We students of Hindi films always make a pre-release assessment of a film, honed by a near-lifetime of watching Hindi cinema analytically. Over decades, certain beliefs and assumptions built within us are proved, disproved or discarded, and newer understanding, I dare say even assumptions, and depth of knowledge come in.
Over two decades down as a weekly critic, specializing in Hindi cinema (predominantly mainstream), I have arrived at a ‘safe’ conclusion: that a film in its totality, pre-release, can be generally judged accurately by who the DIRECTOR is. As against this is the knowledge born out of experience that often a director’s first films and second films can be two extremes in content and caliber.
This works two ways: a bad/flop first movie can find the director zoom tall in his second, and vice-versa. This depends on whether a filmmaker who is captain of the ship (and decides everything in and about it from content to budget and from the composed frames to the heroine’s accessories) learns lessons right and wrong from the first success/good film.
Reflect then, upon how Aanand L. Rai suddenly evolved from a pathetic “Strangers” (2008) to “Tanu Weds Manu” (2010), or on the regressive journey we saw with Sagar Ballary from “Bheja Fry” (2007) to “Bheja Fry 2” (2012).
Why am I expanding on all this here? Because “Dear Zindagi” shatters the hopes I had in a woman of high intelligence (having met her) who helmed one of the finest films in the last decade — “English Vinglish.” (2012). Maybe Gauri Shinde thought she was getting to make “better” (as in more global) cinema, maybe she had more resources and higher funders at her disposal this time, or maybe she wanted to experiment and do what she wanted (the trip that most filmmakers tend to go on nowadays, which boomerangs when exceptional acumen is not there).
Maybe it was all of these together.
And yes, the release of this film in the U.S. before its “country of manufacture” (India) is significant, more so because the intellectual critics there have given it a thumbs-up. But Shinde should have realized that foreigners like what they think is great cinema, whereas her country of origin has such a diverse audience that they like totally varied but TRULY audience-friendly cinema, like her simple but stunning debut 4 years ago! In India, content is king because the audience is emperor! And films like “English Vinglish” are rightly termed “truly great.”
So to return to “Near Zindagi,” my pre-release vibe is hopelessly off-target — this time.
Basically, the film moves into Imtiaz Ali zone again (like another recent Karan Johar production with Shah Rukh Khan in a cameo — “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil”). It is about a confused young woman named Kayra (Alia Bhatt), romantically hobnobbing with an equally rudderless and confused colleague Raghu (Kunal Kapoor). She sleeps with him on location, confesses as much to restaurateur- boyfriend Sid (Angad Bedi), who dumps her. Or is it the reverse?
Shattered, Mumbai’s “best aspiring cinematographer” (as Raghu puts it) Kayra returns to hometown Goa, and tries to pick up her life. Trouble is, she hates her parents and parenting in general and behaves like a super-brat. On assignment (a small job brought by her father’s friend), she stumbles upon Dr Jahangir Khan aka Jug (Shah Rukh Khan), a psychiatrist so unconventional that he goes on long walks or rides with her, unburdens his past and soul there, and finally finds himself to be her objet d’amor, which he explains will be beyond “professional” ethics if reciprocated.
After bore-a-thon sessions that finally unravel why Kayra is a brat-cum-confused woman, she is set right. But the reason seems piffling — poor parents trying to cope with a major business snafu and a chance outside Goa to make it big again. We do not know why Kayra is left behind with grandparents for this as she is just six years old or so (she calls it being abandoned). Especially when the parents, in times of financial duress, can come up with a second child!
Jag finally teaches Kayra not to “Fear Zindagi” and get on beyond her “Unclear Zindagi” to illuminate her that even older people (as in parents) are fallible humans “like all of us.” He advises her to use her experience from her “Rear Zindagi” to go to her parents and make friends (Kayra offers flowers out of the blue to mom—she could well have watched “Lage Raho Munna Bhai”!).
A new passing boyfriend, a musician named Rumi (Ali Zafar) has already made her “Hear Zindagi” (a song inspired by her and already recorded in a day or two of acquaintance!) and after all the “Tears Zindagi” Kayra makes her own film (her dream) and invites all her exes (and whys) to the screening (a la Raj Kapoor as “Mera Naam Joker”!) with proud relatives beaming.
She has moved on, see? Unlike the 2.27 minutes that forces us to “Bear (this) Zindagi.” DOP Laxman Utekar, composer Amit Trivedi, lyricist Kausar Munir, Alia Bhatt, Shah Rukh Khan, Kunal Kapoor, Yashaswini Dayama, Aditya Roy Kapur in that one scene in the climax, all deserve compliments as well as consolations for doing skilled jobs in a futile exercise.
Khan, especially, is phenomenally likeable — here is a megastar consistently wasting his chimera, charisma and caliber in wrong cinematic company. Bhatt is evolving almost by the film. Unlike “Udta Punjab” where her character was backed by costumes, make-up and dialect, here she has to play a more difficult role — by investing shades and nuances into a ‘today’s’ urban young and ambitious girl. That she makes you wish her parents should give her one tight slap in the first half is an actor’s triumph more than the script’s.
The fundamental issue resurfaces: Does a filmmaker consider it important enough to want to connect with the Indian audiences at all? Or to just indulge the deviant filmmaker lurking inside at someone else’s expense? And of course, the axiom: keep lead characters strong, even if with failings, and do not turn them into confused people, or losers who cannot possibly get the audience to empathize or (when in trouble) sympathize with them.
Rating: ** (Just about, and * shared by Khan and Bhatt alone!)
Red Chillies Entertainment, Dharma Productions, Hope Productions present “Dear Zindagi”
Produced by: Gauri Khan, Karan Johar and Gauri Shinde
Written and directed by: Gauri Shinde
Music: Amit Trivedi
Starring: Alia Bhatt, Shah Rukh Khan, Kunal Kapoor, Aditya Roy Kapur, Ali Zafar, Angad Bedi, Ira Dubey, Yashaswini Dayama, Keshav Uppal, Rohit Saraf and others.