Director: Tarun Dudeja
Writers: Tarun Dudeja , Parijat Josh
Cast: Dia Mirza, Ratna Pathak, Fatima Sana Sheikh, Sanjana Sanghi
Duration: 140 mins
Available in: Theatres
When Jee Le Zara, which was supposed to star Alia Bhatt, Priyanka Chopra, and Katrina Kaif, was first announced, a rib-tickling tweet was doing the viral rounds: “Jee Le Zaraa needs to have at least one scene where the girls are struggling to find a clean bathroom because what's a road trip without realising roads were not made for women.”
Under the veneer of caustic humour is a grunting worry. That to make genres feminist — or to feminise genres — it isn’t enough to flip genders of protagonists, because gender is merely the surface manifestation of all those structures and silos that we have assumed as fact. Those, too, then, must be brought to light.
Thus, toilets. Dhak Dhak, the all-women biking trip film, starring Ratna Pathak Shah, Dia Mirza, Fatima Sana Shaikh, and Sanjana Sanghi, begins with these women trying to find a sanitary place for one of them to squat and pee. Wet wipes and comforting affirmations are passed around. This road trip film, we are promised at the outset, will never let us forget that it is women who are taking to the road — be it in the gaze of suspicious or lusting men or the inspired wide-eyes from young girls. But does this promise hold up?
The complications of them being a woman are wound tighter, layered by their age, religion, and personalities. Dhak Dhak does the labour of completely flipping any assumption of what we might consider a “biker”. Its feminism is not about writing a new script but rewriting an old one. It takes the most unimaginable prototypes you would associate with a Royal Enfield bike and plonks them on the whirring metal. Uzma (Dia Mirza) is a married woman in a burqa, Manjari (Sanjana Sanghi) is a Radhe-Radhe-chanting virginal mouse, and Mahi (Ratna Pathak Shah) is a grandmother, an old woman with young dreams.
They are led by another prototype — the ball busting woman, a vlogger with raw wounds (nudes leaked) played by Fatima Sana Shaikh. Together, the four strangers make for unlikely company grunt their bikes from Delhi to Khardung La in Ladakh, the highest motorable pass in the world, or as it is described, bikers ka “tirth”, their pilgrimage. Each has their demons to contend with, and over the course of the trip, these strangers become chaste shoulders to lie others’ weary pasts on. They get high, accidentally. They joke about orgasms, or lack thereof. They split bottles of rum (or water, for Uzma and Manjari don’t drink).
The first half dusts through the various backstories that led to their paths crossing, revving up the hills. Each has something to prove to someone. The second half wobbles along, with medical and mechanical emergencies, all equally inane and predictable. Tensions and anger flares. Love and companionship balms. And so goes the genre.
The problem with prototypes, however, is that lesser actors lean so heavily on it they forget prototypes are people, too, irreducible to a single quirk. As though Sanjana Sanghi was repeating religiously to herself “Be mousy! Be mousy!” before the camera clicked on, her sunken shoulders, her powdered face, her raspy voice, all pointing in one saccharine, sincere direction, as though she were the incarnation of an adjective, one adjective. Fatima Sana Sheikh, follows in these footsteps, though armed with an opposite adjective — ballsy.
The last we saw of Dia Mirza, she played the Muslim woman cursed with a careless husband in season 2 of Made In Heaven. Here, too, she plays a Muslim woman with a careless, even ruthless, partner. While the class position of her character in this film is significantly lower, that otherworldly grace and poise is very much a repetition, as though it is impossible for Mirza to be part of any world, embedded in it. She plays a mechanic, but embodies it untouched by the grime of the job, pouring oil poetically. She is always floating over the character, angelically. There is a scene in Leh market where she is running around looking for an oxygen cylinder and you can see crowds staring at her. This is both the masses looking at the Dia Mirza act, but also us, the spectator — neither believing for a second that this is a mechanic.
It is in Ratna Pathak Shah’s artistry that the film is held. Her loneliness of being a widow, and her longing, is both comical and tragic. Her accent is both heavy and unstudied. Her face registers both the flatness of her character and the depth of her performance. In the writing, her character brings everyone together. In her acting, it is the film that she resuscitates.
As the women journey through Delhi and Ladakh, there is a female monk, an entrepreneurial cook, a truck driver, a soldier, a road construction worker all of whom spew wisdom as the women undertake their journeys. There are soft moments to the side, like when Uzma is picking up the litter of chips packets while a conversation is bubbling elsewhere.
Soon, however, the film forgets its initial promise, insisting that these are bikers on a road trip, but women in the city they left behind — mothers and husbands and grandsons to be accountable to. As though asking, why should a woman biker face different challenges on the road different from that of men? There is mist, flash floods, flat tyres. These are all gender agnostic.
When the journey becomes about overcoming past traumas, it is never allowed to be fully present. It is always backward looking. It is not that the road trip genre of films should not be steeped in backstory. Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara was, essentially, masterfully, backstories that come to a boil in Spain. But when writers do not know where a backstory ends and a character begins, that spells doom. They are all so preoccupied trying to explain a character’s intention, they forget that while intention is fermented in the past, it rumbles into the future.