Director: Vinil Mathew
Written by: Kanika Dhillon
Cinematography: Jayakrishna Gummadi
Edited by: Shweta Venkat
Cast: Taapsee Pannu, Vikrant Massey, Harshvardhan Rane, Yamini Dass
Streaming on: Netflix
Haseen Dillruba opens with the credit – story, screenplay and dialogues by Kanika Dhillon. Which gives you a hint of things to come. Kanika is one of Hindi cinema's most provocative writers. She immerses us into purposefully off-kilter, usually small-town worlds, which are further disrupted by ferocious women who refuse to live within the Lakshman Rekha prescribed by patriarchy and society. Think of the red-haired Rumi in Manmarziyaan; Mukku, a girl from an affluent Pundit family who falls in love with the poor Muslim porter in Kedarnath; or the mentally ill Bobby in Judgementall Hai Kya. Rani, the Haseen Dillruba of the title, is a fine addition to this gallery of blazing characters with jagged edges. Rumi and Rani, both played by Taapsee Pannu, are described by other characters in their respective stories as daayans. We've seen enough feminist horror films to understand that this is high praise – it's shorthand for a woman with a fiery spirit.
Rani is a narcissistic, middle-class Delhi girl with a Masters in Hindi Literature, a passion for the crime novelist Dinesh Pandit and deep desire to be swept off her feet by someone dashing, witty and volatile. But after a few failed relationships, Rani settles for an arranged marriage with Rishu, a mild-mannered engineer from the fictitious small town of Jwalapur. His hobby is homeopathy. She used to work at a beauty salon and passes her time by giving her father-in-law makeovers. Even when her life is falling apart, her nails are impeccably manicured.
Rani describes herself as a 'khubsoorat, hot ladki.' Rishu is so awed by her beauty that he becomes dysfunctional in front of her. After a few sweetly comedic romps with Rishu, Rani declares: Koi jwala nahi jalne wali humare beech mein. Enter the loutish lothario Neel – Rishu's cousin, a river rafting guide, who dresses to show off his bulging biceps – in one scene, he is pumping air into a boat, shirtless, sweaty and glistening in the sun, the absolute embodiment of lust. This obviously, cannot end well.
Haseen Dillruba begins with murder. The story is then recapped, mostly by Rani, the prime suspect, who is telling the investigating police officer what led to this point. But Rani, like Bobby, is an unreliable narrator. Her telling is also coloured by her avid reading of crime novels – so she quotes her favourite author with lines like: Pandit ji kehte hain ki sambandh toh mansik hote hain. Shaaririk toh sambhog hota hai. Rani's story is so intriguing that she quickly gathers an audience at the police station with listeners appreciatively interjecting with, 'Wah, wah.'
It's the same for us viewers. Haseen Dillruba is genre-busting – it's a murder mystery but also a feverish romance with dollops of comedy bunged in – most of it provided by Rishu's mother, played by the superb Yamini Dass, who only wants a sundar, susheel, gori bahu for her son. The film swerves from raging hormones to the raw, muddled emotions of two strangers in a marriage to things darker and bloodier. This is a tightrope act and Kanika and director Vinil Mathew are only partially successful at it.
What works best is act two when Rishu and Rani are beginning to find the bearings in their fractured relationship. There is a lovely scene in the kitchen in which the act of making tea together becomes a sort of truce. The bumps in the narrative are also considerably smoothened by Vikrant Massey's terrific performance. In one scene, Rishu breaks down declaring that men like him can never be heroes – Vikrant's tears capture the anguish of being kind in a twisted world. Taapsee is also very good as an impulsive, selfish woman who creates a tragic mess but Rani gets wiser as we watch. The two actors make this rollercoaster relationship, with Rishu's slavish devotion to Rani and her understanding that he might be what she needs, persuasive. And Harshvardhan Rane is well cast as the beefy, casually misogynistic third wheel.
But in act three, Haseen Dillruba switches tracks, moving into territory that becomes implausible and emotionally unconvincing – especially Rishu's arc. The final explanation of what actually happened is a grotesque blend of a Roald Dahl short story and a film that I won't mention because it might be too much of a spoiler. Needless to say, it borders on the ridiculous. As with the latter half of both Kedarnath and Judgementall Hai Kya, Kanika loses control of the narrative, which becomes increasingly convoluted. Anything can happen but little feels organic or earned. The end twist might work in one of Dinesh Pandit's pulpy Hindi novels but here, it comes off as Grand Guignol, which undermines what has gone before.
Haseen Dillruba is Vinil's second film after Hasee Toh Phasee, seven years ago. Hasee Toh Phasee, a rom-com set amidst a shaadi, had a real sweetness to it. Haseen Dillruba has a more jaundiced view of what men and women do to each other. But like in the first film, the balcony plays a key role. Jwalapur is a town on a river – parts of the film were shot in Uttarakhand. Vinil and DOP Jayakrishna Gummadi make good use of the shimmering water and the multi-level home. Those balconies, overlooking the flowing river, are made for romance.
In one scene, Rani says: Pagalpan ki hud se na guzra, woh pyaar hi kaisa. I agree. But the pagalpan in Haseen Dillruba crosses the line from poignant to posturing and eventually loses its grip.
You can see the film on Netflix India.