3 Stars (out of 4)
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Dear Zindagi (“Dear Life“) is one of those movies that’s terrific through the climax, only to close with a denouement that undercuts much of the good that came before. Its unfortunate ending contradicts the primary life lessons learned by a young commitment-phobe over the course of the film.
Kaira (Alia Bhatt) is at that point where the biologically ingrained self-centeredness of the teens and early twenties must, by necessity, make way for a more empathetic means of interacting with the world. In short, she’s stuck.
Already an accomplished cinematographer with dozens of commercials and music videos to her credit, Kaira wants to finally shoot her own feature film. The perfect opportunity comes her way via a handsome producer, Raghu (Kunal Kapoor), with whom she’s been cheating on her handsome restaurateur boyfriend, Sid (Angad Bedi).
Raghu offers Kaira the chance to be the lead cinematographer on a film he’s producing in New York City. To address any awkwardness in advance, he warns Kaira that his ex-girlfriend is also working on the project. Kaira seizes on this minor complication as a reason to blow up her budding romance with Raghu and her chance to make the film.
When a new renting rule gets Kaira booted from her apartment, she has no choice but to embark on a visit to her parents’ house in Goa. Her relationship with her folks is icy at best, though only from her end. Mom offers to make Kaira’s favorite foods, and Dad happily boasts about her professional accomplishments. There has to be a reason for Kaira’s attitude, even if we don’t know what it is.
With time on her hands, Kaira takes the opportunity to explore her failed romantic relationships by meeting with an unconventional therapist, Jehangir “Jug” Khan (Shah Rukh Khan). He pushes her to consider why she’s so concerned about what other people think about her–and what, if anything, it has to do with her parents. To paraphrase Jug, Kaira is letting her past blackmail her present at the expense of her future.
Dear Zindagi deftly destigmatizes mental illness and therapy. Kaira is not conventionally “crazy,” but she repeats patterns of behavior that make her and those around her unhappy. She also lacks the conviction that her life choices are valid, regardless of what others say. Solving those problems is a lot easier with help, and the film depicts a recognizable version of cognitive behavioral therapy, flavored with a liberal dose of Shah Rukh Khan charisma.
Kaira is a refreshing character, the flip side of the more common cinematic man-child forced into adulthood by the love of a good woman. The whole point of Kaira’s journey is that she has to do it for herself, not for anyone else. Bhatt’s appeal makes her a wonderful choice for the role. She shines during a lengthy monologue in which she recounts the source of her enmity with her parents. Director Gauri Shinde wisely keeps Khan offscreen while Bhatt speaks, the camera alternating between Kaira in Jug’s office in the present day and flashbacks to her as a young girl. It’s a credit to the director’s faith in Bhatt as a lead performer that she doesn’t rely on Khan’s presence as a crutch.
Shinde — who also wrote the film — makes a couple of decisions that do a disservice to her complicated, intriguing protagonist. A small complaint is that, in addition to all of Kaira’s more interesting flaws, she is also clumsy. After Twilight, clumsy heroines are a bore. Sure, there are a few lines about Jug’s ability to repair broken things and broken people, but they didn’t need to be visualized so literally.
More problematic is an ending sequence that brings back Kaira’s ex-boyfriends for her moment of triumph. It’s mostly an act of fanservice to give the audience a last glimpse of Kapoor, Bedi, and Ali Zafar, who plays Kaira’s handsome Goa fling. Without getting into specifics, what transpires in this sequence undermines much of Kaira’s self-actualization.
Challenging female characters are a rare breed in film, and Shinde wrote a really good one. That’s why it’s so frustrating to be forced to ultimately view Kaira through a male lens, instead of being able to regard her as she is, unfiltered. Dear Zindagi is a step in the right direction, but it stumbles just before the finish line.