“I love aesthetics”, Zoya Akhtar had mentioned in a pre-release interview. Safe to say, this love is not limited to merely the visuals of her movies. Dil Dhadakne Do is a simple story told masterfully, with absolute and unwavering control over every department of film-making – both technical and creative.
The result of this love is a liberating work of cinema. Liberating because she isn’t trying to compete with any other film. There isn’t a box-office goal in sight. There isn’t any conscious effort to “mark” her work with an auteur’s stamp. And yet, this absence of any overt signature is what makes her films the most difficult to ape, and therefore, they stand out as unique and, well, matchless. In this age where copying current box-office trends is the default way to conceive and create movies, Dil Dhadakne Do is a whiff of fresh sea breeze.
As mentioned, the story is simple enough – a family’s journey to rediscover themselves and each other on a sea cruise vacation. One can call them a dysfunctional family, but the Mehras are hardly unique in their singularities or how they function as a family; they are in fact representative of how families are today, with all their quirks and complexes. One of the criticisms leveled against the film has been how stereotyped the characters are. Anil Kapoor is the typical, self-made, rich and obscene Punjabi family patriarch, Shefali Shah is the long suffering wife and high society diva, Priyanka Kapoor is the over-achieving progeny sidelined by both her father and her husband, and Ranveer Singh is the heir-to-be, the prince with the heart of gold who prefers to spend his time in the clouds rather than a corporate office.
Clichéd? Sure. But there’s more. The stereotypes are used to make us comfortable, to take us in a world that we’re familiar with. They are a setup, and Zoya ventures much deeper than shallow characterizations, especially in the second half .The screenplay unravels each member one by one, and it is the subtle touches and deft details that she uses to reveal their true demons and complexes that are the highlights of the film. Take Shefali Shah’s character. All through the film, Anil Kapoor lampoons her because she can’t resist good food. It’s one of those things you expect a husband to do to his wife as a joke, and you don’t give it a second thought. Zoya takes this idea forward, and you’re taken aback at the brutality of the scene where Shefali is gorging on chocolate cake as a way of fighting her depression. It’s a superb example of subtly building on a character trait to give an absolute whammy of a scene, without having to even try for impact. The Mehra family that the mastiff introduces at the beginning of the film isn’t quite as obvious as the one that sails off into the sun at the end of it. The effectiveness of showing this journey through the film is the thumping triumph of Dil Dhadakne Do, and one that other films will be hard pressed to match.
The writing then, is just top notch. The layered – if slightly elongated – screenplay is topped of with the driest of humor. The writing is not shy of going big on catchy dialogue, but is always in control, springing those applause-worthy lines just when needed, and simmering with understated humor in between. The Pluto Mehra voiceover is a relatively weak link. The idea of comparing humans to animals is definitely on the ball, and much like a Wes Anderson film, it briskly aids the proceedings in the beginning of the film. But the sheer duration for which this is continued to be used becomes an overkill. Less would have been better. The key scenes though are simply brilliant. The family showdown after Anil Kapoor recovers from his “heart attack” has to be the riskiest scene for a Bollywood film. Ten times out of ten, this is the money shot scene in Hindi films. It’s where Pandora’s box of the family is not just opened, but cleaned up and turned over. It’s the ultimate catharsis, and it never fails to be a crowd pleaser. Yet, shunning high melodrama for wry humor, Zoya and Reema turn the scene upside down. They spoof this idea and yet remain supremely effective in ensuring it does not take away from the resolution it is going for.
Much of this effectiveness is thanks to the performances of the sprawling ensemble. Good acting feeds of good acting to become better, and you see that in the film. Ranveer Singh and Anil Kapoor garner maximum screen time, and you’re all the more happy for it. They give heart and verve to the proceedings, and are in control in the toughest of scenes with near perfect comic timing. Priyanka Chopra’s swag perhaps works against her role of a relatively meek girl dominated by her father first, and then her husband, but this is minor feedback for an otherwise balanced performance. Shefali Shah uses the silences given to her more effectively than other actors in her place could have used their lines. Farhan Akhtar is immaculately cool as always, as is Anushka Sharma. All in all, show stopping stuff.
The background score is intelligently used. It is sparing, flowing in and out of the silences, and you barely hear it, but you will not fail to notice it. Unlike the music, which absolutely makes its presence felt. Making a swinging 60s debut about 20 minutes into the film, the music and the songs are a highlight, and treated as such. There’s no pretense in always trying to “take the story forward”; they’re entertaining in themselves, and need no justification for their presence.
Effortless is the word that comes to mind when we think of Zoya Akhtar’s films. They are not forced in what they say, and they seem to be under no obligation to say what other people would like them to say. They embrace a gamut of emotions, yet present them to us in the most nuanced of ways. Dil Dhadakne Do has all these qualities and more. This is not a film that merits a discussion of “oh, it’s ignorant of the poor” or “oh, it’s set in a rich man’s world and is not relevant to everyone” (and those are absolutely relevant points to consider). But that is not the point of the film. It being set in this world is a matter of coincidence to the larger purpose of the film. The film is about the journey she takes us with the Mehra family, and it is the universality of her storytelling and her characters that are sufficient to make the film accessible to wider audience than what it’s critics give it credit for. Seriously guys, problem kya hai?
Dil Dhadakne Do is neither the most technically flourished in form, nor the most profound in content. But it is such a complete film in what it wants to achieve – use cinema as a medium to tell a good, old-fashioned, new-age story. In that, it is peerless.
Hindi, Comedy, Drama, Color
I agree mostly, except the writeup feels overtly protective, an extreme bias to balance the negative sentiments being heard from the crowd (as probably laid bare in your question, hehe, to which someone may reply, boss tumhara problem kya hai?!). It is an average film, of course (the 80% rating seems too generous), it could be far far better, since we have stuff like Requiem and Tenenbaums for some form of thematic comparison from years ago. I felt it hits the notes all wrong, the subtle approach is great for such black humor / ‘dark underbelly of everyday life’ stuff, but then hitting the high notes for other irrelevant silliness makes it pointless, works against itself. The same stuff somehow in a more ‘real’ context (not so plastic) could have worked, perhaps, imagine Piku set on a cruise and you get the idea. The trappings of the self (filmmaker), and the aesthetic that worked in the previous film, I guess.
Thank you for the comments.
If it sounds like bias, it probably is. I wouldn’t be able to tell anyway, in that case :). I did want to address the criticism around the film because I specifically did not agree with that kind of reading of the film. So made a point of it in the review. But that was just a small part of the review, and the rest of it is not a response to anything but my objective assessment. At least that was the attempt.
80% – I’m stopping putting numbers to reviews from here on. Leads to meaningless discussions. I think the bias explains any excess in the rating!
Yes, we have better films in comparison, and I say so as much in my last paragraph. It’s just the overall use of cinema as a medium that is so solid in the film, and that I admire. I feel that the plastic setting is a conscious decision by the filmmaker, in complete understanding of how it may appear (give the similar criticism she would have heard for ZNMD). If we accept that, then to try and question this decision is questioning the basic aesthetic of the filmmaker, and that is a prickly argument to get into.
I see the logic in your statement that the subtle approach works for certain kinds of films and not for a film like this, but I’m not able to accept it. Again probably because I don’t necessarily see the “plastic” context to be very relevant in judging this film.