Somewhere after the interval, a gentleman sitting behind me in the cinema hall let fly these profound words in a markedly stylish, know-all accent, “Someone tell this b*** to get a life.” My first instinct was to turn around and request the stony (if not stoned) voiced drawler to get another cinema hall. But then, I’d have missed out on the proceedings in front. Shortly thereafter, I had the pleasure of hearing these pearls of wisdom from the same source, “She was f***** good in Udta Punjab, she’s so f***** dumb here.” Is she now? Or, was she struggling to find a normal life amidst the humongous challenges of relationships and distractions that modern life was throwing at her? Is it just her, or is this the angst of millennials and post-millennials, as they deal with a life that’s reflecting the Janus-faced portrait of opportunities and emotionally crippling challenges?
Director Gauri Shinde, out on her second venture behind the camera, introduces you to one such millennial in Dear Zindagi (Dear Life) she being the she in the introduction and the subject of derision in the hall. Meet Kaira (Koko to her friends, played by Alia Bhatt), a smart and ambitious cinematographer, looking for that one big break beyond the usual patchwork she’s made to do in movies. Hope arrives in the form of Raghuvendra (Kunal Kapoor), the producer on the current movie she’s shooting abroad, and a big new movie he wants to make in NYC. And he wants her to be the cinematographer. And no, it’s not because they’ve slept together during the current project. But Kaira’s already got a boyfriend, and it’s up to her to inform Sid (Angad Bedi) about the transgression and that she’s already out of him. She does this without qualms, and then it’s another house party with her besties, Fatima/Fatty (Ira Dubey) and Jackie (Yashaswini Dayama).
And so life continues for Kaira, as she now looks forward to working on the new mega-project with Raghu and get away from a long-distance, nagging mother in Goa, a concerned father, and of course their constant incomportable demand of her getting married. The problem is, Raghu wants to take their relationship forward, Kaira is as inscrutable as she can be, hesitant to say or do anything, pushing her commitment phobia down with another drink and dancing with a stranger in the pub. It’s only when Kaira receives devastating news about Raghu that she crumbles completely, and in a twist of fate – that will be familiar to Mumbaikars living out of rented homes in and around South of the city – is forced to take the absolutely obnoxious (for her) and unacceptable, nidicolous decision. But that’s how life shoots out its plans, and off to Goa she goes, even as her bestie, Jackie arrives in Goa to live in her own house. Life’s now insufferable for Kaira, as she’s constantly hounded by the big M word, and in fear of getting asphyxiated, vamooses to live with Jackie.
A chance encounter at a convention leads her to start consulting shrink Jehangir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan), and this is where the director begins to slowly reveal Kaira’s past, her hurt, and the choices she makes. Jehangir or Jug, and you, in the second half slowly begin to discover the hypogealic causes of Kaira’s outer seismic disturbances and anger. You realize, amidst chuckles and smiles, what’s making her tick, what’s causing her insomnia, and what’s making her so averse to relationships. Director and writer Shinde (she also wrote the screenplay for this project) keeps the best parts of the movie a conversation set-piece, the banter between the lost, confused, and brimming with anger Kaira and the calm, twinkly-eyed Jug the highlights of the movie. Sure, some of the dialogues are downright corny – I especially found the relationships-and- chair analogy absolutely hairbrained, but somewhere in there – in all the cinematic liberties that Jug takes as Kaira’s shrink, one that’d have the Indian Psychiatrist Association’s collective couches in a twist – are some truly eye-opening questions that make you relook the actions we all take to endear ourselves to others; the choices in relationships we make or don’t – and how all of this, is somehow, connected to the way we’re wired, that in turn, has its cortical connection to our childhood environment and choices others made for us.
Dear Zindagi keeps its course at auto-light and generally flimsy-coated, but also takes a genial look at life and its complications – the former procreated by somebody else, the latter entirely self-created. Keeping the movie on course is also the almost all-round extremely top notch cast – Ira Dubey is absolute fun as the pregnant friend who’s miffed when nothing’s made much of her baby bump; Yashaswini Dayama sparkles as the friend all of us would love to have, dispensing drunken advice when you least want it, and giving out an aww-inducing hug when you most need it. Of Kaira’s many dates and relationships, Kunal Kapoor is simply superb – his act a smooth operation of likeability and believability; Ali Zafar, however, smirks with pretentiousness and full of himself-ness – so much, in fact, that you almost wonder what makes Kaira go to him at all. You don’t act like a hot property to become one, and that’s a lesson the other actor hands out with ease and comfort.
And that is Shah Rukh Khan. Making his entry almost an hour into the movie, he’s absolutely winsome and a steady sparkler in this project. The actor brings a fluffy, facetious touch to his character and scenes, and even when dispensing the most ludicrously worded advice, sprays it with a voice inflection and not-taking-myself-too-seriously expression that’s so very effective, all you can do is smile, forgetting that any other actor might have made you squirm. Not in one scene does he struggle or try to snag the scene for himself, content for Alia Bhatt to hog the emotional limelight, his act a portrait of maturity and genteel flourishes.
As Kaira, Alia Bhatt is present in all the frames, all the time, the movie’s tripod and vehicle at the same time. The very antithesis of Sridevi’s Shashi Godbole in Shinde’s debut, English Vinglish – who loves her family but is taken by granted for them – she’s bristling with anger at her emotionally-encumbered behaviour and self-realized innate inability to steady herself, Bhatt’s performance is the headliner for the movie. She dips in the role with her reactions to life’s curveballs an instinctively honed reaction, in the process soaking you with the after-effects that the plot and direction brews. Look at her sniffing at a new book that’s delivered in the courier – such a natural touch there; or, when she chews at a green chilli, hoping that that burning pain will scald away her emotional wound, and then sniffling, goes back to the edit room, her tears a flowing combination of spice and hurt. And when Alia Bhatt finally does lash out at her family, it’s a cracker of a scene, her anger flowing out in an incoherent chronology, the scene’s tension broken by another cracker.
Amit Trivedi composes a low-key score for Dear Zindagi, the tracks hummable and likeable. Love You Zindagi, sung by Jasleen R an indefagitable celebration of life, Amit Trivedi’s backing vocals soaring with hope and joy; Just Go To Hell Dil on the other end of the spectrum, the violins, the tune and Sunidhi Chauhan and Amit Trivedi’s vocals a hopeless indictment of life’s problems.
Dear Zindagi ‘s simplistic approach is not a solution to anything at all. Kaira’s problems might not be relatable to you at all. But the next time you look at today’s kids and grudge them the choices they have, also think about how those very choices can be so unsettling and unnerving in a cut-throat and unrelenting world of demanding careers, relationships, and supposed connectedness, especially for women. Amidst all the strain and pain, perhaps the only choice is plumbing for the chair analogy – all of us can only hope for that space and that chair that’s most comforting and comfortable for us. In that, a woman stumbling around, struggling to find what works for her and what doesn’t isn’t her being dumb. It’s her finding her chair of solace, even if it means testing a revolting spring coil like Ali Zafar. Just for that brave realisation, my curmudgeon friend in the cinema hall, here’s three cheers and chairs for life.
Dear Zindagi is rated UA (parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years). There’s mild reference to sex and supposedly inappropriate behaviour. There’s lots of talk in the shrink’s room, that might make your children fidget and then wail to leave the cinema hall. What chair will you choose for them?
Director Gauri Shinde Running Time 2h 32 min
Writer Gauri Shinde
Stars Alia Bhatt, Shah Rukh Khan, Ira Dubey, Yashaswini Dayama, Kunal Kapoor
Genres Drama, Romance
Watch the teaser trailer of Dear Zindagi here: