives us splotches of vivid colour. Instead of regularly timed explosions of information, we get the steady accrual of character detail. Like Kaira is kinder to strangers than she is to friends and family. Like she literally dances to her own tune, as in the scene in a nightclub where she plugs in earphones and hits the floor. Like she’s picked a profession she’s good at but one where she has to keep making sure that she’s being hired because of her talent and not because of her looks. She’s a cinematographer. It’s unusual seeing a woman in such a male-dominated field, but then Shinde stages a scene in front of a theatre screening Ki & Ka. It’s both a plug for her husband’s film and a reminder that if Arjun Kapoor can keep house, anyone can do anything.

The film really takes off when Kaira begins seeing Jahangir. It’s the classic arc. First she talks about a “friend” who has a problem, and then she eases into the process – a little too quickly, but who wouldn’t when the man opposite is Shah Rukh, radiating his innate Shah Rukh-ness? The star isn’t playing a hero, but he’s introduced like one – at first, we just hear his voice, and that’s enough. It’s a voice we’ve heard for almost thirty years now, and we know those modulations. Shah Rukh isn’t being Jahangir. He’s being Shah Rukh. When he says, “There’s an important study, based on the size of the human brain…,” we hear “Bade bade deshon mein…” But it works. After almost an hour of new-gen eventlessness, I welcomed this jolt of old-fashioned star power. Jahangir is the psychiatric world’s answer to the teacher Robin Williams played in Dead Poets Society: an iconoclast who comes with a “do not try this at home” sign and will do anything to achieve his ends. He goes cycling with Kaira. He plays kabaddi with waves. He makes therapy feel like a Mediterranean vacation. (The sunny cinematography is by Laxman Utekar.) After his psychic ministrations, which sound like motivational posters made of vanilla ice-cream, Kaira doesn’t just recalibrate her relationship with her family, she also re-friends all her exes. This isn’t breakthrough. This is the plot of The Martian.

When you watch the therapy sessions in Ordinary People, you feel wrung out. Here, nothing is allowed to linger-vinger. Kaira fights with a friend one night, and makes up the next morning. One outburst at the parental units, and a lifetime of resentment evaporates. I’m not saying these are problems. I’m just saying that, as we guessed from English Vinglish, Shinde took her filmmaking lessons from Mary Poppins: the medicine goes down easier with a spoonful of sugar. Or syrup, in the case of Amit Trivedi’s title song. This is, at the end, a feel-good movie that reinforces little truths like how it’s better to articulate feelings rather than let them fester – it could be called Therapy Verapy.

Shinde’s real feat is to contain everything under the framework of therapy. The PC issues (slut-shaming, the plight of a single woman) tie in with Kaira’s character. The barely-there romantic angle is but an episode of “transference.” And the interval point is sheer genius. How do you inflict a dramatic pause on a narrative that, so far, has had so little drama? With a surreal dream, of course. Only, unlike the ones in 8½ or Nayak, we aren’t required to unpack the meanings. The film does it for us. Even the lyrics take no chances: Yahan se kahan jaoon… Kahan main chhup jaoon. “Where do I go from here? Where can I hide?” It’s as clear as a problem statement in a thesis proposal. You wish, at times, for some allusiveness, some complexity – especially given the film’s length. 150 minutes is a long time to go without any real surprises.

But with Alia Bhatt around, it’s impossible not to be invested. Just look at how she plays the scene where a man who seems interested in her asks if he can come up to her house. She brushes him off, and you think she’s just trying to let him off lightly. But we sense an awkwardness that’s more than just the kind that arises from an unwanted proposal, and a little later, we realise what it is. She’s already slept with him. She wants to distance herself now. Bhatt plays this scene knowing what’s in the script, but also knowing that we don’t know it yet. It’s a cliché to call her the best actress of her generation, but she makes us keep saying it. Plus, there’s the way she looks. She’s someone you want to protect. You want her to find happiness. One part of me says this is really going to restrict the kind of roles she’s going to be able to play, that we’ll soon tire of her persona like we’re tiring of Ranbir Kapoor’s man-child. Another part says she’s so good that maybe she’ll really pull off the transition, that her greatest hits are yet to come.

KEY:

  • zindagi= life
  • Shandaar = see here
  • Kapoor & Sons = see here
  • Highway = see here
  • Udta Punjab = see here
  • My Name is Khan = see here
  • U Me Aur Hum = see here
  • Karthik Calling Karthik = see here
  • Barfi! = see here
  • Ki & Ka = see here
  •  “Bade bade deshon mein…” = see here
  • kabaddi = see here
  • English Vinglish = see here

Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi