It’s quite ironic that I’m sitting here in Goa and writing about Dear Zindagi. Not because most of the film is set in Goa. But because Film Bazaar, the NFDC-organised film market which runs parallel to IFFI, just got over yesterday.
Meeting all kinds of delegates from all over the world in the last four days has driven me to believe that the identity of “an Indian film” has never been more questionable. For foreign producers and festival organisers and sales agents, Bollywood continues to be achyut because “they are just song and dance” and “the real Indian film” has to be slow-moving, about poor people in slums or villages or at least be “exotic”. For Indian studios, it’s still about a cracker of a story, hordes of stars and unreal, fantastical Mirzyas and Mohenjo Daros.
DEAR ZINDAGI (U/A)
Director: Gauri Shinde
Cast: Alia Bhatt, Shah Rukh Khan, Kunal Kapoor, Angad Bedi, Ali Zafar
Running time: 149 minutes
And then I watched Dear Zindagi today. It is produced by Dharma and Red Chillies and stars two of the biggest stars of Bollywood in Shah Rukh Khan and Alia Bhatt. But neither is it a larger-than-life fantasy nor is it selling an exotic India. Because urban, good-looking people with picture-perfect homes can be fragile too and lead vacuous lives and their existential crisis may also have universal resonance.
Gauri Shinde has earned this film. Her directorial debut, the heartwarming English Vinglish, not only conquered the domestic box office but also moved audiences on foreign shores with great theatrical run in Japan and China. She could have made any film as a follow-up but has chosen to again tell a story that is close to her heart, place it in a world she understands and not bow to the bazaar like many others before her.
One moment in the film perhaps best captures the crisis of Kaira (Alia) and millions of young people like her. It’s late at night and she fishes out her cellphone and types out texts like “I hate you” and “I miss you” and then deletes them fast and furious... What’s more telling is that the possible recipients are two different men plus her landlord and in that vulnerable moment she can send the same message to any of the three and be equally satisfied or devastated.
Dear Zindagi is not just about the young heart’s struggle to commit to relationships but also perhaps the highs of living for the moment and the lows of that moment fading away. It’s just for the record that one guy (welcome-back Kunal Kapoor) is a film producer possibly hooking up with his ex and another guy (still-around Ali Zafar) just can’t stop singing even if the song is about her; Kaira detaches herself from these men as easily as she gravitates towards them.
Dr Jehangir Khan (Shah Rukh) calls these men “chairs”. “You try them out before picking one”. Jug is a DD — “Dimaag ka Doctor” — the psychiatrist Kaira starts visiting in her hometown in Goa. In actuality, he is the film’s authorial voice, spelling out the putting-mind-at-ease solutions to problems, narrating funny but apt anecdotes and analogies.
It’s with the cool doc’s entry 45 minutes into the film that Dear Zindagi really gets into its groove. His sessions with Kaira, although sometimes bordering on preachy, are the best scenes of the film. You want to be in that room listening to them or play kabaddi against the waves with them or just go cycling with them on the tree-caved roads of Goa.
But because the film is mostly talk, bereft of theatrics, and very little action in terms of plot, Dear Zindagi also often gets into these difficult zones of monotony and the songs in the background don’t really help. At two-and-a-half hours it’s unfortunately bound to challenge your patience at the theatres.
And this despite two fine performances in the lead. As seen first in Highway, Alia can really let you enter her inner world at will and the camera just lingering on her face conveys way more than a fast montage set to music. Her big catharsis scene leaves you breathless.
It is very heartening to see SRK put his muscle behind — and his mind to — a film like this. His interviews and public speeches have always been hypnotic and for Gauri to cast him as a gyan-giving therapist is a bit of genius. The brief, the toughest in the world of acting, must have been to be himself and Shah Rukh follows it to the tee. Look at his eyes as he listens to Alia reminiscing her past and you realise how deep the actor in him can dive in the moment.
Sometimes an awkward handshake and sometimes a big hug, but never a fake air kiss, Dear Zindagi deserves love and support. It is that faint glimmer of hope that Indian mainstream cinema doesn’t always need to be locked up in boxes and be fluid enough to take the shape it chooses. Let that chair creak... it’s been comfortably numb way too long.
Pratim D. Gupta
Do you want SRK to do more hatke films like Dear Zindagi? Tell firstname.lastname@example.org