From the second the world learned about Gauri Shinde’s upcoming “Dear Zindagi,” anticipation for the film skyrocketed. Not only would it be the writer-director’s first project after the surprising success of her 2012 debut — you’d be hard-pressed to find a Bollywood fan who didn’t adore the life-affirming comedy-drama that was “English Vinglish” — but her sophomore effort would star Alia Bhatt, who’s quickly becoming one of the most acclaimed and popular young actresses in Bollywood alongside Shah Rukh Khan, who has been hailed as literally “the biggest movie star in the world.” The pressure was on—or so one would think.
But neither the heavyweight performers nor the massive shadow of “English Vinglish” seem to have intimidated Shinde; unfazed by the weight of audience expectations, she stays true to telling her story, and “Dear Zindagi” once again showcases her unique ability to tug at our hearts and teach us a life lesson or two, while mostly sticking to a believable plot.
At the core of the film is Kaira (Bhatt), a talented if not cynical cinematographer suffering from a quarter-life crisis. Professional satisfaction is elusive, she’s inexplicably allergic to romantic commitments, and she’s getting ousted from her Mumbai apartment after her landlord decides to evict anyone single or childless. Disgruntled and rudderless, she reluctantly returns to the sun-soaked coasts of Goa, where little awaits apart from her parents, with whom she views any form of interaction as a dreaded chore.
Making do with thankless gigs and no sleep, Kaira is painfully aware of an impending breakdown. So when one of her jobs leads her to the services of therapist Jehangir Khan (Khan), she books a session despite a long-standing suspicion of what she wryly refers to as “BD’s” (Brain Doctors). But Jehangir’s methods, far from conventional, may be just what Kaira needs to finally confront a past that threatens to impede her future.
When described in writing, it’s difficult for the plot of “Dear Zindagi” to come off as anything but trite. This is hardly the first time the quirky therapist and skeptical patient relationship has been explored on screen; the whole motif of “finding yourself” reeks of cliché. But it’s a theme that bears repeating—especially in the context of Indian cinema—and there are several reasons it works here, beginning with Shinde’s writing, which stands out precisely because it doesn’t necessarily try to. Going for a conversational, “slice of life” approach rather than the applause-craving dialogue of more commercial Hindi films, it refrains from forced humor or sentimentality; where there are several moments in which the script does slip into maudlin or corny territory—the heated climax, for instance, or one of Kaira’s particularly painful flashbacks—it’s Bhatt and Khan who reign them in and lend them poignancy.
The actors clarify the film’s emotions, particularly Bhatt, who remains likable even when Kaira isn’t. Ten films into her career, her passionate delivery continues to be a mesmerizing centerpiece, and she gives Kaira a three-dimensionality in which the somewhat annoying nature of millennial angst is balanced with an innocence that’s impossible not to recognize.
Even Khan, accustomed to the theatrics that most Bollywood films demand, seems to know that this isn’t the place for his usual display of hammed-up emotions. Toned down and much more endearing for it, his subtlety overall even lets us buy into some of his more dramatic dialogue, such as when he urges Kaira not to “let the past blackmail the present to ruin a beautiful future.” Together, Bhatt and Khan’s chemistry is electric, even if it’s not romantic, and the ease with which they play off each other amounts to pure satisfaction.
Often, the story’s pace drags; the setup of Kaira’s multiple conflicts in the first half takes much too long, and we’re left distracted from her problems as we become impatient for the film to make good on its main selling point of the dynamic between Bhatt and Shah (the therapy doesn’t begin until a good hour in). Peripheral characters, such as Kaira’s Mumbai friends, are often inconsequential, but they’re given unnecessary scenes—screen time that may have been better used to flesh out Khan’s backstory, which is only briefly and inadequately touched upon (although in hindsight, perhaps Shinde intentionally left him unexplored; after all, who really knows much about their therapist’s personal life?). As the film draws to an end, the ease with which loose ends are tied up detracts from the more credible scenes building up to it.
And yet none of the film’s flaws distract from its biggest takeaway of potentially making counseling more approachable in a culture where the idea has long been unmentionable. Shinde, Bhatt, and Khan have insisted in interviews that the film’s objective is simply to tell a story rather than impart a social message, but there’s no denying “Dear Zindagi” comes at an opportune moment to bolster the conversation around the largely-misunderstood concept of mental health in India, soon after some of the industry’s biggest stars have revealed personal struggles with depression.
As every interaction with Khan urges Kaira to shed another layer of her hardened emotional shell, his lessons may embed themselves in viewers’ minds, too — suggesting that there is indeed value in being able to simply give feelings a voice. “If you can’t wholeheartedly cry,” he says at one point, “how will you ever wholeheartedly laugh?”
It’s that gentle but powerful message, sure to resonate in a society that much too often encourages suppression, that gives “Dear Zindagi” its substance — and transforms it into a genuine crowdpleaser. Sincere, intelligent, and moving, it’s a welcome way to cap off a year in which we could all use a little solace like this.
“Dear Zindagi” is now playing in select theaters around the country.