'Dear Zindagi': A Smart Film That Shines a Spotlight on Mental Health

The movie, at its core, asks several uncomfortable questions about living with people who make you feel unsafe and insecure.

A still from Dear Zindagi featuring actors Alia Bhatt and Shah Rukh Khan. Credit: YouTube

A still from Dear Zindagi featuring actors Alia Bhatt and Shah Rukh Khan. Credit: YouTube

“You know, I haven’t really cared for breakfast in a long, long time, because I stopped taking tiffin to school after eight grade.”

It was a regular March afternoon this year, and I was sitting opposite my therapist, whom I had started seeing recently, because I was tired of my own emotional vacuum, one I had been carrying and hiding for years. But, more importantly, I was tired of being tired.

“You didn’t take tiffin to school after eight grade?” She asked, as a matter of fact. It was an innocuous question, really, which just sat there, not asked with an intention to elicit a reaction.

“Yeah, I did not,” I said, and started crying—first slowly, and then in spurts. Those tears were hard and uncontrollable, as if they had lives of their own—some formed a film over my eyes, some fell on my shirt, some hung on my cheeks, some trailed down. I was very embarrassed, and very surprised, because I was talking about something that had happened one and a half decade ago, but the pain, even after such a long time, felt real and new and physical, stinging deep and not stopping. But when that moment receded, I felt relieved and calm, as if a part of me had just been set free, had just been accepted. And that was it.

I didn’t expect to revisit that feeling at all, much less while watching a film. But I did, while watching Dear Zindagi. At one point in the movie, Kaira (Alia Bhatt), an up-and-coming cinematographer, is sitting opposite her therapist, Dr. Jehangir Khan (Shahrukh Khan), and talking about her own childhood, opening the cellar in her heart no one else’s been privy to: the shame and guilt of abandonment, of rejection, of not feeling loved. Directed by Gauri Shinde, Dear Zindagi is about these small moments, the ones we usually don’t share with others, which shame and guilt-trip us, which make us less perfect, make us less… normal. Earlier in the film, Kaira asks her friend about his DD (“Dil ka Doctor”), therapist: “Why do you see one? So that you can tell others that you’re gay?” Kaira and her friend are at a shooting location, and she’s taking a break. There’s no judgment in her tone or demenaour. “I don’t go to a therapist so that I can tell others that I’m gay,” her friend says. “I do so to tell myself.”

There’s a reason we don’t talk about mental health, because we don’t like to talk about ourselves, our inner fears and desires, for we like to be accepted and liked and loved. Modern Indian society—with its propensity for drunken conversations, superficial humour, smart repartee, a sense of irony and detachment—prizes perfection, emotional numbness, and looks down upon vulnerability. So even though you’re with people, you’re alone—and despite having a good time, you don’t feel safe, feel left out, as if something’s missing.

So it’s heartening and refreshing to know that a mainstream film like Dear Zindagi, starring two Bollywood stars, Khan and Bhatt, chooses to talk about mental health, and does so in a manner that doesn’t trivialise its finer details. Kaira isn’t perfect, and the film doesn’t justify her behaviour or actions. She acts on her impulses. She hurts others. She doesn’t know why she does what she does. At one moment in the film, Kaira’s friend, Jackie (Yashaswini Dayama, who is as fantastic in Dear Zindagi as she was in her debut, Phobia), tries convincing her why a guy she just rejected is perfect for her. And we believe Jackie, because we saw the previous scene, where Kaira, in the midst of a fairly normal conversation, suddenly turned indifferent. Jackie is drunk, so she keeps going on and on about the guy’s merits, and how he’d make her happy. But Kaira is not interested or listening. Because some people aren’t looking for perfection. They aren’t looking for a way in, but a way out. They don’t want to lower their defenses, bring down the fortress surrounding them, whose walls keep getting thicker—not because they like to live alone but because loneliness is so much better than the fear of abandonment. Some people just want to watch themselves burn.

