There is always a certain amount of anticipation that comes with watching an acclaimed director’s follow up to an acclaimed debut feature. When the promos for Gauri Shinde’s debut, English Vinglish first showed up highlighting the return of Sridevi to the big screen, one did approach the film with trepidation as most comeback efforts in Bollywood have displayed a tendency to either be dead on arrival, or crash and burn, Madhuri Dixit’s Aaja Nachle and the Big B’s Mrityudaata coming to mind.

dear-zindagi-poster-2But what followed was one of 2012’s finest films, and thus, when she announced her next project starring Shahrukh Khan and Alia Bhatt in what promised to be another unconventional tale, most cinephiles found themselves intrigued. But is Dear Zindagi proof of the fact that Gauri Shinde’s a solid filmmaker, or is she a one trick pony?

Kaira (Alia Bhatt) is an up and coming cinematographer who seems all set to hit high gear in her career, but the same can’t exactly be said about her personal life as her flippant nature towards love has not only caused her relationship with Sid (Angad Bedi), but also nipped a potential relationship with a colleague, Raghuvendra (Kunal Kapoor), right in the bud, causing a minor personal and potential setback. This paired with her landlord asking her to vacate her home leads to a mini breakdown, leading to her heading back home to Goa to face her inner demons, with the help of Dr Jahangir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan), a therapist who believes in unconventional methods to get through to a patient.

The first thing one realizes after walking out of the theatre is how much the movie and the character of Kaira are similar in nature, and it treats us, the audience as its therapist. The first 30 minutes give us a glimpse into Kaira’s rather mercurial nature, and how she detaches from any social interaction that requires her to get out of her comfort zone, and how it all builds up to her mental disintegration. Unlike English Vinglish and its protagonist, that possessed certain warmth to it, and drew you in right from the opening credits, Dear Zindagi starts off by keeping the audience at a certain distance, just giving us a peep into Kaira’s personality, but only hinting at the turmoil within.

With the entry of Jahangir or Jug as he prefers to be addressed, we really get to know what’s eating away at Kaira, and this is where the movie really starts to come together. Gauri Shinde treats the movie like a jigsaw puzzle, with every scene acting as a piece that slowly gives us a clearer picture of what’s really going on inside Kaira’s mind, why she’s the way she is, where she’s coming from, why she’s angry at the world, and why she keeps her seemingly loving family at an arm’s length. Another thing worth applauding here is the fact that while the extremely sensitive topic of mental health among yuppies is addressed, and delved into, the movie makes sure not to get too preachy with it, and the issue is handled maturely and with absolute restraint.

dear-zindagi-still-1It is safe to say here, that Dear Zindagi is a top notch sophomoric effort and most of the credit goes to Gauri Shinde’s writing, Laxman Utekar’s sublime cinematography, and Amit Trivedi’s score. Utekar captures the maddening chaos, and the claustrophobic nature of life in Bombay, as well as the serenity of Goa with the deft touch of an artist. Amit Trivedi’s in top form here, and while one may fault the director regarding the placement of the songs which is one among very few blemishes in an otherwise flawless movie, the soundtrack and the background score is sublime.

It is evident that 2016 has been the year of Alia Bhatt, topping up some fine performances in Kapoor and Sons, and a career defining turn in Udta Punjab with this. The young star approaches the extremely complex part of Kaira and makes her endearing in spite of all her flaws, and it seems that she intends to just get better and better with every film she makes. Shah Rukh Khan takes a break from being King Khan, and takes a back seat here, playing the role of mentor and philosopher, a role that he no doubt plays in real life to Bollywood’s next generation. The doctor patient relationship between him and Alia is portrayed with such sensitivity and subtlety, and their performances just take it to another level. A special mention must be made of Yashaswini Dayama who plays Kaira’s excitable, yet adorable best friend, Jackie, Ira Dubey who plays the much more grounded Fatima and Rohit Saraf as Kaira’s protective younger brother.

Overall, Dear Zindagi is not your conventional feel-good weekend watch, but it is an important film that raises the valid topic of the importance of mental health, as well as the need for more openness in Indian society, while also being a showcase for some fine performances by Shah Rukh Khan and Alia Bhatt.