One's reaction to Vinil Mathew's Haseen Dillruba hinges on the answer to this question: "Have you ever picked up one of those kitschy Hindi crime story paperbacks that crowd the insides of the bookstalls at railway stations and bus stands in many parts of the country?" Writer Kanika Dhillon and Mathew attempt to bring to life the eccentric world of Hindi pulp fiction, the economical escapist fare for a certain working class and the companion on overnight train journeys for passengers in an era predating smart phones and laptops.
The film is filled with tropes and stereotypes intrinsic to these novels: dissatisfied housewife, inadequate husband, barely competent cops, the desirable 'other'. Rani (Taapsee Pannu), a fan of one such crime novelist (Dinesh Pandit, a fictional author), marries an electrical engineer Rishu (Vikrant Massey) and moves to the fictional town of Jwalapur. When she reaches the place on a pouring night, her voiceover adopts the tone of her favourite novels as she equates the heavy downpour to the city not taking a liking to her. "Jwalapur ko main raas nahi aayi," as she puts it. When asked by the cop in charge of her husband's murder investigation if she had physical relations with Rishu's cousin, Neel (Harshvardhan Rane), Rani's answer is a philosophy-meets-pornography platitude: "Sambandh maansik hote hain, shareerik to sambhog hota hai (relations are always between minds, what is physical is lust). The meter in this line is uneven, just like the screenplay of the film, which alternates between watchable and passable.
The 'sliding pallu, peeping cleavage' trope of the novels makes multiple entries here, often with a background score that keeps reminding you that it is being used for comic effect. Kanika Dhillon excels at designing her female characters and Rani is no different. A seductress in once scene and an unreliable narrator in another, she does everything outside of the 'homely' straitjacket that her mother-in-law (Yamini Dass) is keen to fit her into. Vikrant Massey as Rishu lights up every frame he is part of. Even when portraying performance issues, his, err… performance remains top notch. Especially in the sequence where he grins his way from timidity to insanity, you witness that expressive face telling an entire story by itself. Between Vikrant, Tapsee and Yamini Dass, the comedy in the first act is pulled off with flying colours. Neel's arrival marks a change of genre, from comedy to erotica (briefly) and then to the thriller that is teased in the opening scene of the film. Dhillon gets top billing in the credits, deservedly so, for her gutsy reimagining of a fading story telling format.
The over-the-top spirit of Hindi pulp could have taken the film successfully to its desired outcome. Sadly, the film falters in the portions where it takes itself too seriously, which is not organic to the text. It looks for inspiration elsewhere to complete the narrative (a mention of the source would be a spoiler) and the final output suffers from an odd mix. Haseen Dillruba needed more 'Tarantino-referencing-B-movies' conviction to pull this off unscathed. Instead, it inflicts self-damage in parts by viewing its inspiration source with a 'Scorsese-perceives-MCU' condescending gaze. The film hangs precariously on the edge of nostalgic fondness and snobbish dislike. Your answer to the question at the start of the article will largely determine on which side it tilts for you.