A young woman moves from a big city to a small town, finds her new life suffocating, and hatches a plan to escape. This logline describes both Gone Girl and the latest Netflix release, Haseen Dillruba. But unlike the David Fincher directorial, which was based on a bestselling novel, Vinil Mathew’s film takes inspiration from a fictional pulp thriller, Kasauli Ka Kahar.
The movie opens with Rani (Taapsee Pannu), a young homemaker in a small north Indian town, Jwalapur, feeding pieces of raw mutton to street dogs. Moments later, a huge explosion rips her house, killing her husband, Rishu (Vikrant Massey). A dead husband, a young wife, a seasoned cop (Aditya Srivastava) – and an expected suspect, Rani. The thriller opens on a note of intrigue – we don’t know anything about the people, place, or crime – and then cuts to six months earlier showing how Rishu and Rani got married.
An engineer in Jwalapur Electricity Board, Rishu is a generic simpleton: shy, introverted, awkward. He travels to Delhi with his parents to meet Rani. She is everything Rishu is not: confident, funny, sassy. This segment of the film, the cue-ridden background score reminds us again and again and again, is a ‘comedy’. Rishu’s mother says they’re looking for a “sundar” and “susheel” bride. Rani’s mother serves them snacks, saying her daughter has cooked them (even the customary phrase used in these settings remains unchanged: “yeh sab usne apne haathon se banaya hai”). It’s quite formulaic, but maybe, you wonder, it’s a dig on the overused Bollywood depictions. Rishu and Rani, despite their many differences, get married and move to Jwalapur.
It’s then that the film embraces mediocrity – and never stops. Screenwriter Kanika Dhillon throws a bucketful of clichés at the wall – a whole lot of them stick, and she collects the ones that don’t to be reused later. Even the characters and situations are recycled types that don’t challenge our expectations: a contrasting pair, a nosy mother-in-law, a dead marriage.
Afflicted by familiar flaws
Haseen Dillruba is afflicted by familiar flaws tainting mainstream Bollywood. The film wants to reach a certain point, but its journey is devoid of convincing reasons or considered nuance. Rani gets married to Rishu, even though she hasn’t gotten over her ex and knows that this guy is not her type. Why get married then, why not wait for someone more suitable? Unlike Rishu, she puts in no effort to make the marriage work (well, why get married then?). She still complains to her mother and aunt about the lack of spark in her relationship. They advise her to be a seductress; she does, and the film devolves into a farcical segment that neither elevates intrigue nor induces humour. She complains to her mother about Rishu’s premature ejaculation, when he is literally a few feet away from her in the bathroom. (Again, beats all common sense.) These are not complex characters but tired tropes obeying a screenplay’s diktats.
The film continues to operate in this mode, with the confidence of an engineering dudebro at a party who thinks he has the best jokes and a charming presence. (Like that dudebro, this film has neither.) Good movies have arresting scenes; Haseen Dillruba has tired and demarcated tracks, like bad Bollywood albums of the ’90s. There’s one for comedy, one for thriller, one where Rani is discontent, one where Rishu is angry, one where Rani has a fling, one where Rishu wants to murder her, and on and on. Every track is accompanied by a background score that tells us how to feel. Sometimes, the music kicks in before the actors can emote; sometimes it drowns their emotions. And when the background score is inadequate, we get one song after the other explaining the already explained. This doesn’t feel like a film as much as a bottom-line conscious PowerPoint presentation.
It’s also incapable of original thinking, stuck in the mire of stereotypes. Take, for instance, Neel (Harshvardhan Rane), Rishu’s cousin, who seduces Rani. It’s not enough that he’s different from her husband, he must be a diametrically opposite conception: He has long locks, tattoos, a French beard; smokes a joint, lifts weights, flirts. Even the subplot centered on Rani and the investigating cop is replete with red herrings (“women like these are so cunning”) and forced farce, for when Rani is telling her story, the cops line up near the door like obedient listeners.
But the most annoying part about Haseen Dillruba is its inordinate self-belief. If the first half revels in (non-existent) humour, then the second half simmers with feelings of Intense Love, repeating and hammering the kind of juvenilia even teenagers outgrow, “If it’s not madness, it’s not love.” With such consistent hollow writing, it only seems fair, then, that a crucial part of the movie revolves around a severed hand. Some jokes are written by screenwriters; some by the exasperated audiences forced to endure them.
This review was first published on The Wire.