Early on in writer-director Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi, the protagonist, a 20-something-year-old named Kaira (Alia Bhatt), points to the jacket she’s wearing – one she’s had since Class 10 – to defend herself in an argument with her friends who insist she’s incapable of having a long term relationship.
Kaira is what one might describe as emotionally stunted. She clearly has commitment issues, she can’t decide what (or who) her heart wants, and she puts up a wall the moment any of the young men in her life seek genuine attachment. Plus there’s a stack of unresolved issues with her parents.
It’s a tricky part to pull off for any actor, let alone one as young as Alia. Kaira, after all, is not an easily likeable character – she’s moody, makes bad decisions, and can be unmistakably selfish – but Alia’s natural, unaffected style of performing and her go-for-broke approach keeps you invested in her. Alia’s performance, in fact, may be the best thing about this indulgent film that has little by way of plot and way too much talking.
Shah Rukh Khan, although marvelously restrained and charming as hell, probably won’t earn points for authenticity from real-life shrinks who’ll likely scoff at his unconventional methods in the role of Jehangir Khan, a therapist Kaira seeks out in Goa. Over long walks on the beach and cycling sessions, Jehangir dispenses wisdom, the kind you could get for free on bumper stickers. At one point he tells Kaira: “Don’t let your past blackmail your present to ruin a beautiful future.” On another occasion he says, simply, “Har tooti cheez jodi jaa sakti hai.”
Gauri’s previous film, her directing debut English Vinglish, felt authentic and was powered by emotions that were real and relatable. The problem with Dear Zindagi is that so much of it – particularly the first half – feels superficial and even contrived. The banter between Kaira and her friends are hokey and often forced. Her parents and relatives are stock caricatures who go on about marriage and about getting a ‘real job’. We know Kaira is a cinematographer on the rise and she has ambition, but her career, her talent, and the obstacles she faces professionally are never adequately explored.
Despite that, Alia soars. Her work here is the film’s one true treasure. The piece de resistence is a breakdown scene during a therapy session with Jehangir that she nails with such precision, you’re practically reduced to a puddle.
The other admirable thing about the film is its attempt to root out the stigma attached to mental health and the shame associated with therapy.
But these are small gifts in an overlong, disappointing film that misses its mark. I’m going with two out of five for Dear Zindagi. Honestly, it’s a slog.