Dispatch from Mumbai by Deepti Datt for Republic of Brown
Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (ZNMD), like its director Zoya Akhtar, is a hybrid. A classic, big banner, ‘Bollywood’ movie, with an ensemble cast comprised of India’s shiniest blingers: Hrithik Roshan, British Indian Katrina Kaif, Farhan Akhtar, Abhay Deol and Hindi-speaking, Pondicherry-brought-up, French actress Kalki Koechlin. But then, Akhtar, the petite Doyenne of Bollywood, has made one of her female leads jump on a bike (albeit in a fabulous bordeaux bustier) and go after her man – not something the demure B’woodQueenBees, glorified props being rescued from some dire situation or another – do much of in the kind of roles designated for women in mainstream commercial Indian cinema.
The men and women, including “Ammi and Daddy”, in relationship with each other, and amongst themselves, just don’t behave like we’re used to seeing in Hindi movies. Skeletons that fall out from closets are innocuous and debonair, rather than obvious in their misdeeds. The normal breast-beating pathos of Indian morality is gone…poof…just like that, replaced by a vague ‘work it out for yourself’ kinda one.You’re rolling along, buying into the ‘reality’ of the storyline, and then – wham! – you’re hit with a song sequence – big, bold, brazen, flamenco!…Full-on Bollywood!…with Spanish lyrics!… just like that. Zoya’s even managed to casually have one of India’s most respected thespians rolling a spliff and smoking it… live and large…just like that. We are like this only? ZNMD is a fuller, richer, creamier, dare I say ‘real’ take on mass entertainment than the usual fare of its context – and a continuing augur of the change, as with all things ‘India’, already afoot in the film-making culture known as ‘Bollywood’.
Kalki, in a Legally Blonde-esque turn, pulls off a believably nagging, manipulative, material-girl fiancée – a swinging departure from her last film, Dev D. Katrina is subtle, easy in her skin therefore very sexy, as a nubile ‘haute hippie’. Abhay is Abhay only, along for the ride, someone you know warmly and closely from somewhere in your family. Farhan has been cited, in another review, as “best when he’s brooding” – I would agree – his moment with the guest-appearing Naseeruddin Shah made me cry. But Farhan is also, in his delivery, especially the shivering meter of his voice, Rodney Dangerfield gone handsome.
And then there is Hrithik. Hrithik of the double-digit thumb. I have to spend some time on this – it is important. I’ve gone through a minor epiphany – a revelation, and curing, of my own superficiality in the deliberation of Hrithik Roshan, one of India’s biggest ‘superstars’. Hrithik singes celluloid with his absolute, male, God of Beauty and Perfection. Oof! And then comes that imperfection, two thumbs on his right hand, kept with impunity from the most easily available surgical interception. Why? Why would a perfect human specimen, a matinee idol if there ever was one, not choose to fix his one, and only, single, physical imperfection? Post ZNMD screening, I asked this question and discussed it ad infinitum with anyone who would listen, including the director herself. The answers enlightened me… further… about India herself. I’ve come out, on the other side of the questioning discussions, knowing deeply the vestiges of ‘American me’ I still carry around.
Growing up Stateside ‘80’s (yes Flock of Seagulls, MC Hammer pants, ‘let’s get physical’ fashion and beetle-thick-brows) – the decade culminating with the advent of the “We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day” ubermodels – Hrithik Roshan has made me realize, had rendered me Fame-Persona-Perfection Challenged. I could never accept, even imagine, a Rob Lowe (we’re rolling with the ‘80’s theme) with a hair out of place, forget an extra-thumb. Nor could he, I’m sure. Could you? Look at what was made of Cindy Crawford’s mole above her lip? Lauren Hutton’s, or Madonna’s, gap between the front teeth? Geena Davis’ overbite? On and on it went, the endless reams written about the most minute, and inconsequential, physical attributes which did not fit into the robotic beauty-ideal – an ideal that advertising insidiously slipped into our aspirational collective unconscious. And then comes He, Hrithik Roshan, singing, dancing, throwing beauty, oomphing sex all over the screen (which he does, generously so, in ZNMD also btw)… and unabashedly not fixing his one ‘imperfection’!
In India, being born with this mild human quirk of a double thumb is actually considered auspicious – a lucky omen for the bearer. Many who can easily afford a quick, outpatient, plastic procedure to transform the ‘mutation’ to ‘normality’, will not – by choice – and so Hrithik. It is particularly, peculiarly Indian then isn’t it, that we would have a megawatt movie star Adonis with a ‘lucky thumb’? And nobody in India would think anything of it?! I personally have come around, from where I was with the question, to a smug, smiling, vicarious pride in the answer. After the screening, I had asked Zoya “but why doesn’t he just fix it?!”, all flustered and bothered by my own binding inhibition – her answer, “He doesn’t want to”. Just like that. And that is just the way it should be. And is! Hrithik, by the way, wakes up for way, way, WAY!, more than $10,000 a day.
While it doesn’t have the slickly layered, multi-dimensional characters and keen perceptive sensibility of the director’s first film Luck By Chance, ZNMD makes up by being funny as all hell, stupid funny. Between Delhi Belly and ZNMD, I’ve been laughing out loud this whole, great, profoundly enlightening, game-changing, monsoon month in Bombay. And smiling, vindicated happy, at the shift in the portrayal of women in films for the masses. It is small, baby steps, but the change is coming and I’m jubilant to be here… to see it’s nascence.
So there you go – notwithstanding the Spanish Tourism Minister is inevitably bound to award it with a “Best Possible Commercial for Spain Ever” – ZNMD has obliquely announced and, en-jyaing* all the way, taken over it’s rightful place as the feel-good, supa-dupa, box-office hit of the year.
* that’s not a spelling error – heard across ‘timepass’ breaks all across India, as a question: “en-jyaing hain?”… it is a ‘we are like this only’ mispronunciation horror!
By Deepti Datt