Dear Zindagi is a smart film, because it understands Kaira, its protagonist. And it does so, in mundane moments, without making anything obvious. Kaira is reluctant to pick her mother’s phone calls; she’s always looking to cut short their conversations, to the point of being rude. Her mother, on the other hand, keeps asking her whether she ate on time. It makes for quasi-comical conversations, because here are two people who are always using one excuse or the other to evade talking about something they should. Kaira’s generous towards others—she asks her boyfriend to allow a bunch of strangers to enter his restaurant, even though they haven’t followed the dress code; she offers her plate of noodles to a street urchin—but hard on herself. And it makes sense. Compassion towards others is still easy; compassion towards one’s own self is very tough. Kaira’s also addicted to online shopping, which gives her temporary solace in moments of stress and confusion. This makes sense, too, for when daily life becomes overwhelming and dark, coping mechanisms are taillights that guide you home. A lesser film would have explained these asides, made the obvious tedious, but, thankfully, Dear Zindagi doesn’t.

More importantly, besides dealing with mental health, Dear Zindagi also talks about something else that’s usually either brushed under the carpet, or dressed in terms of perfection: the family. And, if you look at it, these two aren’t dissimilar: Because if you can’t discuss the former, you can’t speak against the latter. For decades now, films and advertisements have placed the idea of a family, and its most important members, mothers and fathers, on a pedestal, showing its countless perfect portrayals, telling and retelling us its importance. But then there is, no matter in how small a number, always an alternate narrative, wanting to scream its lungs out, come out in the mainstream, in the hope of recognition and acceptance.

Dear Zindagi, at its core, asks several uncomfortable questions about living with people who make you feel unsafe and insecure. But here, too, Shinde is trying to understand and engage with the other. There are no demons here. Kaira’s parents are fairly normal: They drink with their daughter, exaggerate her achievements in front of acquaintances, and are, more or less, fine with her choices. Sure, like most Indian parents, they desperately want her to get married, but nothing about them signals ‘evil’. Which is how people usually are, and it’s to Shinde’s credit that she makes this story more relevant by barely dealing with characters, or their situations, in broad strokes.   

On modern Indians

And it’s important that Dear Zindagi is the way it is, because we barely do justice to films on modern Indians. Of course, numerous films have been made on them, and will keep getting made, but not many that truly attempt to understand them, and their stories: of young men and women lost in urban jungles, struggling to find a way out, failing to figure out what’s wrong with them, constantly losing, constantly living with shame. These are our stories, too; they also exist; they also need a vent, if not necessarily a closure.

American film critic Roger Ebert once memorably said, “The movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” We go to the movies to not just hang out, or have a good time, but to also feel human: to understand ourselves and others better. Dear Zindagi, I hope, will introduce people to something that’s slowly going out of fashion: empathy. Because we are, at the end of the day, a star struck nation. So, one hopes that, if Bhatt and Khan are in a film—which is funny, smart and engaging—talking about mental health, then maybe a regular audience member, who used to hitherto equate therapy with madness, would probably take notice and, in the future, be less judgmental.

It also helps that Dear Zindagi is credible and restrained that benefits from two wonderful performances: by Khan and Bhatt. By now, we’ve almost come to expect nothing but perfection from Bhatt who performs remarkable roles (Highway, Udta Punjab) with as much ease, aplomb, and humour as the regular ones (2 States, Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, Kapoor & Sons). But it was Khan who, much like Kaira in Dear Zindagi, seemed to have lost his way and running away from himself. Chak De! India, which released nearly a decade ago, was the last film where he looked completely convincing and in control. Since then, barring sporadic moments of good acting in films such as Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, My Name is Khan and Fan, he’s appeared in one forgettable film after another. In Dear Zindagi, though, Khan doesn’t seem to be putting on an act. He appears and sounds like how he does in his interviews: smart, funny, snarky, quick-witted, charming. Playing the role of a therapist, Khan’s character, Dr Jehangir, isn’t dispensing sermons to Kaira, either. He is, at most of the times, sharing his insights about life, and its various confusions, as therapists usually do.  

For a film that gets so many things right, so much so that you start feeling protective of it, I wish Dear Zindagi could have avoided a formulaic song, Love You Zindagi, in its closing segment, which forcibly tries to smoothen over the rough edges in a story that doesn’t lend itself to an easy, crowd-pleasing climax. But I’m glad that this film exists, because it brings out many stories and truths behind texts not sent, calls not returned, confessions not made.