Bollywood’s thoughtful ‘Dear Zindagi’ swaps spectacle for spirit
Every winter, Bollywood, just like Hollywood, pulls out all the stops in hopes of scoring awards and holiday box office success
Some of the year’s most buzzed Bollywood releases were Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, which quickly fell under fire for an entitled protagonist, and the upcoming Befikre, whose advertising campaign takes care to emphasize that Indian movies are cool with kissing now. The hope in all that clutter was always Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi (Dear Life), starring Alia Bhatt, a standout in the new class of young Bollywood actresses, and superstar Shahrukh Khan as not her love interest, but her therapist.
Dear Zindagi tells the simple story of Kaira (Bhatt), who begins to spiral after a breakup, an engaged ex, a lost job and getting kicked out of her gorgeous Mumbai apartment. Forced to go home to her parents (with whom she has an insufficiently explained strenuous relationship), she stumbles upon Dr. Jehangir Khan (Khan) and starts going to therapy.
Where the film excels is in its departure from the tropes the define Bollywood as a genre. There are songs, but not choreographed musical numbers. There’s romance, but it’s peripheral, and Kaira largely eschews it because she doesn’t feel any emotional attachment. Like the 2014 film Queen, it’s about one woman, but where Queen was about self-discovery, Dear Zindagi is about self love.
Kaira is written as something of a cross between the manic pixie dream girl and the newly minted difficult female protagonist it’s a tenuous cross-section, but Bhatt finds the sweet spot and creates someone real, a woman struggling to understand what makes her selfish and insecure rather than basking in how “modern” she is.
It’s that balance that works for Dear Zindagi on multiple levels. It’s modern, but still Indian, family-oriented while challenging deeply ingrained cultural values. Like so many heroines before her, Kaira watches her old flame choose to be with someone else, and at a crossroads in the future of their relationship, she chooses an option more pragmatic than dramatic. The film presents her love and sex life intertwined without inundating the viewer with either (ahem: Befikre).
Monumentally, writer-director Shinde and her team punch through the unspoken wall barring many Indians and people all around the world from discussing mental health. When Dr. Khan is introduced at a mental health awareness lecture, a questioner bandies about the words “crazy” and “sane,” only to be told that we all have a little of both in us. When Kaira’s Mumbai housekeeper learns that there are doctors who help with thoughts and feelings, she asks plainly: “Then shouldn’t everyone go see them?”
Like any movie over two hours (especially one without full-length musical numbers), Zindagi could benefit from some trimming. A clunky backstory explaining Kaira’s troubled relationship with her parents feels out of place, or at least not introduced sufficiently or early enough. We spend too much time on her fling with Rumi, a flat character who overstays his welcome even as portrayed by the smoldering Ali Zafar. The most important people in Kaira’s life are her friends, who we don’t get to know well enough in service of extraneous plot.
You’ll see shades of your own experience in Kaira, whether it’s in her ambition or her relationships …
Khan’s star status will guarantee the film’s performance in India and among established Bollywood fans around the globe. But the real test for Dear Zindagi will be outside that market, where it can and should excel. To miss this movie due to an unfamiliarity with the industry, with India, or with Bhatt and Khan, would be unfair to a truly evocative film that speaks to generations, families, friends and lovers.
It’s poignant but not pedantic, and therapeutic in and of itself. You’ll see shades of your own experience in Kaira, whether it’s in her ambition or her relationships, and in the theater Khan counsels every audience member. In that way, it achieves what even the most classic Bollywood fare aspires to: You’ll leave feeling lighter.