Dear Zindagi has the longest prelude in recent memory – endless soft-focus montages, friendly banter, and lovable close-ups and fly-on-the-wall footage of the magnificent Alia Bhatt as a romantically confused cinematographer, all of which seem to be adding up to something vague or nothing at all.
That is, until the moment writer and director Gauri Shinde stops the gimmicks and comes to the heart of the matter: is a woman in her early twenties allowed to fall for her much older therapist – especially since he is played by Shah Rukh Khan?
Dear Zindagi presents the superstar minus the forced dimpling and head nods that some still love (and many have grown to detest). But he is still identifiably Shah Rukh Khan, the dispenser of good cheer, pleasure and selfless love. Khan’s therapist Jehangir watches quietly as Kaira unburdens herself of a family secret that is responsible for her emotional stunting, and then gracefully handles the younger woman’s confession with professional calm and just a hint of regret. In these sequences, beautifully written and paced and heartrendingly performed by two generations of movie stars, Dear Zindagi belatedly springs to life.
A bolder movie might have played the situation in reverse: a woman repeatedly unlucky in love spars with an older and experienced player, but realises that she is better off punching in her own weight class. Instead, Dear Zindagi takes the conventional route even as it tries to reinvent the standard Bollywood romance. Kaira (Bhatt) is a poor little beautiful woman who cannot make her relationships last. This perfect sample of womanhood has a restless heart, which has rejected Sid (Angad Bedi) for Raghuvendra (Kunal Kapoor), been broken by Raghuvendra, and flirted with Rumi (Ali Fazal). Some women lose love never to find it again. Kaira has a problem of plenty.
Shinde’s movie moves in a different direction from her debut English Vinglish but shares with the 2012 film a preference for casually perfect beauty, wish fulfillment and an unwillingness to confront the messy nature of complexity. Kaira should have been as wrung out as a mop by the time she lands up at the office of her dishy life coach masquerading as a therapist, but she is none too worse for the wear. She cannot sleep, she says, but she has no dark circles.
Jehangir’s bumper-sticker advice helps Kaira understand her fear of commitment. Among Jehangir’s Patch Adams-worthy gems is the comparison drawn between selecting a chair and trying out a new lover: we need variety in romance, na, just as we don’t need to like the first chair we see? Thus liberated, can Kaira be truly free of her past and embrace her feelings for Jehangir – or is it too late because the end credits are minutes away?
A convoluted route has brought Kaira to Jehangir’s door. Despite being a cinematographer in a highly privileged and deracinated enclave that has none of the heat and dust of the real India, Kaira balks at the thought of seeing a “dimaag ka doctor”. She is finally persuaded to become Jehangir’s patient only after he has proven that he is irreverent, funny, and an upgraded version of the Shah Rukh Khan of the 1990s.
Kaira’s instrumentalist and impersonal relationships with her parents and friends (played by, among others, Ira Dubey and Yashaswini Dayama) barely elicit comment. A tougher director would have exposed Kaira’s me-above-all-else selfishness and unerring ability to leave a trail of misery in her wake. But Shinde is too adoring of both Kaira and the actress who plays her so marvellously to disturb the perfect picture.
The naturalistic acting style and conversational dialogue indicate that Dear Zindagi doesn’t want to be lumped together with other plasticky Hindi romcoms. Many of the scenes have a welcome improvisational quality, and although they don’t cohere into a convincing whole, they prove that Bhatt is the most exciting actress of her generation, with an ability to rattle off pages of dialogue as easily as she can make a man’s heart stop for many dangerous seconds. Khan sportingly reins in his flamboyance and settles for the role of the marquee veteran acknowledging that the popular Hindi film as we know it has changed for good.
But the solutions are still too pat to be considered anything but Bollywood. Amit Trivedi’s disposable songs heavily underline what has already been heavily underlined in the dialogue (rendered in Hindi and then translated in English). There is little scope here to misunderstand Kaira’s emotional graph. Only the discerning viewer will ignore the wall-to-wall chatter and relentless ruminations to detect the perfectly serviceable romcom that lies hidden within the 150 minutes.
“Genius is all about knowing when to stop,” Jehangir tells Kaira, but of all the bits of WhatsApp wisdom floating around in the movie, this piece of advice goes unheeded. Shinde chooses the easier option. In his first session with Kaira, Jehangir advises her to take the easier route to happiness: why bother to scale the mountain when you can stroll in the park instead? Only movie stars can deliver such cornball sentiment with so much sincerity. Since Dear Zindagi doesn’t tinker with this basic quality of the Bollywood romance, it’s all good.