In the last few days since I saw Dil Dhadakne Do, every time someone has asked me what I thought of the movie, I have struggled to form a decisive opinion. It’s not because it’s one of those movies which is so strictly average that I can’t decide whether I loved it or hated it; I certainly neither loved it nor hated it, but I’m pretty sure the movie leans towards one more than the other. The issue is, I realized, that the movie feels oddly unworthy of the effort of opining. It feels like a movie that just doesn’t… matter.
Critics have labeled Dil Dhadakne Do as feel-good “fluff” and criticized it for being too insubstantial; similar criticisms were lodged against Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Zoya Akhtar’s last directorial outing. To be fair, fluff, in itself, isn’t a sin. It’s certainly not criminal for a movie to be a purely escapist, feel-good experience, and Bollywood has produced several smart, entertaining movies that have excelled at being just that (Band Baaja Baarat, anyone?).
Moreover, Dil Dhadakne Do isn’t all fluff; it has its moments of emotional depth and social satire. But the problem with the film is this: neither does Zoya Akhtar dare to fully realize the satiric and emotional ambitions of the premise, nor does she give in entirely to her penchant for Karan Johar-esque frothiness. She oscillates between the two, compensating for each instance of raw emotion with a crowd-pleasing corny line, each instance of truly black humour with an over-the-top piece of comedy, and each instance of subtle metaphor with too much exposition. The fluff in Dil Dhadakne Do seems egregious because it cheapens its attempts at depth (and vice versa), giving us a film that feels inconsistent and insincere.
The film’s denouement is the perfect example. The movie ends in medias res, creating the illusion of a realistic, unresolved narrative; nevertheless, by then it has neatly resolved all the characters’ arcs, interpersonal conflicts and love triangles in much too convenient ways. It’s a nice, satisfying Bollywood conclusion that pretends not to be a nice, satisfying Bollywood conclusion. (Akhtar played a similar trick in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, which ends in the middle of a bull run, leaving the fates of its protagonists enticingly undecided, but tells you how everything turns out in a wedding/song-and-dance credits sequence).
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Dil Dhadakne Do revolves around the wealthy and wildly dysfunctional Mehras. Businessman/domineering patriarch/philandering husband Kamal (Anil Kapoor) and his miserable wife Neelam (Shefali Shah) are stuck in a crumbling marriage and are too self-absorbed to heed to their children’s concerns. Their daughter Ayesha (Priyanka Chopra), a highly successful entrepreneur by day and family doormat by night, is trapped in a loveless marriage of her own; their son, man-child Kabir (played by a fabulous Ranveer Singh), struggles to find purpose even as his parents plan his future as the heir to the family business. With their business facing bankruptcy, the Mehras invite all their rich and elite friends for a two-week cruise: a bid to attract investors disguised as an anniversary celebration. Cue misunderstandings, confrontations and forbidden romances.
That Akhtar doesn’t have faith in the intelligence of her audience is evident from the framing device she employs. The film is loosely narrated by Pluto, the pet dog of the Mehras. To be precise, Pluto (voiced by Aamir Khan) doesn’t as much narrate the events of the plot as pontificate on them, providing didactic platitudes about humans and their oh-so-smart-yet-stupid ways. In a film that already lacks subtlety, and many of whose characters are so exaggerated and one-note that they veer towards caricature, it baffles me why the metaphorical layers of every scene must be spoon-fed to us. The entire Pluto track adds nothing to the plot (except a healthy dose of condescension), but adds significantly to the film’s already overlong, 170-minute runtime.
The redundancies don’t end here. Anushka Sharma and Farhan Akhtar play roles that are spectacularly dispensable. Anushka plays Farah, a gutsy dancer on the cruise with whom Kabir Mehra falls in love. Her two significant contributions to the narrative include a dance sequence and talking Kabir into coming of age. I must concede, though, that the fierce presence Anushka brings to the film (in spite of all the tired, poor-but-independent-girl-meets-rich-bratty-boy-and-transforms-him tropes laden onto her) somewhat justifies her role. There’s also a lovely scene in a swimming pool, where Anushka and Ranveer first meet and swim back and forth past each other, exchanging romantically charged glances but not a word. It’s simultaneously a tender and exciting moment, rendered palpable by the two actors, and for that scene alone I could probably condone the uselessness of the rest of Anushka’s arc.
For Farhan, however, I can make no such concessions; his presence is not just unnecessary, but even detrimental to the film. Farhan plays Sunny, an old flame of Ayesha’s who returns after many years and gives her the nudge she needs to end her unhappy marriage. Shaving off the few scenes centered on Sunny would not only have helped tighten the cluttered film without any cost to the narrative, it would also have made Ayesha’s character arc stronger. Wouldn’t her personal journey be more challenging and therefore, more rewarding, if she realized that she deserved more respect and needed to stand up for herself without another man having to tell her as much? If she made the difficult decision to choose her happiness and independence over that of others and accepted its consequences, without a hunky ex-flame and a happily-ever-after waiting on the other side?
Beneath all this blubber are several honest, affecting moments. For instance, the scenes that lay bare the ridiculous dysfunction of the Mehra family hit the spot, thanks to wry dialogue and impressive performances. I also enjoyed the more unabashed moments of entertainment: the songs and dances are a lot of fun, and the over-the-top characterization of the Delhi elite makes for some genuinely funny scenarios. But in trying to squeeze it all in, Akhtar doesn’t allow any of these instances enough depth to define the film – to grow from just moments to themes.
If there is anything that defines the film, it is this: the aspirational pleasures of watching the rich and beautiful live glamorous lifestyles in exotic locations. Dil Dhadakne Do is, without doubt, a watchable film. Unfortunately, it’s not much more than that.