Dobaaraa Review: Anurag Kashyap Challenges the Tropes of Time Travel – and Mostly Succeeds

Taapsee Pannu slips back in time in this remake of the Spanish film, Mirage
Dobaaraa Review: Anurag Kashyap Challenges the Tropes of Time Travel – and Mostly Succeeds

Director: Anurag Kashyap
Writer: Nihit Bhave
Cast: Taapsee Pannu, Pavail Gulati, Rahul Bhat, Saswata Chatterjee

Time-travel stories are a parable for the process of storytelling. Writers often see themselves in characters who confront the consequences of 'correcting' a narrative. It's never as simple as tweaking an error; a single change can trigger a multiverse of madness (or draft revisions). Altering an anomaly forces a story to grapple with the pressures of idealism. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Anurag Kashyap – a self-professed fanatic of film and film-making – has returned with Dobaaraa, the Hindi remake of Mirage (2018), which is a Spanish time-travel thriller that essentially addresses the struggle of finding the optimum narrative. Beneath its playfully intricate exterior, the film questions the moral binary inherent to the genre: Is destiny only a spectrum of two extremes? Is not dying the same as living?

The base narrative goes thus: The year is 1996, and an electrical storm ravages Pune. While using his camcorder, a 12-year-old boy named Anay gets distracted by a scuffle in the neighbouring bungalow. He then dies in an accident moments after witnessing a murder; the time is precisely 2:12 am (Hindi translation: "Do:Baara"). Twenty-five years later, during a similar storm, the new resident of this house, Antara (Taapsee Pannu), magically connects with Anay through the footage on his old television set at 2:12 am. Given that she knows of his doomed fate, Antara tries to delay the actions of a confused Anay. In doing so, she prevents him from having that accident and saves his life. But in doing so, Antara herself wakes up in a parallel universe and a newly-calibrated future. She is no longer a mother and wife of an unfaithful husband; she is now not a nurse, but a famous surgeon in the hospital Anay's mother built. In other words, a world in which Anay is alive is also a world in which Antara has thrived. This is, in a way, exactly why time travel (fictionally) exists – as a living, breathing embodiment of second chances.

The rest of the film is designed to suggest that the best path isn't necessarily the better one. Most characters accept the writing they think they deserve. We tend to judge their stories in terms of whether they survive or perish. But Dobaaraa makes a case for mental well-being rather than just physical healing. The occupants of this film seem to be fighting the genre itself in pursuit of a humanity – and a sense of continuity – that's often denied to them by narrative gimmickry. Anay may have survived, but the trauma of that stormy night survives with him; the repercussions of living do not compensate for the gift of life. Antara might be all that she once dreamed of – a talented surgeon, an independent and empowered woman – but she is haunted by the permanence of motherhood. She feels like an intruder in this 'improved' storyline, constantly looking for a way back to the reality of having a six-year-old daughter. Her track is a nice comment on how becoming a parent is in itself a sort of time-travel experience: Once a mother, always a mother. This love cannot be undone, not even by a rift in the space-time continuum.  

A young police inspector (Pavail Gulati) is the only one who believes Antara's bizarre story. Together, they set about decoding her situation – spanning a night that also features her alleged husband (a scene-stealing Rahul Bhat), who is still a dishonest man despite being married to someone else in this universe. Anay surviving means that the next-door violence (featuring Saswata Chatterjee in a perfectly Saswata Chatterjee role) remained a mystery. Antara's 'original' 2021 life – as a partner in a dead marriage; as the mother to a child whose father is largely absent – reflects the combined dimensions of Anay's 1996 environment: His father is gone, and the incident he sees that night involves partners in a dead marriage. The connection between Antara and Anay is not random; it is based on the notion that relationships are a product of completing – as opposed to just saving – one another. 

The thing about science-fiction stories is that originality becomes the sole measure of inventiveness. Remakes are denied the same yardstick. The viewer's investment in the puzzle-like film is always tempered by the fact that the writing and world-building already exist. This is where the translation – or the lack of it – comes into play. Dobaaraa is the second extra-vowelled Hindi remake of a European time-travel movie this year after Looop Lapeta (source: Run Lola Run), which also starred Taapsee Pannu. Perhaps this newfound fondness for the loopiness of time stems from our experience of the pandemic: A phase that has been all about surviving, changing, relearning and repeating. But unlike Looop Lapeta, which distinguished itself with a whimsical visual energy, the cultural conversion of Dobaaraa is muted. It's a fairly faithful adaptation of Mirage, so a lot of its hidden complexities and surface-level enterprise can be traced back to the DNA of the Spanish film.

The changes in Dobaaraa are sparse: The wordplay of the title, the names of the characters (the compulsive cheater is "Vikas," a political catchphrase for progress), a handful of Terminator and Christopher Nolan references, the husband's profession (as a hotel security head messing up the security of his own marriage), and R.D. Burman's "Aanewala Pal Jaanewala Hai" replacing Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" as the prophetic song. The film resists a homegrown identity, both geographically and emotionally. The upscale Pune colony can easily pass off as a portrait of American suburbia; Antara's conflict, too, is universal. But this isn't a flaw. It aligns with the grammar of time travel; the sameness of the setting outlines the difference in human destinies. Not to mention the consequences of messing with the fabric of fate (which, in this case, is the Mirage script). Locating the film on the Gurgaon-like outskirts of Pune – where change is the only constant – also frees the story from the congestion of Indian realism. The passage of time is marked by development, not the other way around. This allows the viewer to focus on the heart and mind of the premise rather than getting sidetracked by its body.

With nowhere to hide, this is also where Dobaaraa hits a few false notes. Despite going through serious upheavals, the character of Antara feels curiously flat. Taapsee Pannu's presence is urgent, but Antara often looks to be reacting to the tricks of the narrative instead of the circumstances of a life. It doesn't help that the burden of exposition falls on her shoulders. Consequently, Kashyap – who is otherwise a master of the modern Hindi film soundtrack – resorts to music as a crutch to inject Antara with some emotional intensity. The result is a tonal misfire. The jarring Eighties-synth score aside, tiny snippets of brooding songs (their 'antara') abruptly interrupt her race against time, as if to remind us that Antara still has feelings amidst all the chaos. Her quest to be believed in an alternate universe feels mechanical. As does her readymade bond with the cop – a man whose identity is hardly a mystery, given the lingering shots of his face towards the end of most scenes. This isn't exactly a suspenseful movie, which is why the film-making falters while teasing the preconceived notions of the audience.  

Despite the patchiness and protracted length of two hours and twelve minutes (I'm glad Teen-tera isn't a legitimate Hindi word), however, Dobaaraa engages more than it entertains. It subverts not just an average movie about time, but also an average time at the movies. By being centred on people whose lives are made and unmade by strangers on a television screen, Dobaaraa somehow speaks to the messy chemistry between art and life. It also works as a thriller on the myth of soulmates – one that bridges the void between not just fate and faith, but also chance and choice. Its unwitting depth is the mark of a good genre movie – it becomes what you want it to be. After all, the shortest distance between two parallel lines is our penchant to read between them. 

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