Friday, November 25, 2016


Release date:
US: November 23, 2016. India: November 25, 2016.
Gauri Shinde

Alia Bhatt, Shah Rukh Khan, Kunal Kapoor, Ali Zafar, Ira Dubey, Yashaswini Dayama, Rohit Saraf, Aban Deohans, Atul Kale, Angad Bedi, Aditya Roy Kapur

Two points. Dear Zindagi is clearly straining at the formula-ridden Bollywood straitjacket to give us a refreshing take on love and family, and for the most part it sticks to its guns. In the end, it does succumb to the pressure to bow to perceived public demand with passing mentions of what we have come to consider inevitable in every Hindi film, but the ride up to that point is so rewarding so often that it is tempting to look past those needless moments.

Writer-director Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi comes four years after her remarkable debut with English Vinglish. If that film brought the charismatic Sridevi back to the big screen as a leading lady after a 15-year hiatus, this one redefines the concept of hero and heroine in Hindi cinema.

Dear Zindagi revolves around Kaira (Alia Bhatt), a talented young cinematographer in Mumbai who despises her parents, appears confident in her romantic relationships yet is ridden with insecurities about the men she is drawn to. Those insecurities lead her to deliberately hurt her boyfriends before they get a chance to hurt her. It does not take a degree in psychology for a viewer to figure out her behaviour patterns, but Kaira is naturally confused by her fears. She ends up seeking professional help, and with some wise counsel, finds her answers herself.

When one of the biggest stars in the history of Bollywood appears on screen about 40 minutes after the opening credits, it goes without saying that this is an extremely unconventional film. Bhatt’s Kaira is the focal point of the story from start to finish whereas Shah Rukh Khan – playing her therapist Dr Jehangir Khan – surfaces towards the latter part of the first half and is nowhere to be seen in the concluding scene.

In a male-obsessed industry still tending to subordinate women in most mainstream projects, this is a decision that shows guts on Shinde’s part and Khan’s evident willingness to experiment. That other MegaKhan, Aamir, took a similar gamble with rewarding results in Taare Zameen Par (2007), and this is a winning aspect of Dear Zindagi too.

SRK gets less screen time but owns every scene he is a part of. In fact, Doc Jehangir enters the picture just as the film is sagging and appears to be repeating itself. His arrival immediately lifts Dear Zindagi. It sags again occasionally thereafter, but never when he is around. Besides, there is such warmth in Kaira’s interactions with the Doc that it envelops the rest of the narrative too.

It is worth mentioning that Khan in this new phase of his career when he is acknowledging his age gracefully, showing us a dash of gray and a whiff of wrinkles, is looking hot.

Kaira explodes in anger at one point when someone describes her as a pataka (firecracker). Well, that’s precisely what Bhatt is – a pataka with pizzazz and verve. What makes her so impactful is that she has had an internal journey with each of her roles so far, and not so far allowed that journey to be overshadowed by her attractive personality. Kaira is simultaneously exasperating and endearing, and Bhatt remains in control of that difficult blend throughout.

Still, the film needed more matter to wrap around these two lovely stars, and Dear Zindagi too often does not. Some of that comes from the failure to build up the satellite characters who are Kaira’s go-to people in times of need. We get that she is pre-occupied with her own emotional struggles to the point of not noticing their problems, but that is no excuse for the writing to neglect them too.

Who is Fatima (Ira Dubey) beyond being a mature, married friend? Who is Jackie (Yashaswini Dayama) beyond being a sweet, supportive, possibly younger friend? Who and what is that chubby male colleague beyond being chubby and funny? Who is her brother Kiddo (Rohit Saraf) whom she loves, beyond being her brother Kiddo whom she loves? Who and what are her boyfriends Sid (Angad Bedi), Raghuvendra (Kunal Kapoor) and Rumi (Ali Zafar) beyond being a good-looking restaurateur, a good-looking producer and a good-looking musician?

(Spoiler alert begins) And then there are those two oh-no moments towards the end – you know the kind that make you say, “Oh no, you too Dear Zindagi”? One of them seems to go along with the traditional view that characters played by a major male star and a major female star must inevitably be attracted to each other if they interact long enough in a story; the other underlines the essentiality of a man in a woman’s life to make her feel complete. Both are fleeting suggestions, but they pull down the film’s assuredness about what it is trying to say until then. Oh no, you too Dear Zindagi? (Spoiler alert ends)

For this and other reasons the film is inconsistent and intermittently lightweight. Yet, there is much else to recommend in Dear Zindagi.

The use of music, Amit Trivedi’s breezy tunes and Kausar Munir’s conversational lyrics are lots of fun, as are Kaira’s many amusing interactions with her friends. DoP Laxman Utekar fills the film with pretty frames of Goa beyond what we are used to seeing of that picturesque state, and is just as imaginative in his focus on Khan and Bhatt’s faces. Watch out for the closing shots of Bhatt on a beach.

From an industry that usually treats parents as deities deserving to be worshipped, it is also unusual to get a story that does not ignore these gods’ feet of clay, especially considering that Dear Zindagi is co-produced by Karan “It’s All About Loving Your Parents” Johar.

Above all, it is nice to see a film making an effort to destigmatise patient-therapist interactions, in a portrayal far removed from the “paagalkhanas (lunatic asylums)” of an earlier Bollywood era. 

