While Aditya Chopra is laudably trying to move away from mainstream Bollywood conceptions of love, his success is only partial.
Aditya Chopra’s Befikre opens with a sequence of couples of different nationalities kissing in different parts of Paris: a market, a bus stop, a café. An old couple in a moment of carnal bliss on a bench, while their walking sticks lean on them; in another shot, a young woman holds a selfie stick as she kisses her partner; and finally, a small boy, on a stair, pecks the lips of a girl. This opening sequence – liberated and casual – is very un-Aditya Chopra like and yet it reminds you of a film he had written two decades ago, Dil Toh Paagal Hai, whose opening credits too unfolded through couples of different ages, castes and classes: sitting on a bench, sharing a romantic moment. There is one crucial difference, though: the couples in Dil Toh Paagal Hai weren’t kissing each others’ lips. In fact, their shyness was palpable; some held hands, some pecked, others simply smiled. In the Bollywood romantic dramas of the 1990s, the period when Chopra debuted as a director, love and lust were almost always compartmentalised, as if the former held one meaning in real life and quite the other in cinema, and the two couldn’t meet.
Over the last few years, though, something fundamental has begun to change, as if mainstream Bollywood filmmakers, especially those known for making big budget romantic dramas, have realised that the boundaries – between what is life and what is cinema – need to vanish. For instance, Imtiaz Ali, whose films till Love Aaj Kal featured heroes who were soft spoken, gentle and correct, broke that mould with Rockstar, starring a man (Ranbir Kapoor) who was aggressive and loud, too wounded in, and by, love that niceties were the last thing on his mind. Even Karan Johar’s latest, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, featured a similar character (also played by Kapoor), a man so stubborn and heartbroken that he wouldn’t – in fact, couldn’t – listen to anyone else. And these are significant departures, because for long, Johar and Ali treated love, and what it meant, with kid gloves, careful to not cross the line, to not appear abrasive, incoherent or incorrect.
So when Chopra, much like Ali and Johar, known for making mainstream romantic films, steps out of his mould and dares to do something different, you feel relieved, as if the big boys are finally warming up to an idea whose time has come. Besides, it’s less important whether these films are good and more important whether they signal a change long overdue in Hindi cinema. Because if our stories, and love stories in particular, have to be more democratic, then the willingness to change and adapt has to come from directors (and producers) who control the big bucks.
And that change is written all over Befikre. It’s a film that opens with a breakup; here, characters don’t lip sync to songs; they, defeated by their libidos, hook up before thinking about love. These people don’t respond to a written script but to moments, not sure where the winding lanes of the night would take them. Centred on a Delhi boy who has come to Paris as a fledgling stand-up comedian, Dharam (Ranveer Singh), and a Paris-bred tourist guide, Shyra (Vaani Kapoor), Befikre is about these 20-somethings who are stranded between love and lust, certainty and indecision, affection and anger.
This film, by all means, is going into unchartered territory for Chopra. But he, unlike the film’s trailer had us believe, doesn’t show the anxiety of a novice. Befikre’s first half – smartly structured, alternating between the past and present – is fairly engaging and entertaining, moving along swiftly, showing different facets of its protagonists and how they respond to different circumstances in their lives. Some bits, however, are contrived, such as Singh’s Dharam randomly speaking a line or two in Hindi in front of the French, as if acting for the camera, situations that look planted to elicit laughs from the audience. Shyra’s parents, who have been living in France for decades, quite strangely behave as clueless fresh-off-the-boat Indians, a set of characters in the film mostly used for comic relief. Similarly, a few scenes between Dharam and Shyra, albeit enjoyable, seem over the top, striving hard to be audacious and funny.
Which prompts a question fundamental to Befikre: how ‘real’ is this film? Because, at one level, Befikre, comprising people, confused and clueless, who talk and behave like us, is the kind of film that a lot of modern Indians would identify with. And yet, at another level, some of its plot points and characters’ mannerisms point towards a way of life that can only exist in cinema. And Chopra’s forte has always been the idiom of cinema, not the idiom of everyday life, but here you can see a man, now self-aware and open-minded, aching to break free. So he, at times, resorts to subversion. At one point, when Shyra is looking at the back of a guy who asked her out a few hours ago, Dharam tells her, “Palatne nahin waala hai woh (He isn’t going to turn back),” inadvertently referencing an iconic scene from Chopra’s own movie, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. To which Shyra says, “Log palat-te toh 1990s mein the (People used to turn back in the 1990s). I was just checking out his ass.” In another scene, a French girl performs a striptease to the tune of the song Kamli from Dhoom: 3, a film produced by Chopra. A few scenes later, Dharam plays Mehendi Laga Ke Rakhna on a clarion in a club. Both Chopra and Johar have a tendency to go overboard with self-referencing in their films, but here it serves a larger purpose than a perfunctory pat on the back. Because the self-referential moments in Befikre are not just subversive for the heck of it, they almost look apologetic, as if coming from a director desperately willing to make amends.
And hence, Befikre struggles to become its own film, because it finds itself stranded between two different worlds, for it’s coming from a director who isn’t sure which way to lean: the straightforward, at times even sappy, melodrama of the ’90s and the aughts or the razor-sharp clinical moviemaking of the present? It’s not an easy question to answer, because the man at the centre of this dilemma, Chopra, is someone who, at his finest, does the straightforward Bollywood melodrama quite well. But in Befikre, Chopra, much like his characters, when the moment demands, looks scared to commit, to go the whole hog, to make the regular sentimental. It’s as if the new Chopra’s fixated on being cool, on not being judged. Which is a pity, because in a bid to find his new side, he forgets his old strengths and, as a result, you get a film that’s always skirting around the centre of its story; that, even though enjoyable for the most part, fails to draw you in; that fails to make you believe that something is at stake, a quality essential to most romantic comedies.
Befikre’s last 15 minutes are especially disappointing, a segment so abrupt, random and desperately trying to be cool that it threatens to overshadow some of its finer moments. The new Chopra, and his new film, isn’t without promise. It’s sharp, heady and modern, bubbling very much in the present, but it also needed, in moderation, something Chopra so wants to snub: the conventional romance and drama of the past.