I waited impatiently for Dear Zindagi for only one reason – Gauri Shinde, who directed a personal favorite of mine, English Vinglish – was also directing this picture. With English Vinglish, her debut film, Shinde not only managed to resurrect Bollywood royalty Sridevi’s career after the actor left us in the lurch for twenty years, but she gave her her best film. The film was fresh and disarmingly warm; one out of many films at the time that helped usher in a new cinema to Indian multiplexes that deftly homogenized Bollywood’s flair for endorphin-heavy escapism and indie cinema’s penchant for unconventionality and restraint.
Dear Zindagi was supposed to follow suit. Its storyline, like Shinde’s debut film, is both simple and, by Bollywood standards, different: a privileged YIP (Young Indian Professional) played by Alia Bhatt faces an existential crisis and thus seeks professional therapy (from Shah Rukh Khan no less) to help sort out her problems.
Much to my chagrin, Dear Zindagi exudes none of the emotional acuity of English Vinglish and instead ends up being director Shinde’s sophomore slump. It shows a filmmaker who is getting too big for her britches and thus needs to be brought down a peg or two. The movie is a self-indulgent, bloated affair that, on top of everything, also suffers from a visible identity crisis.
Whereas English Vinglish‘s indie cinema brushstrokes complimented its mainstream bend, Dear Zindagi doesn’t know how to function in either of those two worlds it so desperately tries to infiltrate, its sinuous direction a constant annoyance. For instance, in between sluggishly wrought, lavish Bollywood music sequences, there are scenes of two people walking on a beach or sitting in a car somewhere ruminating about life that are designed to attract a sophisticated audience exposed to world cinema, but fall short on account of the writing being really, really bad.
“Dear Zindagi exudes none of the emotional acuity of English Vinglish and instead ends up being director Shinde’s sophomore slump. It shows a filmmaker who is getting too big for her britches and thus needs to be brought down a peg or two.”
At one point, Shah Rukh Khan’s character, a shrink who dresses like a Malibu Ken doll and doles out nuggets of pop psychology like a fucking Dr. Phil Pez dispenser, says “don’t let your past blackmail your present to ruin a beautiful future.”
Why the filmmakers had a disclaimer apologizing to audiences for casting a Pakistani actor in the film but not one of them apologizing for moments of severe nausea inducement eludes me.
It doesn’t help matters that these scenes also meander for a soul-crushingly long time prompting viewers to either glance at their watches repeatedly or just give up and walk out of the theater, which many in the theater hall I was in, did.
Luckily, Dear Zindagi has one redeeming factor – Alia Bhatt’s performance. Alia’s ability to transcend pedestrian writing by digging deep and extracting untarnished, sometimes uncomfortable to look at, emotions is a testament to her being one of the greatest actors the Hindi film industry has ever had the pleasure of having.
And that is no tall claim.