Dear Zindagi then is a mixed bag. I loved SRK in the film, Bhatt is always a pleasure to watch, the story visits many themes that are uncommon in Bollywood, and several of the discussions are either witty or insightful or both. Overall though, the film comes across as being not enough because the writing needed more substance.

Dear Gauri Shinde,

You broke the mould with the delightful English Vinglish. Since you have defied convention in so many ways this time round too, you may as well have gone the entire distance without worrying about the consequences. We believe in you. Please do have faith in our faith in you.


A genuine well-wisher.

Rating (out of five stars): **1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
149 minutes 53 seconds

This review has also been published on Firstpost:

Sunday, November 20, 2016


Release date:
November 18, 2016

Vishnu Unnikrishnan, Dharmajan Bolgatty, Prayaga Martin, Lijomol Jose, Siju Wilson, Rahul Madhav, Salim Kumar, Siddique

“However much paint you put on an autorickshaw, it will not become a BMW,” says a man to an aspiring actor in Kattappanayile Rithwik Roshan. The reference is to the listener’s looks, which in this film is almost entirely a commentary on the average Malayali’s obsession with light complexions and contempt for dark skin.

Kattappanayile Rithwik Roshan (KRR) is the story of a young man in the town of Kattappana in Kerala who wants to be a movie star. Krishnan a.k.a. Kichchoo’s father is a loader. His mother died when he was born, a fact that Senior holds against him. Kichchoo is taunted by the community – his own parent, family friends, schoolmates and others – for his skin colour, but their attitude changes when he bags a small role in a big film. The snide remarks however return when he spends a decade playing an extra – even if a familiar face – in Malayalam cinema.

Director Nadirshah’s film takes us through Kichchoo’s struggles with his career, unrequited love and the crippling bias he faces at every turn.

Anyone who is acquainted with Kerala will tell you that in the collective psyche of India’s most literate state, light is beautiful and dark is inadequate if not ugly. In a 1997 interview, Arundhati Roy told India Today’s Rohit Brijnath this about her growing up years in Kottayam: “I was the worst thing a woman could be in Kerala – thin, black and clever.” If north Indians are by and large convinced that they are better-looking than their fellow Indians south of the Vindhyas, it is equally (sadly) true that Keralites place north Indian beauty on a pedestal higher than their own. KRR is a stinging indictment of Kerala’s white colour preference couched in rib-tickling comedy.

Just as importantly however, Team KRR unwittingly reveals that although they have good intentions, they too have not entirely been able to get past their own social conditioning.

And so, while the nasty barbs thrown at Kichchoo are never glorified in the narrative, the casting tells its own story. Kichchoo falls for Ann Maria who is projected as a beauty. Kani is the next-door neighbour he barely notices although she is in love with him – she is projected as a plain Jane. Ironically, both women are played by extremely pretty actresses with one telling contrast: in the role of Ann Maria is the light-skinned Prayaga Martin while Kani is portrayed by the dark-skinned Lijomol Jose. The fact that Nadirshah thinks Martin is a stunner and Jose is ordinary reflects his own subconscious predispositions.

Likewise, the hot guy in the film (the one Kichchoo thinks Ann is hooking up with) is pointedly north Indian. And yes, the Rithwik Roshan of the title is an amusingly distorted reference to Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan whose looks – light eyes, light skin and tall, muscular frame – evidently constitute Nadirshah’s ideal of Indian male beauty.

Until the director overcomes his own deep-seated prejudices, there is Kattappanayile Rithwik Roshan, a film worth watching despite its flaws because at least it means well.

KRR is written by Bibin George and Vishnu Unnikrishnan who also wrote the director’s first film, the 2015 hit Amar Akbar Anthony. Unnikrishnan also plays Kichchoo while Dharmajan Bolgatty steps into the role of his best friend Dasappan. They are a hoot together and for the most part their conversations had me giggling helplessly. The talented supporting cast includes veterans Salim Kumar and Siddique as Kani and Kichchoo’s respective fathers.

Nadirshah and his actors are blessed with impeccable comic timing, thus giving KRR an unrelenting pace. Film buffs will enjoy the insights into the workings of Mollywood and the multiple references to Indian cinema across languages.

For the most part, KRR’s humour is at once heart-wrenching and hilarious. It is used cleverly to soften the slap this film lands on the collective faces of the audience who must confront their own colour obsession while watching it. There is so much to love in it – the comedy, the messaging, the acting – that its failings hurt more than they might in a crude, unthinking film.

For instance, KRR is that rare Malayalam film which chides a man for assuming that a woman was leading him on merely because she was friendly. It is also that rare commercial Indian film that acknowledges the possibility of a friendship between two people of the opposite sex after the woman has rejected the man’s romantic overtures. But the film’s gender politics is confused and disappointing. For example, Team KRR serves up a running joke about stalking featuring a likeable comedian, rounding it off with the common – and dangerous – Indian cinematic cliché of a woman who is at first disgusted by her stalker but then becomes interested in him.

In a film that is clearly designed to be sensitive, this disturbing track unintentionally reveals as much about Kerala’s reality and Team KRR’s mentality as the story it intentionally tells.

Kattappanayile Rithwik Roshan is entertaining and moving for the most part. Perhaps a day will come when Team KRR are cured of their own prejudices, enabling them to make a film that is truly worth celebrating. This one is a baby step on a dismal cinematic and social landscape.

Rating (out of five): **1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
140 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost: