दिल धड़कने दो
Dir. Zoya Akhtar
Films about rich folks are nothing new in Hindi films. For decades, from Tere Ghar ke Samne to Waqt to Hum Saath Saath Hain, the movies have offered stories about universal emotions - such as romance and loss, family and sacrifice - and lent them an escapist quality by setting them in the sparkling, enormous mansions and the shiny left-hand-drive convertibles of the colossally rich.
Zoya Akhtar's Dil Dhadakne Do does the same, attempting to update the template for the cynical multiplex era. Her characters are not good-hearted innocents who undertake well-meaning but ill-fated deceptions on their way to happily-ever-after. They are self-absorbed, manipulative, controlling, damaged modern people. This doesn't take the movie in the dark direction of, say, Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, one of Hollywood's better forays into the privileged-people-doing-selfish-things narrative realm - rather, Akhtar plays these foibles mostly for laughs, only edging toward old-fashioned filmi heart-tugging at the very end. And for the most part, it works pretty well. The film has a few silly devices and can't consistently maintain the snappy pace of its best sequences, and it does not have anything profound or subtle to say. But on balance it is highly watchable and even, in some moments, shines quite brightly.
Most of that shine is carried by Ranveer Singh, who is charming and funny as Kabir Mehra, scion of the wealthy-but-faltering Mehra family. Kabir is perhaps the film's most delicately crafted character; he is part people-pleaser and part rebel, which if you think about it is not an easy combination to pull off. He has no interest in taking over his father's failing manufacturing business, nor is he willing to marry the young woman his parents have chosen for tactical reasons (her father's quid-pro-quo investment could save the company), but he can't bear to hurt anyone's feelings in asserting these independences. Too, he is a romantic, and he cannot resist either falling in love himself, or taking the opportunity to help another young couple get together. And so in negotiating these competing aspects of his personality, he ties himself into the knots that drive much of the film's plot. Zoya Akhtar has done a nice job inserting Singh's comic talent to break the tension of nearly every confrontational scene in the film. Perhaps less intentionally, he's also the breath of air that revives the movie whenever its flags.
Ranveer Singh doubles down on all that charm and energy in Kabir's romance with Farah (Anushka Sharma, tearing up the screen again in her third film of the year), the lead dancer in the stage show on the cruise ship that the Mehra family has commandeered and on which most of the movie takes place. Kabir and Farah shine brighter than anything else in the film, with joyful and mostly unselfconscious energy. The picturization of "Pehli baar" is the film's best sequence, though the song itself sounds peculiarly borrowed from 1980s bubblegum pop. It begins with Kabir dancing goofily while Farah laughs, and ends with the couple tumbling joyously into bed - delightfully, still singing to one another. Its magical silliness makes it more romantic than any slow jam and sexier than any item song.
Compared to the energy between Kabir and Farah, much of the rest of the film feels somewhat flat. The narration delivered by Kabir's dog (voiced by Aamir Khan) is a miscalculation. The dog's "thoughts" (ugh, it makes me cringe just to write that) add exactly nothing that we viewers could not deduce from simply watching the story unfold, and it would been a less patronizing film without the "gee whiz, humans are funny" running gag. As for the human performers, their work is all solid, and neither distracts nor detracts (except for the perennially irritating Farhan Akhtar, whom I wish would go back behind the camera and stay there).
On the other hand, there isn't much to the characters, either. The cruise ship is populated by two generations of the Mehra family and friends, gathered nominally to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Kabir's parents, Kamal and Neelam (Anil Kapoor and Shefali Shah). For the Mehras, though, the cruise is more a matter of keeping up appearances that their marriage is perfect and that their business is flourishing. They are serviceable, but not particularly incisive or insightful, characterizations. Kabir's sister Ayesha (Priyanka Chopra) is also saddled with a familiar conflict; she has both business acumen and ambition, but is pinned back by the old-fashioned values of her parents, who would never consider putting her in charge of the manufacturing firm. She's also laced in by her husband Manav (Rahul Bose), an uptight chauvinist who is in denial about just how much trouble his marriage is in. (This is a great role for Rahul Bose, whose skin is pulled so tightly across his skull that he looks tense and high-strung even when he isn't. Bose also delivers an outstanding comical moment - all expression and body language, no line - when Ayesha beans Manav with a ferocious racketball shot.) Like her parents' arc, Ayesha's is solid and not especially fresh, but in its deft execution Chopra again supports my theory that she is a real actor when she's given a real role.
Apart from Manav, the characters are firmly divided on generational lines - all the older folks are old-fashioned, sexist, and controlling of their children, while all the young folks are chafing, rebellious, and progressive. It might have been clever to have some character defy this clean division. But the young people are fun, and fairly well-drawn in the limited screen-time they get. Like Kabir and Ayesha, they are all boxed in by their parents' expectations. Nagged to dress the right way, act the right way, show the right interest in marriage, they skulk along with sullen submission; only in their midnight gatherings on the top deck, amongst themselves, do they snap to life. There's a hint here, too, of a thread that Akhtar might have wanted to suggest but not tease all the way out: One of the young women, judging by the way all the young people squirm whenever the adults discuss finding her a husband, is plausibly (and also plausibly deniably) a lesbian, though no one dares say it out loud.(*)
Even the progressive points that the movie does make out loud are watered down. When Manav brags that he is such a forward-thinking guy that he has given his wife permission to run her own business, he is challenged by a character who points out that the marriage is hardly equal if Manav retains the power to grant or deny such permission. The house in my Boston theater, packed with young expat desis, cheered at this line. But the line is delivered by Sunny (Farhan Akhtar), Ayesha's ex-flame. Ayesha spends the whole film trying to assert herself, to get the credit she deserves and the respect she craves, but nobody who matters listens until a man comes along to speak on her behalf. (This is arguably not the movie's fault, but rather a reflection of reality.) In Dil Dhadakne Do's favor, its bumpy climax leaves the Mehra family tentatively bonded, but we don't really know what will happen when their boat reaches the shore. In a film that deals so superficially with the tensions that pull at people too concerned with their own image and their own needs to really listen to each other, too much resolution would have been far too facile.
(*) The same could be said of Zoya Akhtar herself - I have long suspected that she is Reema Kagti's partner in more than scriptwriting, but the internet is remarkably silent on this point.