Zoya Akhtar’s biggest triumph in ‘Dil Dhadakne Do’ is her ability to make a story set aboard a cruise ship not seem escapist.
Dil Dhadakne Do
Director: Zoya Akhtar
Starring: Anil Kapoor, Shefali Shah, Priyanka Chopra, Ranveer Singh, Anushka Sharma, Rahul Bose
The first involves Kamal Mehra (Kapoor) and his wife Neelam (Shah). Kamal is a Punju business tycoon, a self-made man, as he loves reminding everyone. (Though you wonder, Pluto says, why a self-made man wouldn’t do a better job of making himself.) He’s a doyen of Delhi high society, seems to have it all—a successful international business empire, a loving wife of 30 years, a son to carry forward his considerable legacy, a “well-settled” daughter who’ll soon make him a grandpa. Of course, all of it is really a sham: the company is facing bankruptcy, his wife has little but contempt for him and his serial philandering, his son Kabir (Singh) may or may not be a doofus (Pluto says we’ll have to wait and watch to find out) and his daughter Ayesha (Chopra) is considering leaving her husband Manav (Bose).
But appearances matter, especially in Delhi high society. And so, a public front must be maintained, cracks must be papered over with plastic smiles, anniversaries of loveless marriages must be ostentatiously celebrated by inviting all their friends to a Bosphorus cruise. Pretence, however, can only go so far. In the first of the bedroom scenes, after coming home from a party, Kamal is making one of his blowhard speeches before turning to his wife. “And you,” he coos. “Thirty years, who’d have thunk it? Ah, how time flies.” He’s about to make his move, but is cut off by an icy retort by Neelam: “Why are you still pretending? No one is watching us.” He has nothing to say in response; he picks up a pillow and goes to sleep on the couch.
But appearances matter, especially in Delhi high society. And so, a public front must be maintained, cracks must be papered over with plastic smiles, anniversaries of loveless marriages must be ostentatiously celebrated by inviting all their friends to a Bosphorus cruise.
The second scene occurs shortly afterwards, in Ayesha and Manav’s bedroom. Ayesha’s also self-made, Pluto informs us, having started her own online travel concierge service despite being expected to play the dutiful wife. Everyone’s waiting for her to pop out a baby soon, but she is secretly on the pill, though of course, she can’t build up the courage to tell the world that she’d rather nurture her start-up than some bawling brat. And so, when Manav tries to paw at her, she tries to resist at first, mumbling about being tired after a long day. Far from insisting, he immediately moves away and turns on the football on the telly (judging by the commentary, it’s Chelsea vs QPR). It’s all so pathetic that she decides to throw him a bone. “Come,” she says, and he resumes his pawing. The football commentary continues in the background, and her face tells you all you need to know.
In her review of the film for Firstpost, Deepanjana Pal calls Dil Dhadakne Do “a hipster version of a Sooraj Barjatya film”. Like the “family entertainers” that defined ’90s Bollywood, it is preoccupied with the lives and loves of the fabulously wealthy, spends its massive budget on an ensemble cast and exotic locations, and is too long by half. It takes pot shots at patriarchy, but reaffirms the institution of the family in the end, when the patriarch does a volte face and gives his blessings to true love.
But it is so much more. The instant comparison I made was to PG Wodehouse novels, which, if you think about it (and aren’t averse to stretching a metaphor or two), are Sooraj Barjatya films with (much) better writing and (much) lesser melodrama. Obeying Wodehouse’s signature narrative structure, we are first introduced to our characters and their agendas, who are then assembled in a luxurious idyll—a cruise ship instead of a stately manor—where they play out various deceptions to hilarious results.
There is very little really at stake in Dil Dhadakne Do. Our characters are trapped in gilded cages, but the only thing they’ll lose if they follow their heart is the lifestyle they are accustomed to.
In a blog post on The Guardian’s website making a case for the writer, who has been dismissed over the years for an apparent lack of profundity, Sam Jordison writes: “The carefree Eden that most of Wodehouse’s characters inhabit is not just unrealistic, it’s determinedly so. Everyone is rich—or at least on the make—and everyone is happy, give or take the intrusion of a few angry aunts…The serious businesses of procreation, setting up home and simple survival are avoided. Old age brings only ebullient eccentricity and no one ever dies. These are big questions that Wodehouse refused to ask. And in this refusal he makes them all the more prominent.”
