Dear Zindagi | Gauri Shinde | India | 2016 | 150 minutes
James Kreul argues that Dear Zindagi is the most broadly appealing Bollywood film to play Madison in 2016, despite its use of bland music montages instead of dance sequences. After a year of particularly shallow female characters, writer/director Gauri Shinde and star Alia Bhatt play with Bollywood conventions about romance, family, sexuality, and gender roles to deliver an intriguing character study of a young professional woman.
The opening “walk and talk” shot in Dear Zindagi appears to be a melodramatic Bollywood moment, somewhere in the boy-loses-girl stage, as a woman confronts a man about his infidelities. But when a director yells, “cut,” we discover that our protagonist Kaira (Alia Bhatt) wears the steadycam rig, making the most of her first big break as a feature film cinematographer on a location shoot in Singapore.
This reveal should make current and future female filmmakers cheer, something not lost on writer-director Gauri Shinde, who made her directorial feature debut with the acclaimed English Vinglish in 2012 (she won Best Debut Director at the IIFA, Filmfare, and Zee Zine Awards).
The headline this time of year is supposed to be that the seasonal blockbuster from megastar Shah Rukh Khan has finally arrived in Madison. Instead, SRK and his production company Red Chilies Entertainment has eschewed the spectacle of recent films like Happy New Year (2014) to deliver a small, intimate—even talky—character study of a professional young woman. SRK delivers a typically strong performance in a relatively small supporting role, but he doesn’t appear until the second hour of the film.
Kaira faces professional and personal obstacles. She aspires to be a cinematographer within the old-boy’s club of feature filmmaking, and a young progressive female within her traditional Indian milieu. She escaped the provincial culture of her hometown in Goa to the cosmopolitan Mumbai, but soon discovers that even there she can be evicted from her apartment because she is an unmarried woman. Her parents question the value of her career and wonder why she hasn’t settled down. Her uncle asks her directly if she is a Lebanese, because he doesn’t know that the correct word is lesbian.
As cheap as that joke may seem, Dear Zindagi distances itself from the homophobic jokes in many Bollywood films. It also takes the potential benefits of psychiatry and psychology seriously, in a context where many people dismiss therapy as a sign of weakness. A friend of Kaira’s sees a BD (“Brain Doctor”) so she asks him, “Why do you see one? So that you can tell others that you’re gay?” He responds, “I don’t go to a therapist so that I can tell others that I’m gay. I do so to tell myself.” The short exchange illustrates the degree to which both Kaira and her friend have internalized aspects of traditional ideology that neither of them want anything to do with, but can’t escape without effort.
Kaira’s battle with that internalized ideology is at the heart of her personal and professional conflicts in Dear Zindagi. She trusts her talents as a cinematographer, but that inner voice questions whether she got her break because the producer, Raghuvendra (Kunal Kapoor), has pursued her romantically. In a surprisingly blunt (for Bollywood) scene with her boyfriend after she returns from Singapore, she abruptly ends the relationship by admitting that she slept with Raghu. She then alternates between exuding sexual confidence and her inner voice reminding her that she’s not conforming to traditional ideals.
The central conflict develops as she must travel home to Goa to wait for final confirmation of her dream gig, a feature film to be shot in New York, produced by Raghu. Shinde distances Kaira from Bollywood expectations about romance and family ties. Kaira does not want her relationship with Raghu to determine her career, to the point that she’s conflicted about taking the assignment. Kaira’s relationship with her parents has strained to the point that she chooses to stay with her friend Jackie (Yashaswini Dayama) instead. The arrival of her younger brother Kido (Rohit Saraf) reminds her that he’s everything that her parents want her to be. She loves her brother, but does not want to follow in his, or her parent’s, footsteps. She’s confused, can’t sleep, and full of anxiety from all the mixed messages she’s telling herself.
That’s where Shah Rukh Khan comes in, as Dr. Jehangir Khan, who becomes Kaira’s BD. Dear Zindagi does not have a particularly sophisticated portrayal of therapy (nor of cinematography, for that matter), but Jehangir and Kaira’s therapy sessions demonstrate one of the key strengths of Bollywood films: its star system. Bhatt has an incredibly charismatic screen presence, and when matched with the cool, deliberate expertise of SRK, all of their scenes together engross you because you can’t take your eyes off either of them. I understand the criticism that Dear Zindagi is talky. It is, especially for those expecting more Bollywood spectacle. But personally, I could have watched these two talking for another hour.
Structurally, Shinde’s script has some issues that would have been less salient in an action spectacle. She does not always know how to visualize Kaira’s internal conflict beyond tears-on-her-pillow and pace-in-her-room montages. Kira’s emotional life completely dominates the second half of the film, and her professional life practically disappears once she arrives in Goa. The poorly plotted backstory explaining Kaira’s rift with her parents seems forced in the third act.
The film works best as a character study rather than a three act narrative. The plot points are clunky, but the dramatic beats within individual scenes are well crafted and executed. The structural problems are forgiven when the those dramatic beats produce a good healthy cry.
Music in Dear Zindagi follows an unfortunate recent trend in Bollywood. My reviews often suggest that a balance between romance, music, and action make strong Bollywood films. I liked that Dear Zindagi subverted the expectations for romance and action (it does not go where the posters and trailers would lead you to believe). But the music heavily relies on montages instead of singing and dancing, which here seems like a missed opportunity.
Even if you dislike Bollywood musical numbers, you cannot deny their expressive potential. Since Dear Zindagi addresses Kaira’s inner life, music and movement could be used to express things that can’t be conveyed in conventional scenes. Instead, the music (including the song “Lets Break Up” after her breakup) is generally removed from Kaira’s subjective experience; Bhatt neither lip-syncs nor dances (except for some hopping around in happy montages). Kaira seems removed from the action and Bhatt seems removed from the film during too many of the music sequences. The generally bland music doesn’t help, either. But what I find as a fault might actually broaden the appeal of the film to general audiences who scoff at Bollywood musical numbers.
Shinde does not say no to a happy ending, nor to expected resolutions to ideological conflicts. As with any Bollywood (or Disney, or Spielberg) film, the family unit must be restored in some capacity. But I do admire the degree to which she does say no to some important Bollywood conventions and expectations. The actors handle these “no’s” expertly, especially in the last scenes of the film.
Despite my reservations about structure and music, I was genuinely relieved to engage with an intelligent female protagonist instead of sitting through another painfully dumb girlfriend or helpless heroine (see recent reviews of Indian popular cinema, 24 and Ism). It’s impossible to resolve in real life the contradictions Kaira faces, but like any good genre film Dear Zindagi provides not only entertainment but some solace in acknowledging those contradictions with a good cry.