Zoya and Farhan Akhtar's film Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara was disappointing and unintelligent. It represents the new era of NRI filming despite the siblings' flailing attempt to make something that is bold and breaks the mold, and without a resolution at the end. Bollywood has graduated from the first era of NRI film making exemplified by films like Pardes and Dil Wale Dulhaniya Len Jaein Gai. These show Indians living overseas, running businesses, integrating, and remaining staunchly patriotic both to India and the adoptive nation. These films created a bigger, more viable Bollywood culture market among American desis.
However, this is an era of post India shining. This is the time of businesses and corporations jumping into public sectors, taking over natural resources and indigenous lands with the help of the police and para military - a few dozen billionaires and IT millionaires.
The film, accordingly, boasts of a new type of Indian living abroad. In a "City Slickers" like plot, three childhood friends decide to reunite before one of the friends (Kabir) is forever lost to marriage and venture into the 'wild west' One of the characters, Urjun, played by Hrithik Roshan, is a trader in London and high strung. He deals in millions and has recently purchased a sparkling three bedroom apartment. When he brags of his achievement, Imran (played by Farhan Akhtar) is suitably restrained in his praise. "Nice", he says - contemplating, perhaps, finer things in life. While Pardes and Dil Wale celebrated Indian success, urged Indians to hold on, work harder, embrace model minority roles, this film is about - 'you have made your millions you super human genius, now live a little.' And who else to play super human than Roshan whose long legs, Herculean body and blue eyes make him look like he's on steroids --and a race apart.
Poor, almost disastrous, writing is strewn all over the plot like wreckage by script writer Farhan Akhtar "Seize the day!" "Live (not think) outside the box." The three friends travel through Spain, and engage in extreme activities. One of the characters is constantly making notes in his diary, writing poetry - however, all the activities they undertake -- renting SUVs, getting scuba instructions, jumping from airplanes, running from bulls, living in spotless, luxurious penthouses, draped in white silk, requires thousands of dollars. Aptly, the three Indians and their half Indian girlfriend participate in "La Tomatina" and bathe in the red blood of full ripe tomatoes. Metaphors of debauchery and excess aside, I had to stop watching. In India and Pakistan, post Green Revolution, poor and small farmers kill themselves because they can not make enough money to pay off the loans they take to buy seeds, fertilizers and pesticide and keep up with bigger landlords. Companies are clamoring to insert themselves into agriculture, selling genetically modified cotton and tomatoes with fish genes, the killer tomatoes. Thus, three and a half Indians indulging in such waste and then being hosed down seemed incorrect.
We don't like desis trying to be Europeans --given our collective knowledge of more troubled times. We are not allowed such abandon without reflection. The filmmakers could have dealt with this with more finesse, showing a more nuanced, if clumsy, interaction - where racial subtleties play out through crisp, funny dialog. Farhan here fails, and he does not really get it. Neither does Zoya. Spanish culture is exoticized and simplified; desis are shown as riding a wave of business success, a globalized, prosperous people well loved by all - dancing with senoritas, and bull fighting.
Women in this plot are disposable sources of physical and psychological comfort. Imran befriends a Spanish woman - and although they do not have a common language between them, they have a one night stand. In bed with her Imran gets 'senti' about his father. This could not get more clichéd -- a contrived sub plot of a man on a quest to meet his biological father against his mother's wishes -- a father whom he has never met or heard from, a painter and a recluse who lives in Spain, and whose only job is to mock peoples' financially motivated career choices. It is Farhan's character's chief emotional crisis; it is representative of dubious politics of the invisible power of genes. The woman (his one night standee) is a man's fantasy. She somehow understands his vexation, and soothes him. It will be fine. The next day, both move on. Eventually he meets his father. The meeting is inconsequential and leaves you feeling that the scriptwriter was messing with your emotions for no apparent reason.
Katrina plays Laila, a carefree adventure seeker who has figured out that there is much more to life than money. She is addicted to scuba diving, but prefers to call it meditative rather than a nasha. She helps Urjun overcome his fear of water - her character fulfills the male fantasy of a sexy woman who is maternal as well as gaze-able. Her philosophy is to appreciate finer things -- nature, algae, smashing tomatoes, silence, less clutter. It is undeniable though that her hobbies must cost an arm and a leg. Don't be fooled by her bravely romantic, irrational decision to chase the trio on a motor bike for a three second goodbye kiss with Urjun - and then promptly return. Its not about girl power. Its about self importance.
Marriage as an institution is not questioned in the film - what is highlighted is how male sexuality is imprisoned by the dictates of a nagging, controlling, and possessive wife. The film reveals that Kabir's character had never really proposed to his much despised fiancée who gate crashes the bachelor vacation party -- and is the unwelcome woman in contrast to the desired woman, Laila who is uncomplicated, smiles generously, and compliantly conspires to get Imran laid. Kabir's fiancée assumed he was proposing when he pulled out a ring he intended to gift his mother. Kabir's character should have come out as gay but that would probably add a different color to the trio's vacation - so the film leaves it as that while affirming that a man's true love is really his mother. Yikes.
The other major problem with this film is that it can't decide whether it is about men in their early thirties or men approaching 40. Their juvenile behavior puts them at 28. Apparently the trio likes playing pranks on strangers; they toss cell phones out of windows, they are cute enough to not realize that their girlfriends would get jealous of anything, they actualize their maleness by running from charging bulls, and (boringly) conquering their fears. At other times, the film strikes gold when the actors are talking about stuff from Farhan Akhtar's (the writer) actual generation. They remember when Doordarshan was the only channel on TV. Urjun recalls a tune they would play on TV and it would depress him thoroughly. This was perhaps the nicest moment in the film - otherwise its just pretty rich brown kids with problems.