7 June 2015

The Heart of the Matter

Today's Mumbai Mirror column:

Rich people do think about money, suggests 'Dil Dhadakne Do'. And sometimes, it seems, they even have feelings.

Through the looking glass: Anil Kapoor and Shefali Shah in a scene from Zoya Akhtar's Dil Dhadakne Do (2015)
For that category of Zoya Akhtar fans who have been waiting for a return to the understated charisma of Luck By Chance, the arrival of Dil Dhadakne Do tells us what we've been refusing to believe: Woh director na milegi dobara. DDD, which plays out almost entirely on an ocean cruise, has much more in common with Akhtar's second offering, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. Other than replacing sunkissed Spain with Turkey, Akhtar has substituted ZNMD's male friendship with a focus on family bonding. 

The family, needless to say, is fantastically rich. The Mehras -- salt-and-pepper-haired Kamal (Anil Kapoor) and trying-to-lose-weight Neelam (Shefali Shah), both rather fine -- are celebrating thirty years of marriage by inviting close friends and family on an all-expenses-paid luxury cruise. The fact that it's a marriage both parties have pretty much checked out of doesn't seem to matter much to anyone, least of all the gossipy ladies who seem to hang out with Neelam only so they can make catty remarks behind her back. Even the Mehra progeny -- Ranveer Singh and Priyanka Chopra, both effective in their respective roles as hangdog and tightly-coiled siblings -- seem not to particularly care that the anniversary is just an excuse for their parents to conduct a lavish display of wealth. 

There's nothing wrong with the premise. In fact, Akhtar makes things interesting by telling us that Kamal Mehra's plastic-container-manufacturing firm is making losses. It makes the expensiveness of the cruise a kind of Jalsaghar-style last dance, before the Mehras are forced to publicly acknowledge impending bankruptcy. It also increases the level of fakeness with which we're now dealing. Plus I enjoyed the idea that someone who thinks nothing of inviting three dozen people on a two-week-cruise can simultaneously keep zealous tabs on how much champagne is being drunk. 

One of the unexpected things about DDD as a rich-people film is that the rich people in it aren't oblivious to questions of money. Kamal Mehra's self-made businessman (nouveau riche if you're being snooty) is full of resentment at the people living off the wealth he thinks has been produced by his talent and hard work, and the scenes in which this comes to the surface -- with his wife and son respectively -- are some of the film's most brutally honest. I wasn't quite as convinced by the idea of Ayesha's being self-made because she sold her jewellery to start a business: there's a bizarre obliviousness here about khandaani capital as what helps create capitalists. 

But the film's take on these business families is so ridiculously monochromatic that one has the sneaking suspicion that this is the Bombay person's unreconstructed view of the Delhi rich. Whereas in both of Akhtar's previous films, one felt she wasn't harsh enough with her characters, here it seems that she doesn't like them at all. The men's golf-playing camaraderie involves snarkily pulling each other down on business deals, while the lunching wives do the same on personal matters. Ranveer and Priyanka's likeable characters are saddled with familial expectations whose unreasonable burdens Akhtar is clearly sympathetic to, being the inheritor of a weighty family legacy herself. But Akhtar's account of the Delhi elite stops at the lowest level of caricature: uncles who mispronounce English words, and aunties who have nothing better to do than matchmake their daughters, or those of others. And oh God, is it possible that a business scion distressed about selling his private plane would have a mother trying to comfort him with a Nirula's Hot Chocolate Fudge? The whole of the parental generation is shown as so dull, manipulative and narrow-minded that it's not at all clear how their children are managing not to be like them. 

These are the distant, controlling rich parents we've met in many a Hindi film (think of Shenaz Treasurywala's parents in Delhi Belly, or Imran Khan's in Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu), and I applaud Akhtar's desire to scale up them into full-fledged characters. Anil Kapoor is brilliant in comic mode - wait for the moment when he hides behind a tree, or the smug grin with which he sits up from a hospital bed. The tragically under-used Shefali Shah is better in the bitter moments, but even she has some exceptional scenes of black humour: "Acting kyon kar rahe ho?" she says to her suddenly romantic husband, deadpan. "Koi nahi dekh raha.

Such constant transitions from humour to high drama are not easy, and the actors do a fine job, even if the film doesn't always pull it off as a whole. Even Rahul Bose, cruelly miscast as Ayesha's preachy illiberal bore of a husband, manages some decent physical comedy on the tennis court. It's clear that Akhtar is aiming for something that sits between our love of melodrama and a sharply funny undercutting of it. The signature scene that exemplifies this is probably the one where a character threatens to cut her wrist -- with a butter knife. The deliberately dramatised climax, too, is of this ilk. 

But when you've spent a whole film showing people as hypocritical control-freaks who're only concerned with what 'society' thinks of them, it's hard to believe in their last-minute changes of heart. No matter what the film's most ridiculous device -- the family dog Pluto, pontificating on human foibles in the voice of Aamir Khan -- tells us, it's hard to believe these unpleasant people have a dil that dhadkos after all. We can but try.

1 comment:

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