Friday 2 December 2016

The doctor is in: "Dear Zindagi"

Should we be surprised that Hindi cinema has taken such a marked turn for the feminist in recent times? Or just relieved that after decades of stranding its actresses in pretty stock, often demeaning characterisations - damsels in distress, becoming decoration on our dashing hero's arm - the industry's leading lights should have started looking out for their daughters, or young women much like their daughters? Such were the plots of last year's Salman Khan megahit Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Amitabh Bachchan's recent Pink; such would appear to be the premise of Aamir Khan's Dangal, opening over Christmas. In days gone by, Dear Zindagi might have been sold on the participation of its resident superstar Shah Rukh Khan, but things change: Khan here cedes top billing, and the first hour-and-a-bit, to young Alia Bhatt, and the story of a female creative struggling to make her way in modern Mumbai.

Bhatt's Kaira is no stranger to discrimination within the local film industry: a director of photography, the images she composes are far clearer than her own future. Her ambitions to direct her own material have been well and truly squashed against the glass ceiling; she has an on-off relationship with Raghu (Kunal Kapoor), a male contemporary whose own directorial career is taking him places (New York, to be precise), while she's been left behind shooting music videos. It's in the midst of this personal and professional turmoil - with news breaking that Raghu has taken up with a producer ex - that Kaira beats a retreat, taking up a friend's offer to join her on holiday in Goa; here, like countless travellers and other pilgrims before her, she will come to find a measure of happiness and inner peace.

It sounds perilously Eat Pray Love, but it's soon clear that writer-director Gauri Shinde (English Vinglish) has a major asset in Bhatt, the emergent leading lady who's doing as much as, say, Jennifer Lawrence in Hollywood to drag her boys'-club of an industry into the 21st century. Throughout this first half, Bhatt gives credible, resolutely non-melodramatic responses to the situations she's placed into; she doesn't have that air of privilege that gets Indian actresses cast as princesses or in perfume commercials, but she laughs like a real woman, and cries like one, too - and these are disarming traits to observe in the figure of one elevated so rapidly to the standing of moviestar. (Dollars to doughnuts, you'll know at least one person in your immediate circle who bites their bottom lip the way Bhatt does - and it still seems instinctive, not imitated or forced.)

Via her dazzling lead, Shinde can address not just the position of women like her within latter-day Bollywood, but also those challenges faced by many other young urban professionals: Kaira's parents wonder why their girl doesn't just settle down and find herself sensible clerical work - and idly suspect, given her inability to keep a man, that she might just be Lebanese. (They mean lesbian, bless them.) What emerges is an unusually sharp depiction of that pronounced chasm that has opened up between dwellers of the cutthroat, post-capitalist city, subject on a daily basis to all manner of stresses and strains, and their more comfortably appointed elders, who've enjoyed all the benefits of an easier life, and can't quite fathom why on earth their offspring aren't as happy or secure as they are.

Enter Khan - or Dr. Khan, as he's introduced here, the shrink Kaira crosses paths with while reluctantly shooting a promo for a conference centre at her uncle's behest. It's in the safe space of the shrink's office that Kaira opens up, and the film reveals its true theme: the kind of mental health issues - be they stress or depression - that aren't spoken about in many Western homes, let alone Eastern households. Kaira's troubled state of mind is established in a striking pre-interval dream sequence that envisions our heroine tumbling backwards off the top of a building site; once we've emptied our bladders and retaken our seats, we watch Dr. Khan assisting his client to pick up the pieces and put herself back together again. Shinde does well to mix these vaguely theatrical encounters up a little: one beach-based session should send even non-neurotics racing from the multiplex to their nearest Thomas Cook.

Recruiting two very likable screen presences ensures this process is an engaging one, and Shinde's script covers a lot of ground: Kaira's complicated relationship with her distant mother, the pressures of being seen as a "good girl", the slurs that attach themselves to any young Indian woman who dares to see more than one guy simultaneously. (Dr. Khan eases our heroine's mind on the last point by comparing men to chairs: you wouldn't buy the first one you saw if it wasn't right for your room. Also: some are presumably nicer to sit on than others.) Moving away from Mumbai to the coast ensures the second half is a softer, more cushioned affair, granted. Kaira embarks upon a fling with a guitar-strumming lothario who, in chair terms, is pure balsa, with wonky legs; as a cinematographer, she of all people would spot how the light gets diffuse and the mise-en-scene fills up with wraps and throw pillows.

Yet Shinde intuits her heroine's dire need for a little time out; ours, too. In this respect, Dear Zindagi is not so unlike this year's Cannes favourite Toni Erdmann in its methods, and Bhatt, like that film's Sandra Hüller, is an actress you long to see smiling again. As for Khan, as Ae Dil Hai Mushkil suggested, he's made a felicitous mid-career transition to supporting and character parts, and the reaction shots that come with those - though he surely had the confidence of knowing that Shinde had written one of the few movie therapists who seems to have read more than The Big Book of Examination Room Homilies, and therefore has useful, actionable life-advice to impart when he does speak. Mostly, he's acknowledged that rather than shouting, walking or screwing over an actress, the most worthwhile and generous compliment he can now pay a co-star is to rearrange the furniture and simply listen - and this generally therapeutic experience rightly gives Bhatt its fullest attention.

Dear Zindagi is now playing in cinemas nationwide.    

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