The year was 2015. I was in my 9th grade when I watched Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara for the first time. The film made me dream - dream about going on a road trip with my friends in a blue convertible car across the gorgeous landscapes of Spain. It made me dream about pulling off pranks on strangers, lying under the stars, celebrating new festivals, discovering life underwater, finding love and finding myself. This dreamy feeling has stayed with me ever since. As I grew up and became more interested in films, I started revisiting this movie often to understand what made it have such an effect on me.
The film has got a lot of things right - a compelling, entertaining script, beautiful locations, meaningful cinematography and timely, intricate use of music. In spite of getting all of this right, there’s another important thread the film hangs on… the cast. I say this because no matter how larger-than-life this film gets, its essence is deeply rooted in the conflicts of its characters. Here are three friends whose ‘want’ is to have the time of their lives on a road trip, but ‘need’ is to reflect upon their own choices and decisions. There are past memories they need to revisit and future plans they need to reconsider, truths they need to confront and relationships they need to mend. Whoever decides to portray these characters not only bear the responsibility of breathing these nuances, but also have an important duty of delivering another element of the film that makes it work - its comic timing.
Enter: Hrithik Roshan, Abhay Deol and Farhan Akhtar. Of the three, I was most fascinated by Hrithik Roshan’s performance purely because this was the first time I saw him perform the character of a regular human, not a hero. In the film’s first half, Hrithik’s character, Arjun, is angry at life and his friend, Imran, for wronging him. Hrithik’s restrained body language is mingled with his anguish-filled eyes, his uptight behavior is interrupted with emotional outbursts - conveying the fact that no matter how hard his character pretends to be unemotional, he perhaps is the most emotional of all. Hritik brings a sense of purity and innocence to Arjun’s character that makes us empathize with him more. There’s a scene where his character has a cathartic moment, it’s right after he dives into the sea; this scene can be listed as one of Hrithik’s best performances. As the guitar chords strike, Hrithik’s eyes move around the horizon. They’re absorbing everything in. Tears are falling off his eyes as a smile lingers around his face. He feels reborn, as if he has opened himself to the many possibilities of life… and in that moment, we all feel a sense of affinity for him. Such is his convincing performance - charged just with the right emotion for us to connect with and root for him. Hrithik then carries his character’s newfound perspective on life in the second half with an easy-going performance that is more free, happy and light-hearted than the first - just like his character.
I’ll keep why I think Abhay Deol and Farhan Akhtar worked well short. They had to play the roles of Imran and Kabir - two handsome, funny and charming fellers who are navigating through life as it comes. Their characters in the film are more or less similar to our understanding of them off-screen and our impression of them through their previous work. Hence, their performances feel natural. Farhan Akhtar and Abhay Deol have both carried their characters with an appealing ease and suave. Along with that, they emulate these characters in their own unique ways - a peculiar way of raising their eyebrows, a distinct look right before either one of them bursts into laughter, a guilty chuckle they hope the angry person of the lot doesn’t notice, an over-the-top delivery of a filmy dialogue or a past professor’s speech - all these quirks mimicked differently by the actors add an admirable appeal to their personage. But these are just the funnier, surface level bits. There are fundamental differences in their character’s nuances. Imran always puts his own interests in the front seat while Kabir places them in the back. Imran has a quieter, more heartbreaking encounter with his father’s truth while Kabir has a more verbose & angry confrontation with his fears. Hence, there’s an assertive, secretive, slightly inconsiderate and a quiet body language for Farhan Akhtar to adopt, but a helpless, confused and anxious one for Abhay Deol to follow. Both the actors have handled these nuances sincerely, adding more subtext and depth to their characters.
As crucial as it is for the actors to embody their characters well, it’s equally important for them to share a free-flowing chemistry with each other. It’s only when the beats of their performance complement each other and the story, that the cast can be deemed perfect. This is the case with Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. Each movement, action, look and dialogue of either of the three character’s flow in sync with the other two. Even with the dialogue absent, their screen presence combined with the mise-en-scene is enough to communicate the essence of the scene. Most of all, you don’t feel like you’re watching some actors play these characters, but instead, you feel like you’re actually watching Imran, Kabir and Arjun. To me, that’s the simplest indicator of a job well done.
Another indicator of a job well done can be explained through my following takeaway from the supporting characters - you dislike Natasha, are fascinated by Laila, resent Javed Habib and resonate with Imran’s mother. Of course, if you want to understand their characters better, you’ll have to look beyond their relationship to our central characters. But through the runtime, you feel exactly the same feelings for the supporting characters that our protagonists do. That, again, in a very barebone form is a job well done for me. Points to Kalki Koechlin, Katrina Kaif, Naseeruddin Shah and Deepti Naval for portraying their characters as they were intended to be and adding their personal styles to it.
Blake Snyder had once said in his book, Save the Cat!, that before writing any story, it’s important to create a hero who will experience the film’s world on the audience’s behalf. We experience Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’s world through Imran, Kabir and Arjun. We experience the pleasures of travel, thrills of adventure, bitterness of truth, discomfort of confrontations, comfort of friendships and most of all, the beauty of life through them - three characters portrayed truthfully by Hrithik Roshan, Abhay Deol and Farhan Akhtar. I won’t use any adjective apart from 'perfect' to describe this cast, for a great or a wise use of cast is also sometimes done to salvage the shortcomings of a film. Here, I want to go out on a limb and say that the film has few or no shortcomings. The cast is here not to shine independent of the film, but to do its part in making the film work. It is hence a perfect choice, just like each and every other element of the film, coming together to create a delightful, reflective and memorable piece of entertainment in 21st century Bollywood.
Also look at them in Señorita, c'mon!