There's a memorable scene in John Wells' underrated 2010 film "The Company Men" that still strikes a chord with me to this day. In it, a recently fired successful businessman (played by Ben Affleck) explains to his wife why he continues to wear a suit and tie, play golf and maintain his Porsche despite his unemployment. "I need to look successful" he says, reminding us of the value we place on public perceptions. Sure, he thereafter begins to lose the pretense and becomes a regular guy who learns what is more important in life. But even as he becomes more relatable towards the end, I was fascinated by how much I already sympathized with him in that earlier scene.
I bring up this film as I think about this week's top pick "Dil Dhadakne Do" and in general, how we empathize and better yet, find sympathy for certain narratives. Specifically, there seems to be a prejudice against films about "rich people's problems", exemplified so well last year in much of the criticism towards Angelina Jolie's "By The Sea". Before he even saw the film, I remember one tweeter deciding that this so-called "vanity project" couldn't possibly provide any appeal due to its premise of beautiful people in an idyllic local being miserable. We can tolerate anti-heroes and even outright villains, but what could be so interesting about unhappy rich people?
Well, Bollywood directors Farhan and Zoya Akhtar would surely have something to say about that. The brother-sister duo have made careers out of the "plight" of the upper class, with Farhan's debut "Dil Chahta Hai" widely regarded as a game-changing film for its novel depiction of a modern urban lifestyle and likewise, Zoya's similarly elitist "Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara" was an awards/commercial/critical success that sent her straight to the upper echelon of contemporary Indian directors. Having grown up in the same social circles they often portray on film, they know this world well, and with their latest feature "Dil Dhadakne Do" (with Zoya directing, Farhan starring and both sharing writing responsibilities) they've once again shown an ability to make these "rich people problems" absolutely compelling.
"Dil Dhadakne Do" is centered around the wealthy Mehra family, who are about to embark on an eventful cruise to celebrate the 30th wedding anniversary of the parents. Everything seems hunky dory, with all four seeming to enjoy success in their personal and professional lives. But like the aforementioned Ben Affleck character, it is soon revealed that they are all just keeping up appearances.
The patriarch Kamal (Anil Kapoor) is going through a rough patch at work, with his company nearing bankruptcy. But this threat of financial ruin is of the least concern for his wife Neelam (Shefali Shetty), who must put on a brave face despite their marriage having long run its course. Her daughter Ayesha (a successful travel agency owner played by Priyanka Chopra) knows a thing or two about failed marriages as well, having to hide her unhappiness towards her husband due to a society that frowns on divorce. The baby of the family however (Kabir, played by Ranveer Singh), has issues of a different sort. Happily single and being begrudgingly groomed to inherit his father's empire, all he wants to do is fly planes and avoid the pressures to get married. But as they all set sail - with family and friends in tow - on this new adventure, all their secrets will come to light as everyone finally starts to get real about themselves and their relationships with each other.
And what drama unfolds! To be honest, I was a bit apprehensive about this film when I first noticed the 170 minute running time, but Akhtar delivers so much intrigue, character development and sheer entertainment value that the length is completely justified. Indeed, there's romance, melodrama, humour and infectious song-and-dance routines all packed into one glamorous, well-acted package.
I remember feeling that much of the world tour conceit of "Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara" was just empty travel porn, and there are still traces of that here. But Akhtar has impressively refined her style to use her typically bright, sunny vistas to simply set the scene, while amping up the costume and set design to add character. And the result is a captivating visual aesthetic that fulfills all the aspirational, escapist qualities mainstream Bollywood is famous for.
But it all comes back to the strong writing, which keeps you engaged and leaves you completely rooting for these primary characters by the end. Even as the somewhat light touch may fool you, the film is undeniably making a statement about Indian society (women's rights, non-traditional careers, marriage). And while doing so, it helps you to better understand each individual's perspective. On the surface, Kabir may seem like a spoilt brat as he complains about his dad selling his plane, but we come to appreciate his humility. Ayesha may seem ungrateful towards her faithful hardworking husband, but we relate to her insecurities and regret. Neelam may seem like a fortunate woman with everything money can buy, but her underlying loneliness is heartbreaking. And finally, Kamal appears at first to be your sterotypical tyrannical patriarch, but his tough exterior gradually withers away to reveal a kind soul. Commendably, Akhtar never once shies away from their undeniable privilege, but she brilliantly makes their struggles feel valid and recognizable. They say our basic human needs are food, clothing and shelter. But even if you drink champagne like water, wear impeccably-tailored designer suits and live in a grand mansion, you still need freedom, love and respect to survive.