Anurag Kashyap's 'Dobaaraa' Confounds, Confuses, Beguiles – Yet Stays in Your Head

A sharp adaptation, the film is deeper than it cares to admit and never slips into an instructional mode.

Listen to this article:

Before writing this review, I did something I’ve not done before: I took out a pen and a paper and ‘drew’ the film’s plot. Because Anurag Kashyap’s Dobaaraa, inspired from the script of a Spanish thriller, Mirage, is the kind of movie that confuses even when it clarifies, deceives even when it confesses.

It opens to a pre-teen boy, Anay (Aarrian Sawant), who, while recording a video, sees a scuffle in the neighbour’s house. He steps out to investigate, gets hit by a truck, and dies. Twenty-five years later, a young couple, Antara (Taapsee Pannu) and Vikas (Rahul Bhat), and their daughter, Avanti, move into the same house.

Antara discovers the same old camera, watching Anay in the same setting. This time, he…talks to her. Antara warns him to not leave the house, saying he’d be killed.

Cut to: Antara waking up in a house she doesn’t recognise. She discovers her life like the audience of a tense whodunnit. She’s no longer a nurse but a neurosurgeon. Her nose ring disappears; a forearm tattoo appears. She can’t find her daughter; many people tell her that Avanti doesn’t exist. She meets Vikas, who doesn’t recognise her, either. Like a teetotaller in a hall of drunkards, Antara feels insane. So do we, asking the same questions as her: What part of this is real – what is a dream? How do you reconcile two versions of a story – two versions of self – that don’t even know each other?

Many thrillers intrigue us because we want to ‘solve’ the crime. Here too, as Anay sees, someone is dead. But that isn’t the hook – not even close – because the suspense is the story itself. The second half continues to tease. We meet a cop (Pavail Gulati) who is sympathetic to Antara. Her pilot friend has become a bookstore owner. A novel with a similar plot, 2:12, has become a bestseller – only in her city.

Even if I tell you the whole story, you won’t get pissed off with me. Instead, you’ll say: Tell me more.

A still from ‘Dobaaraa’.

I don’t remember when was the last time a film kept me so confused, so busy, during its entire runtime. Let alone analysing it, I was trying to understand it. And I’ll be lying if I tell you that I’ve figured out the whole thing.

Some movies are so mind-bending that they lord over you, make you feel dumb. Yet they don’t intrigue you after the end credits. They’re the IIT JEE equivalent of cinema – they’ve your fear but not your respect.

Then there are some – like Dobaaraa – that confound and contort and elude, yet stay in your head. These films don’t intimidate but invite, turning movie-watching into a quasi-collaborative exercise. 

To understand Dobaaraa is to understand its design – to see it as not one but three separate films, three separate possibilities. Comprising three different timelines – trust me, none of these are spoilers – they depict the rippling natures of cause and effect. In all the cases, a few things remain constant: a child in front of a TV, a murder in the neighbourhood, a choice: leave the house or stay still. Think of it like life as a videogame: you can play and pause; you get more than one chance. Think of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (where an antagonist pauses and rewinds the movie, saving his friend from a gunshot). Think of the German thriller Run Lola Run, where the protagonist gets multiple chances to right her wrongs. Now think of Dobaaraa: a child, a TV, a choice – and the possibility of a different life.

Too dramatic? Well, ask people battling childhood traumas: one moment did change their lives.

Justifying its title, Dobaaraa is a ‘what if’ film, dignifying the powers of second drafts. It’s deeper than it cares to admit. It’s a story about saving others – but also about saving ourselves, so that we can save others. It’s a story of escalating contentment, of tough tiered happiness, in the form of a thriller. It’s a story of waiting and hoping – hoping and waiting – believing that one day the sky would explode, and you’ll stop being a misfit, that this world will be your world. Under the garb of a thriller – atmospheric visuals, racy plot, heady background score – it’s an intensely romantic film, asking something so fundamental, so humane: Can we change the life we were ‘destined’ to live?

It’s also a sharp adaptation. Screenwriter Nihit Bhave makes subtle yet key changes to the original. Dobaaraa, for instance, doesn’t have the ‘touch’ subplot – where skin contact allowed the protagonist, Vera (Adriana Ugarte), to travel across timelines – making it more intense, less cheesy.

A still from ‘Dobaaraa’.

Like most impressive pieces of Kashyap, this film has a heightened sense of awareness. In an early scene, talking to the kid through the TV – Vera’s in 2014, he 1989 – she shows him the news clip of his death on a smartphone. He doesn’t react. But when the same scene repeats in the Hindi version – with Anay in 1996, Antara 2021 – she’s holding a laptop and, referring to it, he asks, “What’s that?”

Unlike Mirage, it never slips into an instructional mode, reeling off lines that implant the idea of the ‘butterfly effect’. It, to my mind, also corrects a crucial climactic plot hole in the original.

Some bits are deliciously meta – delicious because they’re unintended. Even though enjoying the first hour, I noticed a conspicuous lack of humour, the director’s hallmark. In hindsight, like Anay waiting for Antara, I too was waiting for the old Kashyap. And in the second half, he does appear. Refining the original, Dobaaraa gets progressively funnier. Some lines primarily function as jokes, and they work. One laugh-out-loud bit revolves around Antara constantly pestering Vikas in the second timeline (where he’s not her husband). As a neurosurgeon, she saved his life. He’s grateful to Antara, likening her to God, but eventually loses it, saying, “Bhagwan ka bhi koi decorum hota hai (Even god has some decorum).”

Like the same events recur in the movie – with markedly different meanings, travelling from video to life – the reel and the real wink at each other, via Kashyap’s filmography, in Dobaaraa. More than two decades ago, he had written a screenplay about a rock band whose members become murderers – which would become his debut, Paanch – initially giving it the title… Mirage.

Since Manmarziyaan, not counting his last misfire Choked, Kashyap seems to have entered a new zone, where he’s more calm and confident, where he doesn’t burden his films with Intense Ambition. Because he’s made many movies in the past that crackled in parts – Gulaal, Gangs of Wasseypur I, Ugly (it’s a long list)but got lost in their own chaos, straining to be everything at once: political, cheeky, subversive.

But Manmarziyaan and Dobaaraa have a refreshing clarity, where the story takes precedence, and we connect the dots. These movies are not trying to be anything; they just are. Who would have thought that a country number would encapsulate the merits of a filmmaker best known for a violent epic: “You say it best when you say nothing at all.”