The intermission is a nightmare.
This is true for the format in which Hindi cinema is traditionally exhibited, as the interruption creates a narrative chasm that messes up both filmgoer and filmmaker, but it is doubly true for Dear Zindagi, which ingeniously uses a bad dream to slap recess upon us and allow us out of the theatre. While the heroine lies awake in bed, jarred by an acute fear of being judged, we walk around and, over coffee and cola, do that very thing and judge her as we pick apart the film, in our own heads or in packs.
We return to see the dream being pieced together, a dream that — besides making us feel like “short, strange people” — lets us into the character’s head, and lets us draw our own conclusions. (Though conclusions, as Dear Zindagi patiently explains, aren’t quite the point.) Gauri Shinde’s deeply internal film is the straightforward, sincere story of a young woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown — or at least on the verge of thinking of the words ‘nervous breakdown’ — and one that speaks, on some level, to us all.
Any on-screen depiction of a patient-therapist dynamic is inevitably oversimplified, as basic psychology is made universal and palatable, and issues are sorted with simplistic ease. What separates the good portrayals from the weak are, I believe, a lack of obviousness, relative realism in the dialogue, some evident (and some hidden) insight, and, most importantly, the feeling that the character is actually learning something right in front of our eyes. (My gold standard, by the way, isn’t a film but instead the season finale of the first season of Frasier, an immaculate episode where the two shrink siblings sit in a cafe and ponder a question, one that starts out throwaway but gains remarkable weight as the realtime episode carries on: ‘Are you happy?’)
Shinde scores on these fronts, cannily focussing on a dyspeptic protagonist whose default setting is to be rubbed the wrong way. Kiara is a bright cinematographer who thinks she knows better than the directors she works under and is highly aware of the studied state of topsyturviness in her apartment, but her love life is a shambles, where everyone — even the drunken ditz in a bowler hat — makes more sense than her. Relationships see Kiara reduced to a whiny, irascible mess and, since this gets in the way of work (and sleep), she decides to go visit the hottest therapist she can find.
This linen-clad therapist, a twinkly-eyed man who tinkers with bicycles and plays kabaddi with waves on the beach, is too good to be true, right from the get-go. He talks, she listens and we, leaning forward, eavesdrop. That is all this darling little film does, and all it needs to do.
He is played, with a knowing smile and easy grace, by Shah Rukh Khan, and there is a dashing effortlessness to his charm. We have rarely seen Khan not angling for a girl, and he shines here as he exhorts his young charge toward revelation while backing away from conversational — and cinematic — spotlight. Modesty might not be a colour familiar to him, but Mr Khan wears omniscience lightly and majestically.
The film, of course, is about the girl. Shinde, who gave us an absolutely irresistible female protagonist in English Vinglish, turns the tables and gives us a girl frequently hard to like. She snaps at her friends, is rude to family, and is so inconsistent with the aggression with which she acts out that I was beginning to doubt the actress playing the part. No fear. Shinde and the mercurial Alia Bhatt, who plays Kiara, know exactly what they’re doing, and there is reasoning for the way this girl behaves.
The preternaturally talented Bhatt plays Kiara with defiant pluck, a shy girl overcorrecting for her insecurity, lashing out before she’s lashed at. There are times the performance appears showy, but the actress brings such a raw, earnest vulnerability to her highly flawed character that she remains compelling throughout. Despite this being a film with a lot of talking, Bhatt’s silent moments are the ones that threaten most to stay with me: her eyes scorched in thought as she chows down flat street-side noodles; the stunning pause after she wonders whether she is, in fact, “common”; and, unforgettably, one of the most fantastic slapstick pratfalls I’ve seen in recent times.
There is much joy in the details. In the way the therapist begs for two more waves to play with on the beach, and, later, the patient tries literally to steal five extra minutes with him. In the way a singer — one who is helpfully labelled Wolf — tries many a smarmy line, but nothing impresses a girl like quick reflexes. In the way the background score knows when to hush up and the camera knows when to push in really close and give the character her moment.
The supporting cast is uniformly solid, and the finely crafted film is shot well by Laxman Utekar, though, for obvious reasons, I wish it had a female cinematographer. The writing is what really shines, restrained and easy. The therapist likens trying out lovers to a hunt for the perfect chair, and, at some point, one fellow — a particularly roomy one, who shuts up easy — is offhandedly described as a ‘musical chair.’ It goes without saying that those make fleeting seats. Beautiful.
Shinde might be the most celebratory feminist among our mainstream filmmakers, her heroines far from being defined or restrained by men. Dear Zindagi is a lovely picture, made with finesse and heart, and one that not only takes some stigma off the idea of seeking therapy, but — in the most natural of ways — goes a long way in making a viewer think of the people who matter most.
The single smartest trick in this film, however, may well be the primary casting decision. Because a good therapist is a superstar.
Rating: 4 stars
First published Rediff, November 25, 2016