In a telling sequence in Zoya Akhtar’s latest exploration of luxe angst, an overwrought matriarch threatens to slash her wrists with a butter knife.
Akhtar takes a similarly smooth-edged approach to the hard truths that confront her Delhi champagne set in Dil Dhadakne Do. The story, written by Akhtar and Reema Kagti with dialogue by Farhan Akhtar, follows Kamal and Neelam Mehra (Anil Kapoor and Shefali Shah), who are marking 30 years of a marriage built on compromise rather than shared passion by bundling immediate and extended family and friends onto a luxury cruise liner.
For all their affluence, the Mehras are staunchly middle-class in their values. The extra baggage that has been loaded onto the Sovereign Valetta includes the precarious financial state of Kamal’s company, Neelam’s struggle to keep up appearances, the emotionally hollow marriage of their daughter Ayesha (Priyanka Chopra) and the thwarted ambitions of their son Kabir (Ranveer Singh), who is being offered to a rival businessman as a son-in-law to tide over the cash-flow crisis.
Once the Mehras and their finely attired company settle into the ship, equilibrium is tossed around like pasta on the rough seas, relationships shatter and mend, love is kindled and rekindled. The boat rocks but steadies quickly, and some adventures leave a greater impression than the others. Kabir, a gentle soul who is overshadowed by his strong-willed father, falls for one of the ship’s dancers, Farah (Anushka Sharma). The perfect equation between Ranveer Singh and Anushka Sharma combines with Singh’s ever-growing maturity as a performer to make his status-unconscious romance with Farah one of Dil Dhadakne Do’s most endearing tracks.
The ding-dong relationship between the Mehra couple veers unconvincingly between absurdist comedy and deep tragedy, and it never helps that bracing moments of truth, such as Kamal’s philandering ways, often dissolve into laughs. Despite the tonal inconsistency, Anil Kapoor and Shefali Shah are a treat to watch, channeling their divergent experiences as actors into the difficult roles of unbending parents who refuse to believe that their children are not adolescents any more.
Ayesha’s fish-cold relationship with her husband Manav (Rahul Bose) and her increasing doubts over her marital future once her ex-boyfriend Sunny (Farhan Akhtar) joins the party, are not as properly realised, but Priyanka Chopra makes a fine fist of her successful yet submissive entrepreneur, whose abiding sense of duty has made her more miserable than she realises.
There’s actually tremendous scope here for a cruel family farce at the heart of this multi-strand narrative. But Akhtar weighs on the side of kindness to ensure that every emotional hurdle is low enough to be easily crossed. The filmmaker has enough of a taste for bitters to allow the Mehras’ happy family façade to crumble. But she has a bigger sweet tooth, which ensures that life’s intractable realities are tackled into submission through plot contrivances, simplistic observations and lectures on women’s liberation (delivered by a male character) and individual freedom.
Akhtar takes her time reaching her destination. There is enough momentum in the 170-minute film to smoothly move from one scene to the next just when it threatens to linger for too long, although the songs by composers Shankar-Ehsan Loy are shoehorned into the narrative rather than fitting in easily.
A plot device that is inconsistently deployed is the droll commentary provided by the family dog Pluto, a bullmastiff whose thoughts are voiced by Aamir Khan. Pluto delivers an earful in a movie that is always an eyeful. It is as expensively designed as Akhtar’s previous films, with enough detours into Turkey’s most tourist-friendly delights to remind us that ultimately, we are in the middle of a fantasy of privilege.
In her previous movie, the enjoyable Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Akhtar set a goal for her three leading men. Each took up one challenging adventure sport whose successful completion signaled the journey from boyhood to adulthood. The goal is less clearly defined in Dil Dhadakne Do, and it is achieved at a greater price, but there is never any doubt that when all is said and done, the Mehras and their buddies will return to golf and high tea as wiser and better human beings.
Like American director Sofia Coppola, Akhtar has tremendous fondness for the widely reviled one per cent. Akhtar luxuriates in beautiful clothes, accessories and experiences that only a few can afford, and her refusal to judge her well-shod characters beyond mild knocks at their self-absorption and naiveté allows us to forgive them their preciousness and vicariously take a vacation at their expense.
The travails of the poor little rich were more sharply explored in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, which similarly used a captive setting to herd together conflicting emotions and expose uncomfortable family secrets. Shefali Shah, who plays Neelam, was at the centre of the ugly truth of incest that Monsoon Wedding so adroitly explored. For all its efforts, Dil Dhadakne Do doesn’t have one standout sequence that lays bare the nastiness that fester in some families. The Mehras are mildly troubled rather than seriously dysfunctional. They have one crucial scene together, inspired partly by The War of the Roses, when Kabir decides to end the lies once and for all. Like other such scenes, this one too suffers from the butter-knife treatment when it actually needed a razor.