Dear Zindagi Review: Girl, Interrupted by Film

It’s incredibly hard for a filmmaker to depict any sort of mental demons without making it seem as dramatic as a “disorder”. This is where Gauri Shinde struggles

Director: Gauri Shinde

Cast: Alia Bhatt, Shah Rukh Khan, Kunal Kapoor, Ali Zafar, Angad Bedi, Yashaswini Dayama, Ira Dubey

Rating: 2.5 stars

It was only a matter of time before Alia Bhatt, the ultimate poster child of cinematic meltdowns, found herself in therapy. The young (to a fault), undoubtedly talented actress has been developing quite a penchant for lost-little-girl roles. I’d imagine Ranbir Kapoor, everyone’s favourite coming-of-age man-child, would fit perfectly next to her on the sofa. What an adorably volatile couple they’d make.

The young (to a fault), undoubtedly talented actress (Alia Bhatt) has been developing quite a penchant for lost-little-girl roles.

Jokes aside, “Alia moments” have become a trend of sorts. Verbose eruptions, forces of nature – singular all-consuming disintegrations so simultaneously disarming and disturbing that they sweep away everything in their path, including our momentary perceptions of the films she occupies. In these moments, nothing else exists. They are so powerful that either the film is immediately elevated, or the rest of it is devaluated. Dear Zindagi seesaws between these two scenarios.

There are two breeds of Alia moments: the confession and the explosion.

dear zindagi

The confession is a long, hypnotic, unbroken shot of her face, where, with a trembling voice, she pours her heart out to a virtual stranger about a scarring childhood incident. In Highway, this occurs when she confides in her perplexed kidnapper about sexual abuse. In Kapoor & Sons, she confides in her new male friend about her parents’ death in a plane crash. Often punctuated by a single heartbreaking tear, these scenes are designed to humanize – and somewhat justify – her manic-pixie whimsicalness.

In Dear Zindagi, she confides, fittingly, to her psychiatrist (Shah Rukh Khan; as Dr. Jehangir Khan) about what causes her to resent her parents so much – an appropriate continuity of adult-like evolution in the Alia-verse. She has moved on to seeking professional help. That her backstory here isn’t as eventful or dramatic as the previous two ironically reinstates this film’s psychological catchphrase: why choose the harder path to feel more important?

Because sometimes, it can be just as simple – and just as serious – as unresolved abandonment issues. Often, the magnitude of problems doesn’t define the magnitude of damage. Each mind has its own threshold, its own set of triggers and tolerance to different situations. Director Gauri Shinde equips her Alia (as Kaira, a cinematographer) with a complexity more common in urban adults these days.

Perhaps it isn’t possible anymore to separate the actor from the star, no matter how (relatively) restrained his (Shah Rukh Khan) performance.

It’s an incredibly difficult task as a filmmaker to depict any sort of mental demons without making it seem as dramatic as a “disorder” or deterioration. Ms. Shinde struggles a bit here; one can sense she is torn between playing it up and toning it down. As a result, the exchanges between Kaira and Khan range from insightful to occasionally boring.

Psychiatry is a fascinating profession, but it doesn’t inherently lend itself to the visual medium. It’s more about listening than seeing, and speaking than showing. There can be tedious phases of silence, and periods of zero activity – all of which is, of course, simplified here given the presence of actors who must entertain, anyhow. It’s almost necessary that we feel a bit impatient, a bit in the dark about the progression of her story, if it can be called a story at all.

dear zindagi

But Ms. Shinde attempts to make things more “accessible” by making Dr. Khan behave like more of a mentor with an analogy for everything – a hockey coach with a psychology degree. Perhaps a less recognizable face may have played off better, because Khan, the star, seems to be visibly shifting gears on the unglamorous Chak de!India act-o-meter. The reason it worked the first time was because there was no real reference. This time, I’m not so sure – what with his suave expressions and salt-and-pepper awareness.

It’s an incredibly difficult task as a filmmaker to depict any sort of mental demons without making it seem as dramatic as a “disorder” or deterioration. Ms. Shinde struggles a bit here; one can sense she is torn between playing it up and toning it down.

Perhaps it isn’t possible anymore to separate the actor from the star, no matter how (relatively) restrained his performance. For instance, you can almost hear his face clicking into intense mode, those glassy eyes lining up to make a statement. To his credit though, there are times when you don’t even notice he’s in the same room while she vents. I found myself wondering, then, if he was quietly wondering about how this Goan girl would have perhaps gotten along famously with a floppy-haired young musician named Sunil (from Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa) in a parallel cinematic universe.

shahrukh-alia

The explosion is usually a scene where Ms. Bhatt renders her co-actors speechless with a ranting, emotional monologue of biblical proportions. Her angst is intercut directly with the harrowed faces she targets, making for a nervy escalation of actions and reactions.

In both, Highway (the penultimate Delhi-family scene) and Udta Punjab (her introduction to Shahid Kapoor), she jolts the living daylights out of onlookers with tragic outbursts outlining her horrid past. In Dear Zindagi, again, she rips into her parents with jittery precision. Her mother (a fine actress), you sense, is genuinely affected by the sheer momentum of such acrimonious words. More than once, her language of eruption is reminiscent of the Jennifer Lawrence character from Silver Linings Playbook.

That Kaira gravitates towards men almost twice her age and handles film cameras almost twice her weight is, both, a lesson in pop psychology (pun intended) and the film industry’s unwavering support of child labour.

It’s at these moments, when she transcends the film’s intent, when you wish the director didn’t feel the need to ‘design’ her condition. The painfully self-explanatory playback titles: To introduce Kaira dancing wildly to “Lets Break Up”; to highlight her rebel-without-a-cause spirit with “Just Go To Hell Dil”; to underline her transformation with “Love You Zindagi”; the deliberately breezy score; quirky interior design (bordering on Ki & Ka hipster-ness) of her spaces; the zero-context ad-level product placement; her gratingly annoying best friend (Yashaswini Dayama; monopolizing this stereotype after Phobia)…it’s all sanitized and packaged, virtually overcompensating for the real-life sterility of mental-health care.

At times, one can imagine an LED-lit pink Las Vegas street arrow points brightly towards her. That Kaira gravitates towards men almost twice her age and handles film cameras almost twice her weight is, both, a lesson in pop psychology (pun intended) and the film industry’s unwavering support of child labour. The casting of the men (Kunal Kapoor, Angad Bedi, Ali Zafar) is kind of smart, given that each of them has varying degrees of shifty male gazes. Zafar, though, needs to tone down on his Gods-gift-to-womankind snarls, lest he gets picked up by Right Said Fred for their farewell tour.

dear zindagi

I suspect Dear Zindagi is the kind of film I’m going to feel differently about in time. Coming out unaffected, or perhaps not as involved as I expected to be, could also be a result of having to carve out a professional opinion. Despite my initial indifference, Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha, too, assumed a different shape in my mind by the end of the year. It’s not always as straightforward as a snap judgment.

There’s a certain PG-13 hygiene to its messiness, a clinical order to its chaos, which I’m not sure suits its choice of education.

But it starts a conversation and propagates an important line of thinking. Yet, I don’t want to call this a well-intentioned effort. Viewed through the prism of social relevance, every such film turns into a brave masterpiece. There’s a certain PG-13 hygiene to its messiness, a clinical order to its chaos, which I’m not sure suits its choice of education. But I’ll be thinking about it. I’ll be thinking about its “if it weren’t for Alia Bhatt…” stature. And my confession, hopefully, won’t be followed by an explosion.

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