Vinil Mathew is a celebrated ad film maker known to weave a story around sweet yet quirky moments (he directed the Nescafe ads featuring Karan Johar and Vir Das; and multiple ads for Cadbury Silk). His debut feature, Hasee Toh Phasee was a rom-com about a socially awkward but brilliant girl (Parineeti Chopra) and an unsuccessful entrepreneur boy (Sidharth Malhotra). I remember watching the film as a twenty-one-year-old and having a smile throughout. In particular, the balcony scene where Parineeti's character teaches Sidharth's character to open his fists and point them upwards towards the sky while taking a deep breath to get rid of stress, just as babies naturally do, is a lesson I still implement in my own life.
With Haseen Dillruba, Mathew does a complete 180-degree swerve. Set in Jwalapur, the film starts with a blast (literally) in a house. Rani (Taapsee Pannu), who is feeding the roadside dogs, runs inside only to discover a slightly charred leftover arm with her name tattooed on it. Since it's a small town, everybody knows that only Rishu (Vikrant Massey), Rani's husband, had that tattoo. This naturally leads to a murder investigation and Rani becomes the crime-of-passion suspect along with her brother-in-law, Neel (Harshvardhan Rane). The rest of the film plays out in flashback with minor cuts to the present, where an unreliable Rani describes the events.
Written by Kanika Dhillon (whose earlier credits include Kedarnath, Manmarziyaan and Judgementall Hai Kya) and based on the concept of pulp fiction novels, the film is a saucy, strange and delicious murder mystery with plenty of comedy. Just as in those novels, the story has an unsatisfied 'hot' wife, a simple nice husband and a thorn in the form of a sex-appeal-oozing, casually sexist brother-in-law. There are plot holes, and not all character traits and arcs need to make sense or be tied up. The climax of the film is quite predictable from the very beginning. The screenplay (also by Dhillon) is disjointed, with tonal shifts from comedy to drama to dark romantic thriller. For instance in one of the earlier sequences, after Rani's aunt 'advises' her to seduce Rishu with a suggestive pallu-dropping, cleavage-revealing act, it leads to them consummating the marriage with a premature ending. The background music for the entire sequence plays out with over-the-top comic effect. However, within the next few minutes, after Rishu overhears Rani complaining about the issue (she says: koi jwala nahi jalne wali hai idhar) to her aunt on the phone, the music turns sombre to the point of being pitiful for Rishu. It's jarring to say the least. And yet the film never sags or disengages. A part of the reason is that Dhillon smartly takes the tropes with the aforementioned 'pitfalls' of pulp fiction and weaves in a deeper layer, putting in focus the dynamics (especially sexual ones) of middle-class couples in small-town India.
It helps that Mathew and the actors completely submit to this absurdist narrative. Yamini Das is a complete hoot as the mother-in-law and the matriarch of the house. She is disgruntled because she wanted a susheel aur gori bahu but instead has to contend with a walking-talking beauty parlour. She gets the best punchlines of the film and she delivers them with aplomb. The smaller characters are enjoyable as well, especially Rishu's friend Afzar (Ashish Verma). He has a standout moment in the police station where he directly refers to Rani as daayan. Aditya Shrivastava as the police officer (maybe it's self-aware of the makers but he is clearly reprising his own character of Abhijeet from the TV show C.I.D.) is competent as well. His frustration at not being able to crack the case and his inherent instinct that Rani is the culprit translates on screen. Harshvardhan Rane brings out the physicality that the role demanded but has few things to do other than look desirable. Taapsee Pannu, playing the haseen dillruba with a passion for fictional crime novels by Dinesh Pandit, brings out the grey in her character. She is designed as a fiercely opinionated and confident woman. She quotes lines from her beloved novels, such as, 'woh pyaar hi kya jismein khoon ke chheetein na ho', without making them sound farcical. Her radiance beams throughout, even when the situation is dire.
But ultimately, the film rides on the performance of Vikrant Massey. His switch from being the archetypal small-town guy, a nice boy with a stable job who pursues homoeopathy as his hobby and is instantly mesmerised by his wife's beauty, to a sadistic, pleasure-seeking and violence-inflicting man upon discovering Rani's infidelity is terrific. He channels the dilemma and the extreme rage but never goes overboard. A poignant scene is one where just after stabbing Neel in the back and consequently being thrashed by him, he just sits on the ground feeling completely helpless and betrayed. The scene is shot is from afar (through Neel's point of view) but Massey still manages to put across his feelings.
The visual grammar of the film expresses a lot of the subtext within the written material. Cinematographer Jayakrishna Gummadi and Mathew incorporate natural elements (like fire and water) into the narrative. For example, Jwalapur (which literally translates to City of Fire) is a town on the banks of a river. The flowing water of the river is a nice visual metaphor for the inherent rage that Rishu slowly unleashes (a beautifully captured overhead shot shows Rishu standing atop a dam with water gushing below him). Another example of the visuals telling a story are the multiple balcony scenes between Rani-Rishu and Rani-Neel. Both situations are sexual in nature but the essence is different. While the Rani-Rishu situation is comedic and has Rani lead Rishu towards her needs, the Rani-Neel scenario is best described as Rani lusting for Neel. What remains common for both situations is the balance of power, which is tipped in Rani's favour as she is always the one to control the boundaries of the dynamic. It subtly underlines the independence of her character and that she is her own being. It's a gutsy choice to take, given that films in the industry are plagued with the false notion that everything needs to be said out loud.
Overall, Haseen Dillruba, despite all of its issues, is an extremely bold and important film. Its radical idea of taking a pulp-fiction world and narrating the often brushed-under-the-carpet topic of sexual dynamics hooked me to its bizarreness for its two-hour runtime. The takeaway this time from a Vinil Mathew film is that love can make people do crazy things. Just that it need not always be for the right reasons.