Dear Zindagi

dear-zindagi-poster

Gauri Shinde follows up English Vinglish with another heroine-centric film. The amazing Alia Bhatt is ably supported by a very fanciable Shah Rukh Khan, and I loved seeing some more realistic modern relationships in the story. But it’s a bit heavy-handed and there are a few things that left me vaguely dissatisfied.

This is Alia’s movie. She is Kaira, an up and coming cinematographer who lives alone in Mumbai, and pretty much does as she pleases. Kaira takes herself and her work very seriously, but she is fun in a bratty way. She has a closeknit group of friends – the smart one, the ditsy one, the chubby guy and the gay one. And that’s one of the issues. Her friends mean so much to her and yet we barely get to know them. Her relationship with her maid Alka is better developed. Kaira has issues with emotional intimacy and trust, and is destructive in her romantic relationships. That holding back may be why her friends are so shadowy, and there is a question about how much attention she really pays them. Her life is thrown into chaos when building management decide they will only let married couples and families live in the complex, and she is evicted for being single. She breaks up with nice but boring Sid (Angad Bedi), is jilted by not so nice but not boring Raghuvendra (Kunal Kapoor), and lands up at her family home in Goa where she meets Rumi (Ali Zafar). She’s in a bad place emotionally and career-wise; stressed, cranky, and not sleeping, she is a ball of nervous energy. Alia delivers the rapid play of emotions with honesty and commitment to Kaira in all her messiness.

In a clunky filmi coincidence, Kaira happens to be shooting a promo video at a hotel hosting a mental health awareness event. Dr Jehangir “Jug” Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) is the only speaker that makes sense to Kaira. He says that people are always prepared to talk about a physical ailment, but not their mental health, and surely the brain is just another part of the body.  She decides to go see him because she can’t sleep and no medicine has been able to help her. Jug does sometimes sound like an inspirational quote calendar (and I suspect Gauri Shinde watches too much Doctor Phil), but he gets through to Kaira largely by allowing her to discover her own answers. When Jug hears the opening he needs to set the next stage up he does it through conversation and prompting Kaira to articulate her feelings, not by telling her what to think. Shah Rukh gives the appearance of being present and spontaneous, and he and Alia have great chemistry. The inevitable transference scene was handled gracefully and was true to both Kaira and Jug’s characters. And who wouldn’t succumb to transference with Shah Rukh as their therapist?

I loved that the big name star didn’t show up until late in the first half and that he simply disappeared when his work was done, leaving to Kaira to continue on her way. It’s a gutsy move by Gauri Shinde and also by Shah Rukh to trust the story. Frankly I could watch Shah Rukh play kabaddi with the ocean for 2 ½ hours and would listen to him read the phone book (there’s an app idea for the insomniacs!) but I really do think he delivers a good and generous performance here.

It’s unusual to see a mainstream Indian film that doesn’t portray mothers as saints. When Kaira finally blows her top at the family and declares she is in therapy because of them, it’s the catalyst for some self-reflection for everyone. Except her little brother Kiddo (Rohit Saraf), a golden boy who has his own style of managing the parentals. It’s big, when you start to see your parents as human beings. She also struggles with her inner voice judging her for past dalliances. She calls herself a slut (some of the movie audience agreed, sadly) but Jug says as long as you understand yourself and know why you do what you do, then baseless judgement by others is irrelevant. How refreshing to have the nominal hero really not give a rats about who a young lady may have slept with, instead caring that she was able to articulate what she was looking for in a potential partner. And I like that Kaira does this without becoming sweet or saintly – she is still herself, just a bit more resilient and positive. So ladies, try those chairs out and make sure you get one that’s right for you!

I feel I should be able to say more about the support cast but they had little to do and even less material to work with. The romantic interests played by Angad Bedi, Kunal Kapoor and Ali Zafar are all OK-ish guys who Kaira liked for a time, but there is nothing to any of their characters. Her relationship with Rumi (Ali Zafar) is a little more interesting because she starts to ask for what she wants. Rohit Saraf looked and sounded perfect as Kaira’s little brother but he only got a couple of lines so I half wondered why the character was there. Ira Dubey and Yashaswini Dayama play the sensible friend and the ditsy friend, and Raj Bhansali is the gay friend who inadvertently plants the idea of seeing a therapist. They’re all good, but Gauri Shinde doesn’t develop their characters or give them scope to do it themselves.

