Director: Mukesh Chhabra
Writers: Shashank Khaitan and Suprotim Sengupta
Cast: Sushant Singh Rajput, Sanjana Sanghi, Swastika Mukherjee, Saswata Chatterjee
Editor: Aarif Sheikh
Streaming on: DisneyPlus Hotstar
When an actor leaves us in his prime, the films that release after his passing aren't just movies. They become monuments to a memory. This happened with Giant (James Dean was killed in an automobile accident just before the classic was released). This happened with The Dark Knight (Heath Ledger died from a toxic combination of prescription drugs six months before the genre-defining blockbuster hit theatres). Closer home, there's Divya Bharti, who died in April 1993, all of 19. Talat Jani's Rang came out three months later, and when you watched one of Nadeem-Sharavan's hit numbers — say, Tujhe na dekhoon to chain — you saw this cherubic, moon-faced girl dancing without a care in the world, and it was impossible, at least back then, to focus on her character. You saw the person. You saw promise. You saw a future. You saw the looming hand of fate.
Mukesh Chhabra's Dil Bechara is one of those films. It's the story of Kizie and Manny, two dying people who fall in love, but from start to finish, you see — rather, you sense – a third person, the real-life Sushant Singh Rajput. (He plays Manny.) The first few frames are black-and-white clips of the actor, underlined with one of his own quotes, a #selfmusing. When a scene from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge is re-enacted, you remember the number of times Sushant admitted that he was a crazy-mad SRK fan. (In many other instances, you see SRK's signature romantic expressions translated into Sushant-ese.) When Kizie (Sanjana Sanghi) says she saw a film of "David Dhawan ka beta", the line seems to come with a subtitle that Sushant wasn't a nepo-kid.
And then, there are the many, many, many references to death and dying. The line that says life doesn't come with a happy ending… The bit where Manny says, "Main bahut bade bade sapne dekhta hoon, par usey poore karne ka mann nahin karta"… (I dream big dreams, but I don't feel like completing them.) Or when he says, "Can we just pretend I am not dying!"… Or the startling moment where a disillusioned musician (Saif Ali Khan) makes a gun-shape with his fingers and points it to his temple and says, "Khud ko maarna illegal hota hai"… (Could they not have edited out this bit? It adds nothing, really, to the scene or the character or the film, and coming in the wake of Sushant's suicide, it just leaves a sour aftertaste.)
Sushant plays Manny exactly the way he played his part in Raabta. The twinkle and the charm-attack are certainly overdone, but at least in this film, there's context. Manny is a filmi guy, a Rajinikanth fan stuck in Jamshedpur, and the distance appears to have made him bring out his inner thalaiva. Every waking moment is a style statement that comes in quotes. Kizie calls him, "Irritating. Arrogant. Apne hi pyaar mein pagal." Sushant imbues Manny with a double-dose of these exuberant characteristics. Even while delivering a simple line where he asks Kizie the meaning of her name, it comes out with an actorly (or filmi, in the Manny-verse) pause: "I am just… curious."
Dil Bechara is based on The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. I read the book when it came out because it was quite the craze, and everyone I knew was confessing that it made them cry buckets. But it did nothing for me (maybe it was the hype?), and I didn't feel the urge to watch the 2014 movie version. But I suspect at least parts of this Hindi version play out much better, because this corny-sentimental register is something our cinema owns like a pro. (AR Rahman's delicious soundtrack, with soft stunners like Taare gin, is icing on the gooey cake.) There's a line where Kizie says falling in love is like falling asleep; at first, it comes bit by bit and then it washes over you all at once. I can't remember if this line was in the book, but it sounds wonderfully awww-ey in Hindi.
And it sounds wonderful the way Sanjana Sanghi delivers it. The words are maudlin, but her tone is dry, distanced — and the two textures balance each other out beautifully. The director is one of the most well-regarded casting agents in the industry, and he surrounds Kizie with relatively fresh-faced supporting actors (Swastika Mukherjee and Saswata Chatterjee play Kizie's doting parents) who lend lovely shades to their parts. Kizie herself is lovely on screen. I loved watching her revel in her new dress, during a Paris trip. (Sanjana Sanghi has this lovely, goofy, toothy grin.) She seems to be enjoying the newness of the dress, the newness of the city, the newness of freedom, the newness of love… I felt such a terrible twinge that this young actor's first big role has come under such a cloud.
In an interview with Film Companion, Sanjana said, "We need to bring our film to people the way it deserves because it's an absolute labour of love. But there is an immense stomach-churning sense of grief that I'm also carrying along with this. I would have associated happiness, excitement and a positive nervous energy with the fact that my debut film is releasing in a day, but the fact is that I'm unable to experience any of those things and that breaks my heart. But it has also taught me that life is tough." I can only hope the industry is easier on her. By the end, Manny's filmi-ness rubs off on Kizie. She gives him a florid "I love you" line. But again, only the words are maudlin. Her tone is dry, distanced — but now, there's a twinkle in the tone, a Manny-ish twinkle. I'd love to see what she can do in a really good movie.
Which isn't to say Dil Bechara is bad. The weakest parts are the film's stabs at comedy and its attachment to that musician who's become a JD Salinger-esque enigma. There's a painful stretch in Paris where he has some sort of existential meltdown. (I think that's what it is!) There's an even more painful stretch during a funeral service in a church, where Manny and his friend JP (a very likeable Sahil Vaid) scream that they aren't wearing underwear. Luckily, the rest of the humour is wryer. Kizie's condition has her lug around an oxygen cylinder. She calls it Pushpinder. She writes in her blog (and she voice-overs to us), "Iska oxygen mujhe khushi deta hai aur iska weight mujhe gham." I was reminded of that faux-Ajit joke: "Raabert, is haraami ko Liquid Oxygen mein daal do. Liquid isey jeene nahin dega, aur Oxygen ise marne nahin dega!"
The film is smoothly written (the screenplay is by Shashank Khaitan, Suprotim Sengupta), and it goes down real easy. It's just that it never rises above "watchable-enough". If you've seen Anand or Love Story (the English one) or Ankhiyon Ke Jharokon Se or Geethanjali (in Dil Bechara, the boy is the manic pixie, the girl is the soberer one), you know how it all goes — but unlike those films, there are no real highs. I liked that the director doesn't push things in our face. Everything's cool and classy. Everything's also a tad flat. I loved the scene where Manny's parents come by to comfort him, as he lies on his grandmother's lap. (It's a wordless scene.) But in other places, I wanted more energy. I wanted to get caught up in the Manny-Kizie dizziness, and I didn't.
What I did get, though, is a small measure of closure for Sushant. In real life, we never got the opportunity to prepare for his passing. In reel life, Manny knows he's dying, and the entire arc plays out like it should. He even has his friend read out a eulogy for him, while he is still alive. "Bahut zyada emotion ho gaya," JP says, after his small speech. I misted up a bit. (Again, neither the scene nor the sentiment is pushed in our face.) Towards the end, Manny casts out his inner Rajinikanth and kneels before a different screen icon: Rajesh Khanna in Anand. Channelling that character's calm acceptance, he declares: "Janam kab lena hai aur marna kab hai, yeh hum decide nahin kar sakte!" (When to live and when to die… these aren't things we can decide.) If only. If only.