When I watched Gauri Shinde’s debut movie, English Vinglish, I had zero expectations from it. To be fair, I was in fact afraid I’d be bored. But I was rather charmed in the end. It had its moments. And I could keep my cynicism aside for those two and something hours. With Dear Zindagi, I was already sold, because I do like Alia. Especially after Highway (and that forgettable Two States, in which she managed to shine through the unadulterated crap somehow). And Gauri Shinde had done enough in her earlier movie to merit a watch.
Did I like it? Yes. Was it a great film, no. I don’t think I was expecting great. But what works here, are a couple of very good performances. Alia just seems effortless as Kaira, totally owning the character, to use a contemporary phrase. SRK as Dr. Khan is closer to Kabir Khan of Chak De than his usual over-the-top character portrayals. Yes, he cannot entirely let go some of the exaggerated head nods and the likes, but I’d rather see SRK like this than when he is running that stupid rat race with Sallu and co.
The story is quite straightforward. Kaira, a cinematographer, is living the coveted modern life, unmarried, with career aspirations, affairs, and partying. Her relationship status, in Facebook style, would be “it’s complicated”, as she’s involved with her co-worker Raghuvendra (Kunal Kapoor), even as she is dating someone else — the relationship does not survive, and as she doesn’t want to take the other affair to a more serious track, Rahuvendra decides to move on (in a rather strange, unconvincing manner, for the convenience of the plot), just after she has to move back to her parent’s house in Goa for a month thanks to her landlord evicting her on short notice. It’s there, post the breakup (that really wasn’t, because there was no real relationship, just a possibility), that she has to confront the demons in her past/mind, as she , something the hatke psychologist Jug — Jahangir Khan — helps her identifying, and coming to terms with.
Shot beautifully, with teasing glimpses of South Bombay and quite an eyeful of Goa, the story unfolds at a nice languid pace. Alia is as perfect casting choice for Kaira as could be. Significant part of the movie is in the counseling sessions (indoor and outdoor) with Jug, and those are its better moments (yes it’s a significant violation of “show don’t tell”, but still). The biggest success of Dear Zindagi for me is that it even attempted to chew into this territory, and did a decent enough job with it. Besides, the drama genre in Bollywood is typically filled with melodrama, and there is no space for a more nuanced dialog, which is abundant here. Kaira’s character seems very real and very contemporary. And there is no KJo style gloss to smooth out every hint of texture. Okay, not a lot, just some.
Of course Gauri Shinde is no Anurag Kashyap/Tigmanshu Dhulia. The script is rather weak. Last 20 mins or so really adds nothing, even undoes an otherwise mostly-relate-able/believable narrative. The side characters are quite of the cardboard variety, serving a purpose, or just about it. For those used to better “serious” (not necessarily in content, but intent) cinema, even from Indian directors (Kashyap/Bharadwaj/…) it does seem a little hollow or scratching the surface, while those used to Sallu style instant gratification (I’m assuming, because I frankly don’t understand that shit at all) will find it a little of a drab drag. But between the two ends lies a not-so-narrow niche where some directors seem to be making a play (Zoya Akhtar, Farhan Akhtar, Imtiaz Ali, to name a few), with varied results. And Gauri Shinde surely has the eye on that niche, with two of her films, and deservedly, I’d say.
The thing is, this could have been something really really good with some tight editing, some more depth, a little less pulp. But as it stands, it’s still quite good — worth a watch with all its shortcomings.
What works: lead performances (specifically Alia), cinematography, feel-good, flow, little touches here and there, subject.
What doesn’t: over-closure (I’d say just stop 25 minutes to the stop line and you’ve got a much better movie), weak supporting characters (and hence performances), a bit shallow (the side effect of feel-good at all costs), the script could have been tighter, a bit preachy. Music is utilitarian, nothing I’d listen to again.
PS: The featured image is a still from the film, and not my own photograph as usually is (with the exception when I borrow one from Atul Sabnis).