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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Don 2

Don 2 was so much fun! I really like the 2006 film, and this is a great second chapter. Don 2 is not a police procedural or an examination of the drug trade. It’s one man’s fight to get his life back and live on his own terms. Does it matter that his life is based on drugs, murder and mayhem? Not really. You don’t have to like him or his business to wonder how he is going to do it.

Looking bedraggled and scruffy, it seems life on the run since the first film has been hard on Don (Shah Rukh Khan). He is tired and wants to go back to the high living he is accustomed to. He will have to eliminate his enemies and outwit the law. But if your cash flow depends on trade of some sort, how can you kill everyone and still be in business? And what to do about those pesky police? The gleefully improbable plot rolls on with a cast of human dominoes set up and knocked down as Don wreaks havoc. Farhan Akhtar clearly didn’t invest as much in his writing as in the visuals, and while that does lead to some WTFery, it is so entertaining that I didn’t care one whit. The double crosses and manipulation drive the plot along at a cracking pace.

SRK started his career as a baddie and that is my favourite kind of role for him. He brings a reptilian coldness to Don that is usually masked by a twinkle and a smirk, and his charm is used deliberately to seduce or scare. Don is an enigma and I like that. I find it tiresome to have every villain given a tragic back story so we can see how they went bad and feel sorry for them. Don is unapologetic and he is not looking for moral redemption. He’s also quite irritating, as though he is so bored by always being 3 steps ahead that he acts up just for fun. Actually, he reminded me a little of a much loved pet, my tiny Chihuahua who always acted like he was a big scary dog – they share the same self-belief. Don may seem smaller and less impressive than his opponents, but he has supreme self confidence, and no sense that he may appear to be ridiculous. The dual roles of the first film have been transposed into two sides of his character. Shah Rukh shows a playful side when he is taunting adversaries or flirting with Roma, but he also shows implacable rage when he is thwarted. Don never gives up on himself and that’s why he outlasts his enemies. Considering the number of people he hired or could afford to hire, Don was very hands-on and a control freak. What a nightmare boss! No wonder he struggled to find good help.

Don’s wardrobe lacks the flamboyance of the first film which is, perhaps, a shame. I suspect some of the drug lords’ attire in an early scene was inspired by him, so there are a few choice shirts on display. Don has a predilection for leather, but usually keeps it simple. The characters don’t look like tourists in Berlin – there’s no blinged up denim in sight. They dress to blend in and to suit their role. It’s a small facet of the great attention to visuals throughout the film. Shah Rukh does get some very bad hair in the first section of the film.

I hoped his microbraids may have housed an ingenious MacGyver style mechanism for a jail break, but no, it was just another bad wig. Maybe in the next film!

Priyanka is good as Roma, although her role is less prominent this time. Roma is a driven career cop, as obsessed with Don as he is with himself. Their love/hate attraction is still there, and Don knows it. Roma has a strong but lowkey presence, feminine but not girly. Sparks fly in her verbal encounters with Don and the dialogue crackles and flows between them. But what has Priyanka done to her nose? It was quite distracting.

Ayesha (Lara Dutta) is not just Don’s piece of fluff, she executes some important tasks, and Lara played Ayesha as smart. But there was little for her to do and she is a better actress than this role allows her to demonstrate. Sadly the one big dance number was picturised on her and she looked badly dressed, awkward and out of time.

Boman Irani was in scene stealing form as the former kingpin Vardhaan. He is such a good actor that I sometimes forget he is acting – I just see nice, likeable Boman and then he turns evil. He is the ideal counterfoil to Shah Rukh’s preening Don, adding a heavier energy to the ensemble. He also scored some of the biggest laughs with a scene involving a scientist who was so boring you could almost see Vardhaan aging as he listened.

Kunal Kapoor looks set to inherit the franchise as son of Don or something. As hacker Sameer, he seemed to spend more time spray painting vans and the like than actually hacking. He is decorative enough but I don’t think he has come close to recapturing his acting form in Rang De Basanti. Om Puri makes a return as Malik, who is on his way to retirement. His role seemed to set up Roma as his successor in the force rather than actually doing anything. The European support cast are surprisingly not completely terrible so that was nice to see.

The music by Shankar-Ehsan-Lloy is unimpressive, and the couple of dances were also underwhelming. What on earth was Hrithik Roshan doing  when he was supposed to be waltzing? All that tippy toeing round in circles was ridiculous. How much cooler would it have been if the character ‘impersonating’ Hrithik had ripped off a prosthetic thumb instead of a mask! The closing number over the titles was fun for the Bond flavoured visuals.

The action is brilliantly executed. Matthias Barsch did a fantastic job of maximising the impact of the star talent and seamlessly integrating doubles for the tough stuff. Shah Rukh was Don fighting for his life, waiting for his break and ruthless when it came. Priyanka’s action scenes are as physical as any of the men, and she gives the effort and intensity that makes Roma a ‘junglee billi’.

Don borrows liberally from Bond and Mission Impossible etc, but the whole genre is built on one-upmanship. A stunt in one is pushed further and faster in another and so it goes. It’s not the style for delicate psychological insights and introspection as it is about what happens next. The pace is perfect and I never felt that things dragged or went too fast. The locations are used well, and really add something to the flavour of the film. I like a big glossy action thriller, especially when the anti-hero is having as much fun as Don.

For me, Don 2 builds on the 2006 version and gives great bang for your buck. It’s pretty clear the way has been paved for another adventure. Roll on Don 3!

Heather says: The problem with sequels is that they often try too hard to be bigger and better than the original and end up failing rather spectacularly. Don 2 doesn’t. It is bigger, better and more spectacular than the first film and I loved it! Farhan Akhtar’s previous Don was one of my favourite Shahrukh Khan films and this is the first film since Om Shanti Om where I have wanted to watch the film again right away. Shahrukh Khan is so very, very good at being bad. I much prefer him in a negative role where he can be totally evil and chilling and yet in the blink of an eye change and schmooze with his leading lady or charm his erstwhile enemy into taking part in his latest scheme. Yes, there were parts that didn’t work as well but once Don was back on-screen these faded from importance. Priyanka was great in the action scenes although I still find the plot point that has her attracted to the man who killed her brother and sister-in-law to be a little strange. More believable is her obsession with capturing Don and this was well captured in the story. I also really enjoyed Lara Dutta’s Ayesha who was very capable and clever, and also had the best outfits apart from the dreadful dress in the dance number Temple has mentioned.

The whole film looked very slick and polished with great cinematography, in particular for the scenes in Europe. The action  was excellently choreographed as Temple said and I liked that there were plenty of good old-fashioned beat ’em up fights rather than too much reliance on guns and other weapons. Although there were enough explosions to keep me happy but nothing beats the crack as Don breaks yet another bad guy! There was plenty of variety in the action shots, helped by the different locations, but each action scene was set up and played out uniquely which was impressive for a movie with so much happening. I did think that Boman Irani’s Vardhaan was a little underused and would have liked to see a little more interaction between him and Don, but that may have made an already convoluted plot just a little too much to follow. I liked Kunal Kapoor as Sameer and appreciated the fact that his character was given a little more depth and empathy, although I think that counts him out as being a Don protégé as he was just too nice.

This was such a fun film to watch, with a really excellent performance from Shahrukh. I totally agree with Temple – Don3 next!