Zoya Akhtar is a difficult filmmaker to understand. She has made three feature films and one short so far, and yet you will be hard pressed to find a clear-cut narrative in her filmography. Her debut, and also her finest film till date, Luck By Chance, was a reflective take on the mysterious workings of Bollywood. Her next, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, a coming-of-age drama centred on the plush locales in Spain, had scarcely anything in common with her first. This one had a much bigger scale, quick and easy epiphanies, and a crowd-pleasing climax. Unlike Luck By Chance, Zindagi Na Dobara was a world where things just … magically fell in place. So was this the way forward for Akhtar? Turns out, no. Her next film, Sheila Ki Jawani, one of the shorts from the portmanteau Bombay Talkies, which I found to be the best film of the lot, had unmistakable shades of Luck By Chance’s Akhtar—much like her debut, this film was about ordinary, restless people trying to realise their dreams that typically looked out of sight, if not downright impossible. Akhtar’s followed up that modest outing with her biggest film till date, Dil Dhadakne Do—a film whose canvas is so huge that you will have to crane your neck to completely absorb its might. Packed with several Bollywood A-listers (Priyanka Chopra, Ranveer Singh, Anushka Sharma, Anil Kapoor and Aamir Khan (as the voiceover artist)), Dil Dhadakne Do revolves around the lives of a few affluent families who embark on a cruise that takes them to several countries around the world.
When it comes to dealing with opulence, we are a touchy lot. And it’s not difficult to understand why. India is still largely a poor country, and display of inordinate wealth in movies often invites raised eyebrows and unmitigated derision. It also has a lot to do with the fact that filmmaking, especially in mainstream Bollywood, has been a profession of the privileged. The line of logic, as voiced by many, is quite simple: Is it even possible to relate to such characters who have got everything on a platter? Who are these people, and why should we care about them? But, most importantly, why are they pretending that their lives are sad and unfulfilled? This is the same point of view that equates anything prosperous to superficial, even trivial, and sees films about the lives of affluent as nothing more than a condensed version of First World Problems that not only reek of exclusivity but also of superficiality. Akhtar hasn’t been an exception; she came under the scanner for Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara—a film that was castigated less for its flaws, more for her audacity to celebrate opulence on screen. With Dil Dhadakne Do, Akhtar has nonchalantly upped the ante, as if inviting her naysayers for a fresh duel.
Much like Akhtar’s oeuvre, Dil Dhadakne Do is a strange film to understand. It begins with a fascinating device: a mastiff, Pluto Mehra (voiced by Aamir Khan), introducing the key characters of the film, the Mehra family. But you soon begin to question the effectiveness of this choice because Pluto introduces every member in painstaking detail and, by doing so, reduces the film’s characters and their relationships to a list of simplistic summaries. As a result, for a good one third of the film, we don’t get a fair sense of who these people are, except for the fact that they are rich and hence, as the film seems to suggest, not of any serious consideration. Pluto’s voiceover doesn’t just make the characters more unfamiliar; it also spoon-feeds information that is easily discernible. So we understand, as early in the film’s first five minutes, that Kabir Mehra (Ranveer Singh) is burdened with carrying forward his family’s legacy because he doesn’t have the acumen for family business (as evidenced by a scene where he falters in front of a potential investor in a team meeting only to be bailed out by his dad in time), so why do we need Pluto to remind us of Kabir’s incompetence again? How difficult was it to show that Kamal Mehra (Anil Kapoor) and Neelam Mehra (Shefali Shah) are enduring a loveless marriage? Similarly, it wouldn’t have been very difficult to show that Ayesha Mehra (Priyanka Chopra) has been sidelined from her family, too. If “Show, don’t tell,” is a hallmark of assured screenwriting, and its opposite, “Tell, don’t show” a mark of lazy writing, then “Show and tell” is one of those decidedly unsuccessful combinations: laziness courting timidity. These flaws are all the more perplexing because you don’t expect such sloppiness in a screenplay written by Akhtar and her long-standing collaborator, Reema Kagti, who are known for writing scenes informed by economy and bite. So for nearly the first hour of the film, we respond to Dil Dhadakne Do’s characters as labels—or as representations of ideas—rather than people. So you have a wealth-obsessed father, a neglected and bitchy housewife, a directionless son and a self-made daughter (who is also a dissatisfied wife). If the film deals with the core members of the Mehra family as a litany of hollow adjectives, it doesn’t treat its peripheral characters any better. Nearly every friend of the Mehras is presented as superficial, petty and self-centred. After a point you begin to wonder about the world that Dil Dhadanke Do is attempting to sketch: How come there’s not one character in this movie that comes with their sets of complexities and contradictions? Why is this film not talking about people but a tediously predictable worldview? These parts irk because Akhtar’s not only talking about something that many have suspected for long—that the rich are indeed shallow—but also because she doesn’t take her argument forward; as a result, we are left to contend with a bunch of trite scenes. It’s pretty apparent that Akhtar is trying to mock her characters, exaggerating their quirks to the extent that they become farcical, but her attempts often come across as strained and obvious, as if trying to repeat a joke that we have already heard a number of times.
