I recall feeling unnerved and enraged for months after watching Tere Naam and Raanjhanaa. Haseen Dillruba is too thin and flat to sustain even anger.
Haseen Dillruba (Beautiful Lover) begins with a crime and travels back in time through the testimony of the prime suspect – the wife of the alleged victim – who gives an account of her rocky marriage in excruciating detail to the police and further cements suspicion on herself.
Taapsee Pannu stars as that wife, Rani Kashyap. Vikrant Massey plays Rishabh aka Rishu Saxena, the spouse she allegedly murdered. And Aditya Srivastava is Inspector Kishore Rawat, the policeman tasked with cracking the case. The investigating officer learns from Rani about Rishu’s sexy cousin, Neel Tripathi (Harshvardhan Rane).
As Rani narrates the story of her first encounter with Rishu, her early dissatisfaction with her choice of partner in an arranged marriage, his awkward attempts to win her over and the searing tension that later sets in between them, she appears not to mince words about her own role in the decline of their relationship.
What unfolds on screen in the first half is mildly entertaining even if it revisits the notion that lack of social graces, rudeness, and even meanness are a mark of feminine coolth as defined by Bollywood in the past decade. There is no reason to believe that Rani is lying about how she behaved when Rishu and his family visited her house for the first time to vet the potential bride. She does not sit among them wearing a towel as a woman did in the Tanu Weds Manu sagas, but she is certainly annoyingly presumptuous, which is strange since she actually wants Rishu to like her.
It is impossible to understand why Rani married Rishu if she meant to be disgruntled from Day 1. If her choice is supposed to be a statement on the compulsoriness of marriage in Indian women’s lives, then it is offered with no depth or nuance.
Soon, Rani’s harmless clashes with her mother-in-law give way to a terrifying account of violence and a murderous frenzy in ‘love’. It might be argued that Rani could have been exaggerating Rishu’s behaviour in her narration to the police, but even after the nuts and bolts of the pivotal crime are revealed, the film remains firm in its messaging: “If love does not push you to the brink of insanity, it is not true love.”
Haseen Dillruba mirrors Tere Naam’s interpretation of passionate, intense feelings for a woman as being synonymous with obsession, violence, and mania.
Its disturbing politics apart, Haseen Dillruba never quite lifts off the screen. Despite a striking opening aerial shot, Jwalapur, the town by the Ganga in which it is set, does not at any point come alive with sights, sounds or the hustle and bustle of normal daily life. In fact, the film seems uninvolved and distant from itself throughout.
Even the big reveal in the end, although it does contain a surprise, is illogical, hugely improbable, unscientific and ridden with loopholes. It is also not as original as the tone suggests. Without giving away anything, let me just say that as far back as in my teens, I remember reading a crime saga about a pregnant woman who murders her husband with precisely the same clever weapon used in this film.
Director Vinil Mathew debuted in 2014 with Hasee Toh Phasee starring Parineeti Chopra and Sidharth Malhotra. That film created a lead couple with empathy and electricity running between them, a pair worth rooting for. Haseen Dillruba is not a fraction as engaging as Hasee Toh Phasee, and I didn’t find myself loving, hating, liking or disliking a single one of its characters.
Haseen Dillruba does, however, match the filmmaking sensibilities of its producers Aanand L Rai and Himanshu Sharma who have so far successfully collaborated as director and writer respectively on the Tanu Weds Manu films and Raanjhanaa.
It is deeply troubling that Messrs Rai and Sharma refuse to let go of these regressive attitudes, but what is far more worrisome is that Haseen Dillruba is written by a woman. An examination of Kanika Dhillon’s filmography throws up more than one heroine who is kookie and/or clichéd (Manmarziyaan, Judgementall Hai Kya), but she did also co-write the warm, convincing relationship between the leads in Kedarnath, in which the female protagonist was rebellious and impertinent in the way real-life women might be. It is disappointing to think that the same person wrote Haseen Dillruba and Kedarnath.
The pallid writing perhaps explains Pannu’s deadpan performance here. It is nice to see a woman actor listed first in a film’s credits, going against the Bollywood norm of giving a man pride of place in cast lists, but I do wish this particular woman had not picked this particular film, especially considering that a sequence featuring a loving wife running after her husband with his purse every morning as he leaves for office in Haseen Dillruba almost seems designed as a spoof of an insightful motif in her earlier film Thappad that served as a commentary on man-woman equations in traditional, patriarchal Indian homes.
Massey, who has been consistently superb in his work so far (Lootera, A Death in the Gunj, Chhapaak), is only marginally interesting in Haseen Dillruba. His expression in his very last scene does, however, give us a glimpse of the actor he is capable of being.
Harshvardhan Rane, who was so good just last year in Bejoy Nambiar’s Taish, plays the only attention-grabbing character in Haseen Dillruba, and delivers the film’s only memorable performance.
The one thought-provoking aspect of Haseen Dillruba’s screenplay is its portrayal of the fallout of an extra-marital affair in a conservative small town where a ‘wayward’ woman has no chance of disappearing into the madding crowd as she might in a large city. This apart, the film is shorn of any social insights. I recall feeling unnerved and enraged for months after watching Tere Naam and Raanjhanaa. Haseen Dillruba is too thin and flat to sustain even anger.
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