I liked the visual design for Kaira and Jug’s worlds. Hers is full of colour and movement and herself while his is more restful and neutral, although both live in a state of work in progress. I felt that they actually inhabited these rooms and the spaces were shaped by the character, not just by the set dressers.

Amit Trivedi does what he always does. And seriously – stop with the banjoes. They do not make the music of love. I did laugh a lot at the cheesefest that is the title song. Alia got sent to take her inner Manic Pixie Dream Girl for a good run in the park, hugging trees, flying kites, marvelling at the ocean. The only things missing were a puppy and a mime.

Dear Zindagi is well worth seeing, but you may find your patience is tested…by the audience*! I loved Alia and Shah Rukh, and they rescue the film from some underdone writing and heavy handed message moments.

 

*A note on the audience. Judging by the fidgeting and volume of conversations it seems the desi boys of Melbourne were not so comfortable when they had to listen to a woman talking about herself, but were all rapt attention when it was Shah Rukh’s turn. A mate in London said some of the dialogues set off the homophobes in the crowd, and there was a little of that here too. A line about a character coming out was greeted with a bit of muttering and shushing while a tired old joke confusing Lebanese/Lesbian had most of the audience in stitches as they kind of missed the point of why that line was being trotted out. And a special shoutout to the lady who sat near me, texting for the whole film and then reading the messages to her husband.

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10 thoughts on “Dear Zindagi

  1. I laughed at your note about the audience. I was lucky, I think; the audience here at a late night show was pretty relaxed about it. And while SRK’s appearance was greeted with applause, the vibe was positive.

    I found the film very simplistic in its ‘solutions’ but like you, I liked that Kaira’s journey was her own; Jug only there to help her part of the way. I liked that the parents weren’t caricatures or stereotypes, but people, flawed, but essentially decent. That while ‘golden boy’ might be seemingly a favourite, it’s only because he’s doing the ‘right things’ – who knows, if he had decided to join films, perhaps he may have heard the same complaints.

    I really liked the relationship between the siblings; there’s no rancour there, and the brother seemed both supportive of his sis, and absolutely accepting of her choices, while wearing his ‘success’ lightly; one of the best scenes was his comment to his uncle after Kaira blows up and he goes in search of her.

    Alia is probably the finest female actor of her generation. I have watched every single one of her films (except for Udta Punjab) and am terribly impressed by how much she’s grown as an actor in so short a time. 4 years?

    As for SRK, I have heard from people who have worked with him that he’s an absolute delight to work with; he doesn’t come with baggage, and he’s an incredibly generous co-star. I liked him in this film, and I liked how Gauri had him exit too.

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    • I find Indian movie audiences (Hindi and South) are far more interactive so the amount of talking etc is usually fine. I think some people had persuaded themselves, despite all the PR positioning the film as Kaira’s story, that they were going to see SRK star in a rom-com and when they didn’t get that they were cranky.

      I liked that Kaira and Kiddo had such a nice and affectionate relationship but apart from that one excellent moment, Shinde didn’t really use Kiddo for much so he was a wasted opportunity. I wonder if having fewer of the supporting characters might have given more space for them to actually have characters and to have more complex interactions…But Alia is wonderful and I like that she just went with the character and didn’t try to make her more likeable or cutesy. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

      One of my friends has interviewed SRK several times and finds him very starry and very real at the same time. He seems prepared to have a go at a range of roles, and I like that he is confident enough in himself that he doesn’t have to try and take over every frame. He and Venkatesh both at least give the illusion they are really listening to their co-stars and are in the moment.

      Now I’m sure I’ve mentioned my thrilling stint as an uncredited crowd/random person in background extra on Chak De India. SRK was very generous with his time for the fans, and had to direct the crowd scenes because no one was listening to anyone but him. The guys on the crew would play soccer on the hockey pitch after pack up, and he really threw himself around. I’m sure they worried about breaking him mid-shoot but he seemed to be having fun and was quite competitive. And the Indian hockey girls seemed to like him and they would joke around a bit between scenes. But, based on all the hours of waiting around – that man will be late to his own funeral.

