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 is one of the most radical Hindi films in recent memory. The idea is so brave that it's almost foolish. The movie is made entirely in the language of a lurid Hindi crime novel – a "method" ode to heartland pulp-fiction that trusts its audience to understand how its badness might be intentional. The protagonist swears by a popular Indian crime author, which in turns suggests that all the film's kitschy elements – a 'hot' North Indian bride adjusting to a small town, a sexually inadequate husband, a torrid Savita-bhabhi-esque fling with a hunky brother-in-law, a toxic marriage, a gory murder, a hammy police investigation, a blood-red colour palette – demand ironic appreciation. But the commitment to this tone is unnerving.
While watching Haseen Dillruba, I honestly thought it was the worst film in years. I didn't want what the makers were smoking. But as I skimmed through it a second time – perfectly sober, mind you – I recalled another equally whimsical and shapeless film: the meta black comedy Judgementall Hai Kya, whose disorienting visual language mirrors its female protagonist's mental illness. It was a divisive but ambitious creative decision, one that risked alienating the audience from the get-go. It's no coincidence that the writer of both films is the same. So much of Kanika Dhillon's writing relies on a director's full-hearted grasp that – sans cultural translation – the screenplay might easily be perceived as impulsive, ignorant and borderline-offensive. The film-making has to stay chalky enough to keep reminding us that we see the world through the gullible eyes of Rani Kashyap (Taapsee Pannu), a spirited young woman whose gospel (and beauty-parlour chutzpah) is derived from adventurous book pages.
Given that much of the plot unfurls in flashback – where Rani, a crime-of-passion suspect, is narrating her story to the police officer (Aditya Srivastava) – a voiceover becomes this device. When Rani arrives in Jwalapur as a newlywed, for instance, she surmises that the rainy night is a sign of the city not liking her. Her 'story' has the entire police station in rapt attention; all that's missing are popcorn tubs. Her passion for words gives the makers the license to drop in lyrically twisted lines like "if love doesn't push you to the brink of insanity, is it really love?" and "eternal love is always stained with a few drops of blood" without seeming totally ridiculous. (The fetishised gaze is alluded to when, in a funny moment, the exasperated cop orders his subordinates to fetch the damned Hindi author responsible for "every woman speaking in poetry" during the interrogation.)
Rani's voiceover extends into her over-the-top behaviour as well. Her aunt's saucy advice drives Rani to suggestively drop her 'pallu' to seduce her shy husband, Rishabh (Vikrant Massey). When Rishabh's dishy cousin Neel (Harshvardhan Rane) moves in with them for a bit, his muscular body glistens in front of her – a nod to the way housewives famously objectify the presence of a young stud in the literature Rani reads. He is her living, breathing fantasy. The music, at one point, abruptly morphs from a romantic song in the vicinity of her lover to a melancholic fluty tune in the vicinity of her nerdy husband. Rani and Rishabh's bedroom, too, is designed like the sort of cosy wooden cabin one imagines in hill-station whodunnits.
I know I sound like I'm rationalising the weirdness of this film. But it has to be said that the slow-burning flexibility of the watch-from-home ecosystem – as opposed to a quick theatrical screening in the pre-pandemic era – is all that separates a viewer's quizzical disgust from grudging respect. It's a thin, thin line. The question of course is: how much method is too method? At what point does the gimmick – of putting the viewers on a life-sized model of the Titanic to truly experience its sinking – demolish the boundary between wry self-awareness and genuine delusion? When does a homage to garish storytelling become garish storytelling? Haseen Dillruba perilously pushes the limit, but unlike a Judgementall Hai Kya or an Ed Wood, often drops the hat it keeps tipping. At times, the film loses itself in no man's land between imitation and feeling – a consequence of occupying an era where the sardonic use of terms like "cult" and "legendary" erases the distinction between guilty pleasure and pleasure.
For example, there comes a time when the perpetual and poorly mixed background score is impossible to excuse. There comes a time when the viewer can't help but be distracted by the fakeness of a severed limb, the constant mentions of the author Rani worships, or the 100 metaphors used to describe premature ejaculation. The mystery of the premise itself is incredibly silly and predictable (echoing the cheesy quality of the novels, but at what cost?) – the film opens with a gas explosion and the charred remains of Rishabh, so it's kind of obvious that the identity of the body defines the narrative subterfuge of a love triangle. The climax – the "twist" – pushes but tears the envelope of filmy obsession: In trying to be an indictment of new-age Bollywood's romanticisation of madness, it becomes an unwitting endorsement of the same. Yet, it's a miracle that the near-farcical final shot sticks. A lot of it is rescued by the soaring and sentimental score, a homegrown nod to the Love Actually airport-dash theme.
There also comes a time when it's hard to not be freaked by the 'mercurial' marriage. An entire montage features Rishabh slowly going unhinged (like a live-action version of Cruella de Vil's hair locks springing free) and Rani atoning for her extramarital affair. Rishabh punishes her by, among other things, booby-trapping the house so that he can see her bleeding. Rani is naturally turned on by this bad-boy streak, inducing an R-rated version of Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. (Imagine Raj flinging Taani-partner off his moving bike with a cruel grin on his face.) The idea – of small-town lovers (mis)interpreting abuse as love and toxicity as desire – is not the problem. I'm sure it happens. But there's something about the writing here that feels disingenuous, as though it were trying to shock an urban audience into submission. I'm all for disturbing gestures of togetherness. But the "darkness" cannot wear the cape of a millennial hashtag instead of a lived-in reality.
Given that it's been seven years since director Vinil Mathew's debut (Hasee Toh Phasee), this is a serious swing for the fences. His style invites scrutiny, but there is merit to the sheer recklessness of what the film strives to express. That being said, perhaps a big reason Haseen Dillruba survives its own rubble is the performances. Taapsee Pannu's role is a comic-book riff on her Manmarziyaan persona; it's disarming to see her succumb to the Tamasha-ness of a script. The bubbly Delhi "firecracker" is a done-to-death caricature, but Pannu – as evidenced in thrillers like Badla – manages to manifest a greyness that straddles the human bridge between empowerment and frailty. She plays a woman who wants to feel like a heroine, and not vice versa.
Similarly, Vikrant Massey seems to have mastered the art of troubled masculinity on screen. His 'electric' and erratic presence is cemented by Rishabh's profession in the film: an engineer at the electricity board. (Sparks fly and all that.) A majority of Massey's characters are masked, insecure, unreliable but unabashedly alluring. Rishabh, too, fosters a raging lunatic within a docile core. The switch is a thing of seamless beauty; it elevates the film beyond the emotional bindings of a trashy book cover. And it ensures that Haseen Dillruba evokes more than just a sound from a song we lip-synced to. After all, if cinema doesn't push you to the brink of insanity, is it really a medium of moving pictures?