Vinil Mathew's Hasee Toh Phasee is a film that changed my life. It made me fall in love with cinema and strengthened my belief in true love. It wasn't hailed as a masterpiece, but it had the complete Dharma package despite being unconventional. As a child back then, I remember being awestruck by it. The film was refreshing and different and had a manic energy that was constantly simmering.
In Haseen Dillruba, Matthew unleashes this energy wholly. If I had to describe the film in one adjective it would be weird. Weird, but in a good way. While on the surface the film looks like a bloodied love-triangle (and it is that, in broad terms), the way it reaches there is unique. The film follows Rani Kashyap (Taapsee Pannu), who, along with her lover, has been accused of killing her husband. The one-liner sounds like the story of a terrible '80s film or a Crime Patrol episode, but in the hands of writer Kanika Dhillon, the film entertains and occasionally soars despite the recycled tropes and clichés.
In the movie, there are constant references to Dinesh Pandit, a pulp-fiction writer who writes juicy crime novels that Rani reads. We never see him, but he's present throughout. Haseen Dillruba is an attempt at reviving the genre, and if you're willing to be sucked into its succulent universe, the film is mostly enjoyable. It subverts the old extramarital affair template into a comedic-romantic thriller. It has all the trappings of what one would consider to be "trashy" literature and the almost-outlandish tone is intentional. Take, for instance, a scene in which Rani falls down the stairs: the background music blares so loudly that it overshadows her yell.
Jwalapur, where the story is set, is beautifully captured by DOP Jayakrishna Gummadi, but you instantly know that it's the kind of place that would only exist in fictional novels. Even the climax, which would've otherwise been considered ridiculous, suits the film's juicy sensibilities. These characters aren't real and it took me a while to submit to the film's pulpy universe, but once I did, I was mostly immersed in Matthew and Dhillon's storytelling.
Haseen Dillruba is also aided by some terrific performances that elevate the material. Yamini Das is lovely as Rishu's mother. She imbues her constantly-nagging character with humanity and gives the film some of its funniest moments. Aditya Srivastava makes the most of his limited screen time, and smirks and grunts with gusto. Harshvardhan Rane gets the body-language of a virulent, sexist, macho man bang on and holds his own in front of the two leads. But the film ultimately belongs to Vikrant Massey and Taapsee Pannu, who are in nuclear form as Rishu and Rani. Their characters feed off each other's toxicity, and Massey does a splendid job of conveying the change in his character arc, which would've been unconvincing in the hands of a lesser actor. Pannu matches him step for step. It may not look like she's doing much, but this is an effortless performance, treading carefully between serving the film's over-the-top tone and conveying Rani's brittle interior.
It's a shame, then, that Haseen Dillruba is overly long at 135 minutes. There are stretches of tedium littered in the screenplay and there are moments when the script feels confused. The consistent tone also makes the film feel longer than it already is. It's exhausting to constantly buy into its pulpiness, especially when things begin to seem illogical. The film has crackling dialogues but the fun dries up occasionally. Also, I don't intend to moral-police any story, but the borderline glorification of toxic relationships is problematic to say the least.
Yet, Haseen Dillruba is a brave experiment. I was engaged for most of the part, and completely bought into its madcap eccentricity – even the climax. It's a well-performed film that could've done with a sharper edit, but I was happy to settle for its amusing craziness.