But just when you think that it’s all over— that this film may have nothing left to offer —Akhtar slowly begins to up her game, and we begin to see the full extent of her ambition. The characters pretty much still remain the same (with the exception of a new character, Sunny (Farhan Akhtar)), but via backstories, sprinkled very intelligently at various points, we see these characters in a new light, in a more wholesome fashion: What they wanted and what they settled for instead. At this point onwards, there’s much humour in the film, too, deft writing flourishes that thwart our expectations from a film like this. So when Anil Mehra gets hospitalised because of a stroke, we expect a sombre scene designed to tug at our heart strings and, possibly, manipulate us, but instead we get an immensely enjoyable anti-climax: We get to know that there’s really nothing to worry because Kamal’s suffering from a minor “gas problem”. The film saves its sharpest wit for scenes like these, ones involving the Family, where moments of acute tension are repeatedly undone by flippant slice-of-life observations, which tell us that family dynamics is much more unpredictable than what many Bollywood films have led us to believe for long. Another similar scene has Kabir very helpfully instructing Ayesha’s histrionic mother-in-law that if she indeed wants to cut herself, she would do well to hold the real knife as opposed to a butter knife that currently rests in her fidgety hand.
Later on in the film, we also get to see what Akhtar and Kagti are really good at—distilling the insecurities of their characters in just one scene. When Kamal and Neelam are getting ready for a party, Kamal stands beside his wife for a few seconds, looks himself in the mirror, fixes his tie and leaves the room, and Neelam intently looks back at him, not saying anything, but presumably contemplating, “Does this man never notice me?” And eventually, Zoya gets back to what she’s best at: not only letting her characters do the talking but also allowing the frame to compliment the on-screen dialogues. Take, for instance, the scene where Sunny, standing on the cruise’s dock, tells Ayesha that he will always remember his boundaries (that he is the son of her father’s manager), the schmaltziness of this line is offset by the unending expanse of the sea that faces his back, almost telling him that the only boundaries are the ones we create for ourselves. Dil Dhadakne Do, as we eventually find out, is also about the coexistence of different worlds, where the sadness of frigid and crumbling marriages is offset by burgeoning love between a twenty-something couple (both minor characters), whose expressions of romantic and carnal desires are materialised by delicate flicking of little fingers and a hesitant peck on the cheek.
At its finest, Dil Dhadakne Do is a riveting critique of umpteen melodramatic Bollywood films (while quite wickedly revelling in some of the melodrama itself) made on the lives of the rich and famous, but it could have easily benefitted from consistent writing, sharper observations and a life-like rhythm. In many ways, Dil Dhadakne Do is a companion piece to Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara—here, too, we have a narrator who keeps trying to summarise several crucial moments in the film (if Zindagi … had Farhan’s Imraan, an aspiring poet, trying to understand love, heartbreak and longing through his couplets, Dil … has Khan’s Pluto trying to understand why humans are the way they are), which often come across as intrusive and, at its worst, instructive.
Dil Dhadakne Do could have been that spectacular achievement, a film that could have arrived at the true meaning of privilege and its capabilities to empower and cripple, showing how we often mangle the real meaning of wealth. Could such a film been powerful and profound? Yes, because are we not above the sum total of our possessions? Because isn’t that the very nature of sadness and despair, that they still remain—even today, in these times of avarice and depravity—the greatest equalizers?
An edited version of this review was published at the Wire.