No review of Vinil Matthew's second directorial venture can be complete without mentioning what Kanika Dhillon has achieved. In an industry that has hardly given its writers its due, she has not only given us some of our most deliciously colourful female characters in crossfires of desire and misadventure, in the past few years, but has also established the seminal role essayed by writers in the process of filmmaking. This is evident from the opening credits of Haseen Dillruba, where Dhillon's name appears first – even before the names of the producers. This is no mean feat to achieve, and that too, for a woman.
What has always endeared Kanika and her writing to me is the unabashed manner in which she has fun with her characters. Her screenplays are not examples of textbook perfection. They often wobble in the final acts of the film, and become too self-aware and conceited for their own good. But unlike someone like Alankrita Shrivastava, who consciously attempts to make a point through every setting, every character and every narrative turn, Dhillon just seems to be having a lot of fun. This is not to say her characters are not real. She gives us stories about men and women we know, individuals who are educated and middle-class, burning with passions and jealousies that are all too familiar. Hence, even when the situations around them become marked with implausibility, we as viewers are unable to desert the characters themselves.
Haseen Dillruba is set in the fictional town of Jwalapur, a name that befits the fiery passions that get stirred within the city. The story follows the electrical engineer and homoeopathy-loving (this character trait will not make sense till the end) Rishu, played by a simply brilliant Vikrant Massey, as he enters an arranged marriage with pulpy crime novel-loving Rani, played by an often campy Taapsee Pannu. Rani is a woman of learning. She works as a beautician and carries the baggage of failed relationships; she is the hot Delhi girl who suddenly lands up with a small-town simpleton like Rishu. The latter, who has never been with a woman before, just does not know how to satisfy his "hot" wife. Their attempts to consummate the marriage and Rani's efforts to adjust with her mother-in-law, who simply wants a "susheel aur gori" bride, form some of the best parts of the film. With dollops of physical comedy and witty one-liners, Dhillon shows us the deep-rooted patriarchy of the Indian middle-class.
But all does not go well for long. Very soon, misunderstandings take place and the violence that underlies the common Indian middle-class man comes spilling out. The violence is not necessarily physical, though Dhillon shows us ample examples of that, but rather a sadistic penchant to abuse emotionally. Very soon, the dashing and casually sexist Neel, played by a just-out-of-a-GQ-cover-shoot Harshvardhan Rane, enters the household and Rani begins to seek the pleasure denied to her by her husband in the arms of her brother-in-law, and all hell breaks loose.
Haseen Dillruba begins with a cylinder burst, in which we are told Rishu has died. Eventually we learn the blast is a set-up and the man had actually been murdered. Rani, clearly established as an unreliable narrator and at the heart of the investigation, keeps quoting from her favourite novels by Dinesh Pandit. As the film progresses and the story unfolds in retrospect, Dhillon forces us to look at the larger questions. Is the common man we see on trams and buses capable of inflicting violence? Is adultery the only recourse to unspent, burgeoning passions? What is the price of forgiveness? Food plays a key role here, too. Without giving out a major spoiler, in two of the most moving scenes of the film, Rani is taught how to make tea by Rishu: there is shared tenderness and love in this act. A few moments later, the meat Rani had cooked for Neel is eaten by Rishu, as Rani confesses her affair to him. In a simple moment, the simple act of the husband consuming food cooked for the lover becomes an act of such grotesque violence that one is left stunned. The screenplay also plays with mirror images. The first time Rani comes to Jwalapur her car is surrounded by dogs and in a pivotal scene in the film the dogs surround her again. In one of their first nights as a couple, Rishu achingly swabs the bedroom of all the muddy rainwater while Rani watches. Much later in the film, Rani swabs while Rishu watches – only this time stakes are higher.
The genre-challenging Haseen Dillruba's biggest failure is its inability to let every character arc unfold with adequate ease and comfort. The structure is that of a murder mystery. We get a police procedural, a lie-detecting machine and an officer who bullies his subordinate into closing this fruitless case. But at the same time, the film, at least in its first act, is a comedy on arranged marriages in India. It goes on to become a close examination of the sexual equations between men and women. Dhillon subverts the generic notion of the marriage night; here, the husband is the one who is inexperienced and is required to be led and explained the ways of pleasure by the wife. But eventually the narrative takes a turn for the dark and we see Dhillon's true interests lie in exploring the extent of violence the common man is capable of inflicting – on the self and on another.
At two hours, the film could have easily dropped some of its musical numbers to keep the action tighter and the audience more gripped. Maybe Dhillon should try writing a web-series sometime soon, because the madness of her conceits and the spunk of her characters seem too constrained by the two-hour length of a feature. Even here, by the time the film reaches its climax, she loses control of the material she has churned with such care and it all spools forth in a reveal that pays homage to a Roald Dahl short story and a certain Richard Gere film. The conceits are chuckle-inducing but one is not allowed enough time to buy into it. The climax happens suddenly, without any warning, and the final revelation lands in a take-it-or-leave-it style and with such a rush that it is over before you even begin to digest it. But what keeps one going are the performances. Taapsee is excellent, but I wish she would now do a film where she is not required to look distraught during a legal or police procedure. But she does it with such conviction that you believe her sometimes quite unlikeable character. With regard to Massey, this role is in many ways a spiritual extension of Shutu from A Death in the Gunj, in the way he embodies the sexual and power anxieties of a small-town educated man. His is the performance that anchors the film even when the writing threatens to go overboard. Harshvardhan Rane does what is expected of him: serve as eye candy and ramp up his macho persona to play the absolute misogynist he is designed to be.
Haseen Dillruba is not a perfect film, but it is definitely one of the most intriguing films I have seen recently. It is a testament to the writing prowess of one of our most exciting writers and an ode to the acting skills of one of the best actors of this generation. The title of the film is designed with a rose, one with thorns that prick and draw blood. Rani and Rishu's marriage is a thorny rose too, as we are reminded by repeated occurrences of the flower motif. One can say the same about the film as well!