There is very little really at stake in Dil Dhadakne Do. Nobody’s life is ever in any real danger except in the ridiculous final sequence. Even though the Mehras are facing bankruptcy, it’s not as if they’re starving to death; the only tangible effect seems to be that Kabir will have to give up his beloved private plane. Our characters are trapped in gilded cages, but the only thing they’ll lose if they follow their heart is the lifestyle they are accustomed to. “You have a heart and a brain,” Kabir’s lover Farah (Sharma) tells him at one point, when he’s complaining about his dad berating him about having nothing of his own. “Follow your heart and your brain will find a way.”
As the plot gets more and more convoluted, as tensions begin to run high and the endless scheming begins to get ridiculous, even the characters start to notice this, and begin asking the big questions. “Don’t you have anything better to do?” one character berates her gossip-mongering mother and her friends. “Can’t you guys get jobs?” (Mommy’s response is hilarious, especially because she seems genuinely baffled: “But who’d offer us jobs?”) At another point, Kabir calls his mother out for not leaving her husband simply because she didn’t have anywhere else to go.
But however much you dismiss the concerns of the Mehra clan as the petty whinging of the point one percent, there is little chance you won’t feel for Neelam as she looks into the mirror and stuffs her face with a muffin, seeking refuge from the humiliation of her husband shamelessly flirting away with some firang in front of all their friends on their wedding anniversary in the reliable dopamine flow of a sugar rush. There are few who wouldn’t empathise with Ayesha’s hurt at her loved ones trivialising her professional life as just another harmless distraction before she fulfils her real destiny as wife and mother. Sure, it’s hard to feel Kabir’s pain at losing his private jet, but very easy to understand the pain that comes from being a constant disappointment to your father.
As a brat from one of the first families of Bollywood and a filmmaker of considerable sensitivity, Zoya Akhtar has the piercing gaze of the insider, mindful both of the hypocrisies of the rich and famous as well as the toll this rarefied existence takes on its inhabitants.
None of these are exactly novel themes for Bollywood films. But even though they’re playing archetypal roles, the entire cast turns in superlative performances, steering clear of tired clichés. There is a self-consciousness that pervades Dil Dhadakne Do, a recognition that instead of breaking new ground, they must build differently on familiar terrain. Information is dispensed with carefully; despite there being a narrator, the audience is trusted to not require constant spoonfeeding.
That is, of course, because of the fabulous script (story by Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti, dialogues by Farhan and Javed Akhtar), which makes the film grow on you, no matter what your politics are. Sure, you’re passing easy judgement about the shallowness of the major characters, about how privileged the notion of fetishising absolute choice is (thankfully, this is a little toned down from the excesses of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara), about Aamir Khan breaking into his Satyameva Jayate voice to speak up for the rights of these poor little rich kids, but almost grudgingly, you soon acknowledge that at least for the duration of this film, you actually do care what happens to these (mostly) three-dimensional characters.
Much like Wodehouse, Zoya Akhtar holds up a mirror to high society in the guise of good-natured ribbing. As a brat from one of the first families of Bollywood and a filmmaker of considerable sensitivity, she has the piercing gaze of the insider, mindful both of the hypocrisies of the rich and famous as well as the toll this rarefied existence takes on its inhabitants. Whether it’s through stray dialogues (“Phir bhaag gayi teri maid? What do you do to them?”) or well-crafted character-defining moments (Manav, for instance, both in his views on women empowerment and his childish reaction on being told by his wife that she wants a divorce) or Pluto’s plebeian views on the oddities of the human animal (“When other people pretend to be someone else, they call it hypocrisy; when they do it themselves, they call it duniyadari”), she recreates this world and explains its rules, humanises both the heroes and the villains and invites you to be part of it for as long as that movie ticket allows you to.
It’s not a world you will necessarily return to when you leave the cinema, but it is one you know exists, one that you know isn’t as perfect as it is made out to be. In a way, that is the film’s biggest success—that it can make a story set on a cruise ship not seem escapist.