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  2. But, based on all the hours of waiting around – that man will be late to his own funeral.

    I have to laugh. This is something that all his heroines complain about. 🙂 But he’s well-liked by everyone on the set, from his co-stars (both male and female) to the lowest unit hand, and that’s high recommendation indeed. They say he’s very generous while filming, not worried only about his role. But yes, he’s very, very competitive.

    I’d the pleasure of meeting him when I was working with a newspaper, and I found him a very intelligent, very warm person. He has the knack of putting you at ease, and friends who have interviewed him since, say he wears his superstardom very lightly. He never comes with the baggage of being SRK.

    p.s. Yes, you did tell me about being on the Chak De sets. How exciting. 🙂

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  3. I enjoyed the film, too, even though it had a bit of a “message of the month” film, usually the purview of Aamir Khan [like Taare Zameen Par (aka How to Treat Autistic Children) and his upcoming Dangal (aka Girls are Just as Good as Boys, Even in Wrestling)] and got quite a bit of pleasure in the watching (especially Alia Bhatt’s luminous performance, and the glorious cinematography). Not that the messages are unimportant, and are quite worthy of addressing, just that these films can feel a bit obvious and heavy handed, to be taken like cinematic medicine. So, now that I have smiled and swallowed my dose of “Therapy IS Socially Acceptable,” I still am left with a question at the end.

    Possible spoilers…Possible spoilers…Possible spoilers…Possible spoilers…Possible spoilers…

    Why was Kaira’s therapy cut off so abruptly? Usually, that only happens over a long period of time, with a gradual easing away as the patient grows stronger. Maybe if we had seen Kaira approach Jug to ask for his help, we would have seen him say, “I only have a two month window of time to work with you”, but that scene wasn’t there. All we saw was Jug disappearing for one appointment, and when he came back, he said, “we have one visit left”?? I had Kal Ho Naa Ho vibes…is Aman, I mean Jug, going to tell her that he’s sick or dying? Or has he had a reconciliation with his gori ex-wife? Who knows? My viewing partner thought that Jug was having inappropriate feelings for her, and was physically removing himself from temptation. I’m not sure. What do you think?

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  4. *SPOILER*

    Jenny, if I may jump in… Kaira was only supposed to be in Goa for three months until she left for NY for her big break. And she only goes to Jeh a month into her stay. So he tells her that their initial agreement was for 8 sessions. He is adamant about keeping to that agreement because he’s beginning to be attracted to her.

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  5. Now that’s interesting, Anu…I know she was going to be in Goa for a short time, but the version of the film I saw didn’t have any mention of how many sessions they had agreed on or any statements on his part about his attraction. It makes sense, but I didn’t see that/those scenes. I felt as if something was missing. I wonder if the US version is cut down? It’s running at two hours and 31 minutes, according to IMDb. Where are you and what is your running time? But thanks for the clarification.

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    • Hi Jenny – I’m just jumping in with a “yeah, what Anu said” 🙂 I didn’t pick up the actual number of sessions but knew it was limited by her schedule. The subtitles were not exact in some places, which even I noticed with my mangled Hindi, so I don’t think it’s a different cut 🙂 And I think Anu is usually in the USA too? I think the attraction issue was raised and dealt with in the scene where he discussed transference with her, and Jug was honest with himself and Kaira about his attraction to her. I don’t think he absolutely ruled out further therapy somewhere down the line – I think he may have even said something about if she recognised she had fallen into another pattern and needed help breaking it although he may have meant she needed to find someone else when that happened- but he did rule a definite line under this current phase. Cheers 🙂 Temple

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  6. Jenny, I’m in the US, and yes, there were some scenes cut, especially because I’d seen them in the teaser trailer. But there’s not an explicit mention of the number of sessions, until the end when Jeh tells her she only had 8 sessions. Combined with Kaira saying that she was going to be in Goa for three months, and then spending a month before she lands up in therapy, I’m putting 2 + 2 together and making 5 probably. 🙂

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