Directed by Gauri Shinde, 2016.
When we look at the representation of women protagonists in mainstream Hindi cinema we note an abundance of stereotypical characters: the coy beloved, the helpless damsel in distress, the evil femme fatale, the conservative mother-in-law, etc. Very few commercial Bollywood directors have managed to subvert or challenge these stereotypical representations of women characters. However, in recent years representations of women protagonists are changing with women directors making films which feature strong female characters. Gauri Shinde is one such director. She made her debut four years earlier with English Vinglish (2012) which depicted a middle-class housewife’s struggle for self-esteem. Shinde returns to the screens with the story of another woman’s search for self-fulfillment in Dear Zindagi.
Dear Zindagi revolves round the character of Kaira (Alia Bhatt) who is a cinematographer with the ambition of wanting to shoot an entire feature film of her own. Kaira is talented as a cinematographer, is very good at her job, and refuses to conform to the traditional norms governing a woman’s life in India. She chooses to live a bohemian life, moving from relationship to relationship, letting life take its course. However, as the film progresses we learn of Kaira’s difficulties. As a professional photographer she wants to be valued for her talent but in the chauvinistic patriarchal domain of the cinematic world her looks tend to become more valuable than her work. Kaira is rendered vulnerable in her anxieties over the reasons for the work opportunities she gets; often wondering whether her professional skills matter to her male bosses. Furthermore her landlord asks her to vacate the house as “she is single” and in her confused and, turbulent emotional state, she decides to shift to her hometown, Goa, where she meets the maverick psychiatrist, Jehangir Khan, affectionately called Jug by all (Shah Rukh Khan).
The film continues its story through the unusual medium of the therapy sessions between Jug and Kaira, where we see Kaira sharing her problems and resurrecting her fractured self esteem through the cathartic sharing of her experiences. By revolving a large part of the film around Kaira’s sessions with her therapist, Shinde challenges stereotypical cinematic narration in Bollywood. By delving into the emotional turmoil of her protagonist Shinde subverts the traditional depiction of the coy, beautiful heroine who remains a mere prop in a male-centric story. Kaira emerges as a humane female character with her fears over her professional and personal life. More importantly, she is a bold woman who does not shy away from confessing to cheating on her boyfriend or walking out on her prospective lover. In the final climatic scene, Kaira confronts her parents about abandoning her as a child.
Through her meetings and chats with Jug, Kaira starts to emerge from her shackled prison of fears. Jug makes her see that fear of abandonment leads her to fear her present relationships as well as professional successes. Alia Bhatt renders a brilliant performance as Kaira, portraying naturally the evolution of the insecure, fearful woman into a confident, assured cinematographer who produces her first short film. By the final scenes of the film we see a gradual transformation in the character of Kaira: she evntually grows into a self assured person, making efforts to have reconciling talks with her parents as well as finishing her film project. The film ends with the shot of a viewing of Kaira’s short film, where she meets a furniture dealer who may or may not be a prospective lover.
Kaira eventually finds fulfillment through acceptance. What is most positive is that she reaches this self assuredness through her own efforts, helped by a professional psychologist, not, as is the usual norm in commercial cinema, through the assistance of a masochistic lover. The end of the film is open ended, with Kaira able to look forward to a fresh relationship but not in compulsive need of one. Shinde challenges the ‘happily ever after’ endings of conventional Bollywood where the heroine has to wed her ‘knight in shining armor’. Shinde takes the trope of the slice of life tale and uses the ‘lessons’ to reveal the pragmatic challenges faced by present day professional women in India. Shah Rukh Khan gives a memorable performance as Jug: his rendering of the therapist is elegantly charming, and his witty wisdoms often generate poignantly ironic humor.
What the film lacks, perhaps, is subtlety of execution. The need for constant articulation of every message spoils the smooth development of the plot, with many of Jug’s and Kaira’s exchanges seeming enforced. English Vinglish never preached to us; Dear Zindagi sometimes does lapse into preaching mode. However, Kaira is a character to root for, and her final triumph is a joy not just for her but for every woman who has confronted questions of self esteem, professional doubts, and personal relationship turbulences. Kaira reaches self fulfillment through living life, by playing with the waves on the beach, by taking long bicycle rides, by “embracing life” to the fullest. Dear Zindagi as a film celebrates life; it traces the journey of self hood of a young woman and concludes with the woman able to view herself with calm confidence and assurance. In a cinematic culture that glorifies and reinforces melodramatic machismo and patriarchal hegemony, a simple tale of a troubled woman’s quest for selfhood is indeed a pleasant departure.