Zoya Akhtar is a difficult filmmaker to understand. She has made three feature films and one short so far, and yet you will be hard pressed to find a clear-cut narrative in her filmography. Her debut, and also her finest film till date, Luck By Chance, was a reflective take on the mysterious workings of Bollywood. Her next, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, a coming-of-age drama, had scarcely anything in common with her first. This one had a much bigger scale, quick and easy epiphanies, and a crowd-pleasing climax. So was this the way forward for Akhtar? Turns out, no. Her next film, Sheila Ki Jawani, one of the shorts from the portmanteau Bombay Talkies, had unmistakable shades of Luck By Chance’s Akhtar—much like her debut, this film was about ordinary, restless people trying to realise their dreams that typically looked out of sight, if not downright impossible.
Akhtar’s now followed up that modest outing with her biggest film till date, Dil Dhadakne Do—a film whose canvas is so huge that you will have to crane your neck to completely absorb its might. Packed with several Bollywood A-listers (Priyanka Chopra, Ranvir Singh, Anushka Sharma, Anil Kapoor and Aamir Khan (as the voiceover artist)), Dil Dhadakne Do revolves around the lives of a few affluent families who embark on a cruise that takes them to several countries around the world.
When it comes to dealing with opulence, we are a touchy lot. And it’s not difficult to understand why. India is still largely a poor country, and display of inordinate wealth in movies often invites raised eyebrows and unmitigated derision. It also has a lot to do with the fact that filmmaking, especially in mainstream Bollywood, has been a profession of the privileged. The line of logic, as voiced by many, is quite simple: Is it even possible to relate to such characters, who have got everything on a platter?
Much like Akhtar’s oeuvre, Dil Dhadakne Do is a strange film to understand. It begins with a fascinating device: a mastiff, Pluto Mehra (voiced by Aamir Khan), introducing the key characters of the film, the Mehra family. But you soon begin to question the effectiveness of this choice because Pluto introduces every member in painstaking detail and, by doing so, reduces the film’s characters and their relationships to a list of simplistic summaries. As a result, for a good one third of the film, we don’t get a fair sense of who these people are, except for the fact that they are rich and hence, as the film seems to suggest, not of any serious consideration.
Spoon-feeding the audience
Pluto’s voiceover doesn’t just make the characters more unfamiliar; it also spoon-feeds information that is easily discernible. If “Show, don’t tell,” is a hallmark of assured screenwriting, and its opposite, “Tell, don’t show”, a mark of lazy writing, then “Show and tell” is one of those decidedly unsuccessful combinations: laziness courting timidity. So for nearly the first hour of the film, we respond to Dil Dhadakne Do’s characters as labels—or as representations of ideas—rather than people. If the film deals with the core members of the Mehra family as a litany of hollow adjectives, it doesn’t treat its peripheral characters any better.
Nearly every friend of the Mehras is presented as superficial, petty and self-centred. After a point you begin to wonder about the world that Dil Dhadanke Do is attempting to sketch: How come there’s not one character in this movie that comes with their sets of complexities and contradictions? These parts irk because Akhtar is not only talking about something that many have suspected for long—that the rich are indeed shallow—but also because she doesn’t take her argument forward; as a result, we are left to contend with a bunch of trite scenes. It’s pretty apparent that Akhtar is trying to mock her characters, exaggerating their quirks to the extent that they become farcical, but her attempts often come across as strained and obvious, as if trying to repeat a joke that we have already heard a number of times.
But just when you think that it’s all over— that this film may have nothing left to offer —Akhtar slowly begins to up her game, and we begin to see the full extent of her ambition. The characters pretty much still remain the same (with the exception of a new character, Sunny, played by Farhan Akhtar), but via backstories, sprinkled very intelligently at various points, we see these characters in a new light, in a more wholesome fashion: What they wanted and what they settled for instead.
At this point onwards, there’s much humour in the film, too, deft writing flourishes that thwart our expectations from a film like this. So when Kamal Mehra gets hospitalised because of a stroke, we expect a sombre scene designed to tug at our heart strings and, possibly, manipulate us, but instead we get an immensely enjoyable anti-climax: Kamal is only suffering from a minor “gas problem”. The film saves its sharpest wit for scenes like these, ones involving the Family, where moments of acute tension are repeatedly undone by flippant slice-of-life observations, which tell us that family dynamics is much more unpredictable than what many Bollywood films have led us to believe for long.
Later on in the film, we also get to see what Akhtar and Kagti are really good at—distilling the insecurities of their characters in just one scene. When Kamal and Neelam are getting ready for a party, Kamal stands beside his wife for a few seconds, looks himself in the mirror, fixes his tie and leaves the room, and Neelam intently looks back at him, not saying anything, but presumably contemplating, “Does this man never notice me?” And eventually, Zoya gets back to what she’s best at: not only letting her characters do the talking but also allowing the frame to complement the on-screen dialogues. Take, for instance, the scene where Sunny, standing on the cruise’s dock, tells Ayesha that he will always remember his boundaries (that he is the son of her father’s manager), the schmaltziness of this line is offset by the unending expanse of the sea that faces his back, almost telling him that the only boundaries are the ones we create for ourselves.
At its finest, Dil Dhadakne Do is a riveting critique of umpteen melodramatic Bollywood films (while quite wickedly revelling in some of the melodrama itself) made on the lives of the rich and famous, but it could have easily benefitted from consistent writing, sharper observations and a life-like rhythm. It could have been that spectacular achievement, a film that had the potential to arrive at the true meaning of privilege and its capabilities to empower and cripple, showing how we often mangle the real meaning of wealth. Could such a film been powerful and profound? Yes, because are we not above the sum total of our possessions? Because isn’t that the very nature of sadness and despair, that they still remain—even today, in these times of avarice and depravity—the greatest equalizers?