Writer-director Zoya Akhtar’s sophomore effort, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, is good enough to push her into the top tier of filmmakers working in India at the moment. Her ability to create realistic characters keeps the old Bollywood recipe fresh, updating it for a young, global audience.
Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (ZNMD, henceforth) follows three lifelong friends from India as they roadtrip through Spain. The trip is a sort of bachelor party for Kabir (Abhay Deol), in which the groom-to-be and his two pals, immature Imraan (Farhan Akhtar) and serious Arjun (Hrithik Roshan), each get to choose a different adventure on which the others must go along, no matter what.
The trip gets off to a rocky start. There’s a lingering animosity between Imraan and Arjun, who keeps getting work-related phone calls. Kabir selects scuba diving for his adventure, even though Arjun can’t swim and is terrified of water.
The trip is saved by their beautiful, free-spirited diving instructor, Laila (Katrina Kaif). She helps Arjun overcome his fears and shows the boys around Spain. The trip proceeds so that the friends can find what they are really looking for: not just a little fun in the sun, but the means by which to fill the voids in their lives.
What I loved about Zoya Akhtar’s first movie, Luck By Chance, was her devotion to believable, nuanced characters. She exercises the same care in ZNMD. Imraan’s attention-getting jokes mask his insecurity; Arjun struggles with the greedy workaholic he’s become; Kabir is so busy trying to keep everyone else happy that he doesn’t know what he really wants.
Kabir’s jealous fiancée, Natasha (Kalki Koechlin), is so well written, it’s eerie. I recognized Natasha’s cold reaction when Kabir introduces her to Laila over Skype as the way I might’ve reacted as a young adult. Kudos to Zoya and her co-writer, Reema Kagti, for creating such a realistic character, and to Koechlin for bringing her life.
The acting in ZNMD is brilliant, across the board. As suspicious as Koechlin plays Natasha, Kaif keeps Laila breezy and winsome. Roshan, normally a charming leading man, seizes the rare opportunity to play an unlikeable character and makes Arjun a real jerk early in the film.
But Deol and Akhtar take the cake with their easy, natural rapport. Their expressions as Imraan and Kabir joke behind Arjun’s back make some scenes feel like candid outtake shots rather than directed scenes. Deol, Akhtar and Roshan deserve extra credit for singing their own parts in the catchy song “Señorita.” (I’ve included a teaser video of the song below.)
My only complaint about the movie is that it’s longer than it needs to be. While the scenery is beautiful, and footage of the boys scuba diving and skydiving is exciting, there are lengthy periods that feel like a promotional video for the Spanish tourism board or for an adventure tour company.
That said, I understand why those scenes are in the movie. Akhtar opted to tell her story using the traditional Indian runtime of about two-and-a-half hours, and she filled the time to maximize the amount of escapism. It’s as easy to get lost in the story as it is in the footage of the Spanish countryside.
Since my only quibble with Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara is a matter of personal preference, and not a problem of execution, I don’t hesitate to recommend it. Zoya Akhtar is setting new storytelling standards that other Hindi directors must try to keep up with.