Gauri Shinde's coming-of-age film Dear Zindagi introduces us to Kaira, a twenty-something cinematographer, played by Alia Bhatt. It was perhaps the first of many 'women-centric' films for Alia Bhatt, and also one where she plays a character that is quite different and definitely more complex than the roles we'd seen her in previously.
Kaira is often irritable, cynical, and flaky. She isn't inherently likeable, which is what makes her all the more endearing to me. Be it Shanaya Singhania in Student Of The Year or Tia Malik in Kapoor & Sons, Alia Bhatt in her previous films had mostly been playing cute, rich and bubbly young women with only 'boy problems' to add some sort of conflict to their otherwise picture perfect lives. Although she did full justice to these roles as well, I couldn't help but wonder if 'bubbly' and 'chirpy' was all that filmmakers could envision her as, despite her having proved herself far more versatile an actress in films like Highway & Udta Punjab. And then came Kaira, a breath of fresh air in the form of an outspoken cynic, who is everything the typical 'Bollywood heroine' wouldn't dare to be. Alia Bhatt as Kaira is so real and raw as a character, that it is impossible to not be rooting for her throughout the film despite all her flaws. In fact, it's her flaws that make her character so well fleshed out and rooted in reality.
The deliberate choice to have minimal make-up and hair that is not meticulously styled for most of the film, with casual clothes dominating the costumes is also reflective of the same. Kaira is not averse to make-up or femininity though, as is clear in the song 'Tu Hi Hai', where she sports beautiful beachy waves and a white dress. However, like most women, she still goes to sleep without make-up on and wakes up with tousled hair. Through Dear Zindagi, Gauri Shinde and Alia Bhatt paint a more accurate picture of what women are really like instead of the saccharine version we're conditioned to see as ideal.
Dear Zindagi handles the taboo topic of mental health and therapy with utmost sensitivity. Alia's portrayal of a young woman, still struggling to cope with abandonment and trust issues, courtesy of a rough childhood and absent parents is one that deserves to be praised. The scene where she has an outburst, at her younger brother, Kiddo's homecoming party and the following sequence where she finally opens up to Jug, and in turn, to the audience, is the pivotal point of the film and her life. We learn how her parents had left her with her grandparents to establish a business abroad, and taken her back in only because she failed a grade. "How could you just abandon me?"— with that monologue, Alia makes us feel the years of pent up frustration and anger towards her parents that has affected every single relationship she has had so far.
In her next session with Dr. Khan, when she finally breaks down sobbing, we see the overwhelming emotional release that had been long due. The most important part of the film, Kaira's journey is one that many women can identify with, even if just in parts. Be it micro-aggressions in the workplace, pressure of marriage and having "respectable jobs" — nothing artistic or creative, basically — or even something as mundane as finding a place to live as a single woman, we've all faced some sort of discrimination just for being women. Alia as Kaira is so believable, we all either know a Kaira or maybe are Kaira, but she does exist. She embodies the modern Indian young woman perfectly and ensures that her performance is not just memorable but relatable, too. It's through and through her film, no debate there.
Speaking of which, another huge reason I love this film as much as I do, is because Alia Bhatt is the sole 'star'. While she does share screen space with several actors, it's very clear that the film does not rely on them or their stardom to work. It's purely the combined talent and expertise of Gauri Shinde and Alia Bhatt. As someone who wishes to live to see the day that "women-centric films" become just films, this is a huge mark of progress. With the rise of women led films, this day doesn't seem too far away anymore and films like Dear Zindagi, Raazi, or Gangubai Kathiawadi are testament to that.
Films like these ensure that the 'love story' doesn't distract from the main plot and erases the misconception that movies will lose their appeal without the leads breaking out into song randomly and dancing in grassy fields every fifteen minutes. Alia Bhatt holds her own even in the presence of the ever charming Shah Rukh Khan as Dr. Jehangir 'Jug' Khan, despite being relatively new. The men are just part of Kaira's journey, and in no way is she defined by her relationships, as it should be. Unlike in the past where women were usually relegated to playing the 'love interest', it's a welcome change to see the same women take charge instead.
We all know that more often than not, women are way too hard on themselves, anything less than perfect is deemed unacceptable. But Kaira is not perfect and neither are we, Dear Zindagi is a lovely reminder that it's not our mistakes that define who we are but what we choose to do in order to be better.