Dil Dhadakne Do ***
Dir: Zoya Akhtar. With: Anil Kapoor, Shefali Shetty, Priyanka Chopra, Ranveer Singh. 170 mins. Cert: 12A
It must be Bollywood’s silly season. Last month’s Piku structured itself around the constipated Amitabh Bachchan’s inability to pass solids; now Dil Dhadakne Do, the latest crowdpleaser from writer-director Zoya Akhtar (Luck by Chance, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara) sees the misadventures of a family of one-percenters narrated by a dog with Aamir Khan’s voice. Seeing as this family’s weighing up whether to sell off their private jet, we arguably need a closer point of identification; this humble pooch, balefully observing his masters’ follies, will for a while be the most sympathetic presence on screen.
We meet the Mehras as they embark upon a ten-day Bosphorus cruise, organised by industrialist patriarch Kamal (Anil Kapoor) to celebrate three decades of marriage to the meekly loyal Neelam (Shefali Shetty). The voyage is intended to foster a spirit of togetherness amid mounting business tensions – friends and family are all aboard – yet a split soon opens up between older and younger passengers, as pronounced as that between rich and poor on James Cameron’s Titanic. (Akhtar’s title – “Let the Heart Go On”, according to my schoolboy Hindi – may be a sly reference to that other blockbusting boat movie.)
Parental pressure has already been applied to daughter Ayesha (Priyanka Chopra), yet to conceive with her dour businessman hubby, but she’s keeping a secret: keener to pursue a career than raise a child, she’s been on the pill for several months. As for heir apparent Kabir (Ranveer Singh), a commercially beneficial union has been arranged with another clan’s daughter, but his eyes have alighted upon Farah (Anushka Sharma), a cabaret dancer who, by way of further provocation to Kamal, just so happens to be Muslim. As you may have intuited, we are sailing into choppy waters.
The question is whether this ship functions as a complex, multi-levelled metaphor for contemporary India or merely a big block of soap, trailing suds in its wake. For much of the first half, it seesaws uneasily: the drama sends you reaching for the Dramamine. Co-writing with her brother Farhan (who cameos as Ayesha’s ex), Akhtar evidently has certain hypocrisies on her radar. She regrets how, when boy meets girl, it often bestows honour on one family and shame on the other; through Kamal, she’s spoofing parents who retain altogether inflexible ideas of what a 21st century match might constitute.
Yet behind the idiosyncratic, canine’s-eye framing device, many early scenes prove interchangeable with the foursquare fodder passed to the starry ensembles of, say, The Family Stone or This Is Where I Leave You. This homogenisation hobbles the musical sequences, which – rather than the traditional eruptions of energy – feel self-conscious and cringing: a nightclub flapper pastiche, a rehearsal studio duet in which the music is assiduously and somewhat joylessly sourced. In these three-hour masala movies, there can be a lot more sauce than meat, and Akhtar’s leans towards the mild.
For all that, she pulls off something semi-miraculous in the second half, as – unlike her Hollywood predecessors – she makes us care about her characters. Possibly it’s significant that there’s a brother and sister behind the camera; either way, the film gains an extra emotional dimension as Ayesha and Kabir, unmoored from their usual surrounds, realise they’ve become prisoners of wealth and luxury, and strive – at potentially huge personal cost – to navigate safe passage. Chopra’s face could well launch a thousand ships; her lilting close-ups here, as Ayesha’s secret emerges, reveal the actress as an unusually sensitive and responsive beauty.
Singh, meanwhile, is busy making playboy Kabir’s smirks and sniggers unexpectedly winning: they seem positively revolutionary when set against his straight- or sad-faced elders, those of a young man tacking away from grim obligation and on towards happiness. As these two set to liberating themselves, the Akhtar siblings start to reconfigure the Bollywood family unit in a quietly progressive manner: here, family becomes a lifeboat – a soft landing in times of emergency – rather than a life-threatening lead weight. It takes some while for Dil Dhadakne Do to grab it, but that’s an idea to keep any modern multiplex entertainment afloat.
Dil Dhadakne Do is now playing in cinemas nationwide.