It’s perhaps no coincidence that English author and naturalist Gerald Durrell, a man with deep passion for zoo keeping and wildlife, began captivating imaginations with the rip-roaring autobiographical book, ‘My Family And Other Animals.’ One of his funniest short stories, ‘The Maiden Voyage’, again derived humour out of his famously chaotic family’s distaste for all things Greek and, surprise surprise, a cruise-liner. Any of these two titles could fit Zoya Akhtar’s third offering Dil Dhadakne Do – a vast, distinctly urban and observational series based on a deliriously rich Delhi family’s European cruise escapades.
Her interpretation of Mr Durrell’s writing reveals itself through her choice of treatment; a curious decision to narrate this poor-little-rich tale through the POV of, you guessed it, the droopy-eyed family pooch. That wise old Pluto Mehra’s voice sounds more like that of a floppy-eared wide-eyed paan-chewing alien observing the intricacies of human nature, laying it on thick with ‘humans are complicated animals’ metaphors, is a bit distracting. He speaks sense though, this doggy does, providing Miss Akhtar with a Woody Allen-isque opportunity to employ a forcibly quirky introductory voiceover—usually a lazy screenwriting device, but there’s something about watching a flawed family portrait refusing to obey its painter’s strokes.
Almost immediately, the galaxy of Kamal Mehra (Anil Kapoor) engulfs the littler submissive worlds of trophy wife Neelam Mehra (Shefali Shah), soon-to-be-prodigal son Kabir Mehra (Ranveer Singh) and self-made (why not make themselves better, ponders Pluto in his self-righteous chin-scratching tone) daughter Ayesha Mehra (Priyanka Chopra).
The Mehras—incidentally a surname that instantly invokes visions of gold-plated letters on a princely North Indian door—are everything you’d expect a dysfunctional family of four to be. They’re contemporary versions of Amrish Puri’s family in Yaadein and Amrish Puri’s family in Taal. More recently, their vacuous ways are reminiscent of Alia Bhatt’s Upper-Panchsheel folks in Highway, with side acts, uncles and aunties that specialize in audible gasps, whispers and backbiting grunts.
Kamal, with his feigned authority, clipped tone and cosmopolitan accent, is a hypocrite and a husband, if only barely. He is a crisp devilish man I’ve seen many men become after falling into the lap of wealth despite their humble beginnings. They form one sorry half of power couples that invariably end up sleeping in separate rooms across mansions, and sipping soups with the finest cutlery across track-long mahogany tables. He has a two-week Mediterranean cruise organized for close family and friends to celebrate 30 years of formal union with his wife. This ship becomes an excuse to save his sinking empire; he invites potential business partners and has fallen upon the age-old traditional technique of pressuring off springs into derivative partnerships instead. Marriages arranged for business, more precisely. But not once does the thought of canceling this lavish celebration cross his desperate mind.
Anil Kapoor essays this ruthless deluded patriarch with a flourish last seen in Taal and an arrogance last seen in Slumdog Millionaire; he goes from lion to wounded lion to protective wolf seamlessly in a role that should finally convince producers of his age-specific competence. His commands are funny to those not belonging to his world, and tragically unfunny to those who do.
Needless to mention, nothing goes according to plan.
Because let’s face it—there’s a lovely ship, attractive strangers, parties and too many members of the same community trapped with one another. Unlike in cult family dramas like Hum Apke Hain Kaun and K3G, they cannot walk in, make life-altering decisions and leave, because of the vast ocean of blue that surrounds them.
Therefore, it is fascinating to see how Ayesha’s marriage with chauvinistic momma’s boy Rahul Bose (naming his character is inconsequential, because he’s Rahul Bose) breaks down, and how she must face the consequences and continue to occupy the same space.
These dramatic conversations, easily the most evocative parts of a script that relies on reactions and awkward silences, both of which Miss Akhtar orchestrates with superb instinct, almost always take place in a nondescript room with two sofas and a chair—after which the characters must return back to cruise bonhomie at night.
If not for this chair’s tendency to keep the sticks firmly wedged between bottoms, this film would have had far more moments of forced enlightenment. Ayesha’s passive aggressive mother-in-law, brought to life uncannily by Zarina Wahab, summarizes Akhtar’s repetitive 170-minute screenplay in one line: “lekin problem kya hai? (but what is the problem?!)” on being confronted with post-modern reasons of loveless-ness as grounds for divorce. Adjustment is still the name of the game for her, and many like her on this ship.
The imagery outside four walls is surreal and almost disgusting for how rich and clean it looks. However, this isn’t escapist cinema, but cinema that thrives on the desire to break free and escape; wanderlust cinema of sorts, a genre Excel Entertainment seems to excel at. Carlos Catalan, Zoya’s only cinematographer yet, is a substantial creator of this desire, and peaks at his craft during Ranveer’s ethereal swimming-pool rendezvous with Anushka and their stopover in Istanbul.
Behind the scenes are offshoots like a forbidden Romeo-Juliet rival-families romance, a reverse-Titanic scenario with Richie Rich Mehra falling for a bohemian Muslim dancer (Anushka Sharma), and of course senior Mehras’ eventual reality-check showdown. This showdown materializes after a health scare in a medical room, where each of the four troubled family members display immense understanding of their character arcs. They know exactly where they’re coming from, and the sort of stifling space they’re caught in. Ranveer, in particular, reacts in a way that makes you cheer for him, like a suppressed stream finally shattering a glass dam.
A rather watery romance and compromised finale aside, Mr. Singh plays the baap-ka-business successor (Sid, before Waking Up) with alarming restraint. Shefali Shah, an actor with the rare ability to simultaneously perform and know exactly how her face behaves on camera, looks the part of the wife that consciously partakes in this arrangement of convenience.
It’s also interesting to note that while most of Zoya’s lead characters seem to formulate their thoughts in English, the Hindi they speak is not entirely unnatural. Except for Katrina Kaif in ZNMD, all of them pass off as traditional Hindi speakers who’ve let city lingo gradually take over.
Miss Akhtar must have had an interesting childhood. Her brother, who appears as Ayesha’s blast from the past here, is also the inspiration for Kabir’s soul-searching persona. While there’s much of Farhan—both physically and spiritually—in each of her films, I suspect this one contains more of her own general perspectives dotted around a world that Miss Kagti (up-scaling her own Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd Has observed from a distance. In doing so, she successfully holds the mirror to countless parents, who disguise their own ambitions as promises of their kids’ safe futures.
There’s nothing wrong in making a rich film about hollow ‘rich’ problems. That she generates empathy for characters whose introspective sessions happen in luxurious suites and velvet bathrobes instead of cramped flats doesn’t make this a lesser representation of mournfulness. These folks are victims of their own becoming, and it’s as compelling to watch, if not more, than a caricatured rags-to-riches journey. It’s always an attractive invitation to spy on a universe well outside most of our reaches, authenticity be damned.
Did I root for these over privileged misguided souls to achieve light? Yes, I did. It took a while, but unlike most sanskaari-clinging modern parivaars, I came around late. And despite this being Zoya Akhtar’s most personal, indulgent, self-conscious, and possibly third best film out of three, she still remains the best director in her family.