Dir. Gauri Shinde
Dear Zindagi's central social theme is fine. It's an important idea - that regular people can benefit from psychotherapy for regular-people problems - and maybe there is an audience for the film who is not already comfortable with that idea. Its treatment of the sessions between its protagonist Kaira (Alia Bhatt) and her therapist, Dr Jehangir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) is naive and sanitized; it presents therapy as a string of bromides, a matter of finding the right homily for every situation.
But that's all right. If the goal is to demystify therapy for a judgmental audience, then making it look like a heart-to-heart with your favorite eccentrically wise uncle isn't a terrible way to go. And it's a kind of banter at which Shah Rukh Khan excels. Between his hamming (self-consciously here; watch the timing of Jehangir's use of eyedrops to generate a baleful tear) and Alia Bhatt's effective layering of young-adult volatility and young-child vulnerability, the sessions make pretty good cinema.
More remarkable in Dear Zindagi are some of the other notes it hits, undertones to the main theme. It includes a rare portrayal of friendships among women that is not only satisfying but even touches on the subversive. Kaira's group of friends includes Fatima (Ira Dubey) and Jackie (Yashaswini Dayama) (and a couple of young men as well), and over the course of the movie Kaira confides in them, fights with them, cries with them, celebrates with them. Fatima is married - even pregnant - but her husband makes virtually no appearance; he is not relevant to Kaira's story, and Kaira's friendship is with Fatima, not with Fatima-and-spouse. Can you even believe it? A married woman who retains an identity and relationships of her own.
Even more subversive is Kaira's warm and loving relationship with Alka (Akanksha Gade, I think?), who is Kaira's maid. Hindi films have long portrayed warm relationships between employer and servant - that alone is nothing new. The avuncular man or the grumpy but lovable aunty who has been with the family for a generation is an old staple. But it is unusual to see an employer and servant who are contemporaries - especially two young woman - and share the kind of sweet, intimate friendship between Kaira and Alka. There is no doubt about the class divide; it is clear from both clothing and language that Alka is of a different stratum. And yet the closeness between them is real and touching.
When Jehangir Khan asks Kaira to name her "inner circle" of intimate connections, her closest, dearest companions in life, she names her brother, Fatima, Jackie, and Alka. This is almost a throwaway and could easily slip past the viewer without note. But it strikes me as a profound and fascinating statement about Kaira, about Alka, and about class relations in 21st century urban India.
Alka serves another purpose as well, which is to state the film's message in pure, innocent terms, unsullied by any imported English vocabulary: when Kaira explains to her that Jehangir Khan is a doctor who helps you with emotional troubles, Alka exclaims in astonishment and delight that if such really doctors exist, everyone ought to see them. I can't disagree with that.