Friday, July 22, 2011

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara

Under a sky the hue of a robin’s egg, a luxury car of the same shade cruises along coiling, mountainous paths. Below, crested waves lap gently against a golden shoreline on which whitewashed houses are scattered in all their Catalan splendor. In a few moments, we’ll reach our destination: a sprawling condominium, with full glass doors spilling onto a breathtaking panorama of the Mediterranean.

A promotional video for Spanish tourism? Maybe. But Zoya Akhtar’s calling it Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, her second directorial venture after a successful Luck By Chance in 2009, and a tale of three childhood friends on the holiday of a lifetime.

Some might peg it as just another coming of age film, though upon a closer look, that label may not quite fit. The three main characters are already established adults in their own right--Imran (Farhan Akhtar), a whacky but witty advertising copywriter; Kabir (Abhay Deol), a recently-engaged architect; and Arjun (Hrithik Roshan), a workaholic stockbroker constantly fixated on the net worth of everything and everyone around him. Upon proposing to Natasha (Kalki Koechlin), the interior-designing daughter of an affluent family friend, Kabir and his buddies embark upon a trip that combines the typical antics of a bachelor party with the realization of a shared boyhood dream where, in three different cities within Spain, each friend chooses one extreme adventure sport for them all to attempt.

Sure, cinematographer Carlos Catalan’s vision captures vistas that make you want to book the next flight to the Costa Brava.* However, rather than just an exotic locale that hasn’t already been beaten to a pulp by Bollywood’s location scouts, the much-hyped backdrop of ZNMD actually plays a part--whether it’s reveling in young love during La Tomatina or partaking in death-defying adventure sports, the distance that Spain offers from the characters’ respective realities allows them a shot at escaping the burden of past grudges, the monotony of their lives back home, or even just themselves.

The setting also offers sound inspiration (pun totally intended) for background score. While melodic, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s soundtrack mostly serves to create ambience, with the exception of the delightful Senorita number which makes up for its slightly awkward placement with an irresistible foot-tapping beat and the pure entertainment of watching Hrithik Roshan and Abhay Deol dance--one, a modern-day Gene Kelly, the other…well, Abhay Deol.**

There will be inevitable parallels drawn between this movie and 2001’s Dil Chahta Hai--and at first glance, the setup of this one does bear resemblance to Farhan Akhtar’s directorial debut, now a full decade old. But whereas DCH was about moving past the childish games of one’s youth and finding one’s place in the world, ZNMD's focus lies on where one goes once they’ve done the growing up and have been hardened by the real world, strained by responsibilities and weighed down by emotional baggage. It’s almost as though the film encourages us to take a step back and think like a kid again, where friends trump work, happiness trumps wealth, and living life to the fullest comes before fulfilling unwanted obligations. The moral may be a little unorthodox for the traditional Indian palette, but it’s sure to instantly resonate with younger viewers, who already seem to embrace it as their motto. It might also be better digested thanks to being delivered in large part by the pretty little parcel that is Laila (Katrina Kaif), a spunky deep-sea diving instructor with an infectious zest for life. Kaif is unexpectedly striking in a role that both highlights her unique background and underplays her looks to equally successful effect.

Yet hers is only the tip of an iceberg of pleasantly surprising performances. Kalki Koechlin plays Kabir’s fiancée with confidence, and just the right touch of neurosis. And then, of course, there are The Men. As I tweeted immediately after the movie, I’m convinced that Farhan Akhtar is the free-spirited friend everybody wishes they had. With boyish charm, a wicked sense of humor, and effortlessly natural delivery of comedy as well as emotion, Akhtar--who had always appeared more admirable as a director than an actor--strikes a perfect balance between Imran’s shallowness as he pursues a potential Spanish flame, and sensitivity as he contemplates contacting the biological father he’s never met. As Arjun, Hrithik Roshan probably undergoes the most drastic transition, from an arrogant and money-minded stick-in-the-mud to a lovestruck optimist with a newfound appreciation for life. The evolution risked coming off as horribly strained; yet, to the credit of both the script and the unusual subtlety of Hrithik’s portrayal, it transpires with believable fluidity. Even Abhay Deol, whose stock fell considerably after the disaster of a career move known as Aisha, redeemed himself as the level-headed anchor of the trio, caught in his own internal battle between being committed to others and true to himself.

The on-screen camaraderie between the three male leads appears anything but contrived--engineering juvenile pranks, reminiscing about insufferable school teachers of the past, or drunkenly crooning a hilariously off-key rendition of old-school Doordarshan’s theme music, the illusion of their long-standing bromance is complete. Furthermore, there is no single star of the show here. Throughout the film, their growth as individuals as well as together convince us to root for all three of them: unusual for an ensemble cast, where oftentimes only one character captures the majority of the audiences’ loyalties. Complete with lyrical snippets of poetry by the incomparable Javed Akhtar, the final result is a sharp and clever, yet sincere story that draws us in with its honesty.

Yes, there will be moments during the whopping 155 minutes where seemingly-basic logic is questionable. How, for instance, can Laila afford trips to Morocco and Seville when she teaches all of one measly diving lesson in the entire film? Or how, during one of the many song-n-drives throughout the Spanish countryside, do four computer generated horses just happen to be running alongside the car? I don’t have an explanation for such mysteries. But as an answer, I’ll leave you with a phrase that, uttered by the characters before plunging into the sea; plummeting from an airplane; and fleeing for their lives from a pack of crazed bulls, eventually becomes ZNMD’s resounding message: Just let it go.

*All right, so I fell for the blatant advertising of Spain. You watch the movie and just try not to . I dare ya.

**You have to love him for trying. After all, dancing next to Hrithik is basically suicide for anyone’s self confidence.

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