Ten years ago, Farhan Akhtar's directorial debut Dil Chahta Hai essentially revitalized the urban youth genre of Hindi Cinema. And now his sister Zoya Akhtar, with her second offering Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (ZNMD), gives us what could, whether by chance or intention, pretty easily be considered a sequel of sorts. ZNMD bears constant reminders of Dil Chahta Hai, however, the film has plenty of its own merits. It's a maturely and delicately handled film that manages to capture its theme rather well - live your life in such a way that you are conscious of every moment and experience. Barring its unnecessary length, slow pacing in parts and at times greater focus on glorifying Spain than the characters or story, ZNMD is actually one of the better films of this year - fun, contemplative and sensitive.
The premise - three friends go on a bachelor trip - is hardly original. But Akhtar takes the male bonding road trip concept, drops it in Spain with a previously unseen ensemble cast, and unravels the lives, dynamics, fears and emotional breakthroughs of the characters. Kabir (Abhay Deol, pitch-perfect in the role), polite but also childishly wacky at times, is desperate to reunite with his two childhood friends for an adventurous trip before he gets hitched to the uptight and possessive Natasha (Kalki Koechlin). Arjun (Hrithik Roshan at his most subdued) is a stock trader working in London with the goal of minting money until 40 and then retire. Imran (Farhan Akhtar playing his own personality type) is an ad copywriter and closeted poet with a quick wit. They are joined by Laila (Katrina Kaif), their deep-sea diving instructor who also becomes their philosophical guide through their journey.
The friends fullfil a pact to each choose a daredevil adventure sport that the other two must participate in. Writers Akhtar and Reema Kagti have selected these activities carefully, each weaved into the plot to serve as a potent metaphor. The friends go to the depths of the ocean to find peace, then they jump out of a plane to offload their emotional baggage and eventually have to fight to survive as they are chased by raging bulls. Along the way, they iron out their differences and must battle their own personal demons. Akhtar and Kagti must also be lauded for the ending, which is one of the most refreshing culminations to a plot seen in recent films.
As heavy as all this sounds, Akhtar gives the film a lighthearted touch for the most part. There is witty banter and romance aplenty as the women (Kaif, Koechlin and Spanish actress Ariadna Cabrol) pass in and out of the friends' lives. However, some of the jokes and the pranks they pull are quite juvenile for characters meant to be in their 30s and having life-changing experiences.
ZNMD is explicitly and shamelessly sponsored by the tourism department of Spain. There's enough fodder here for Spanish Tourism to use for their publicity for years to come! The visuals are stunningly captured by cinematographer Carlos Catalan, allowing the viewer to feel the constantly changing landscapes and environments as the characters travel through the country. The spectacular deep-sea diving and skydiving sequences are particularly worth mentioning for their entrancing execution. But there are plenty of other moments of silence or exploring the country that needlessly elongate the film. The editing could have been much crisper, which would have given the film significantly more impact.
Where the film truly excels is its cast. Akhtar has assembled a platter of good looking people that display great onscreen chemistry. The three men make their characters believable and feed off one another effectively. Of the women, Kaif is at her most restrained yet charming while Koechlin is convincing as the jealous fiancee. Naseeruddin Shah, in a special appearance, is incredible. The Roshan-Kaif pairing might rival Roshan's well established sparkling dynamic with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Clearly, we have the problem of too many beautiful people in the film industry.
The film's soundtrack is quite ordinary except for the fun 'Senorita' number, which has the three men wooing a troupe of flamenco dancers. Love really doesn't have a language, it seems. However, the best part of the soundtrack comes in the form of the poetry. Akhtar weaves in wonderfully original moments of poetic contemplation into the story. Written by dad Javed Akhtar, these poems are recited by Farhan and put to a simple yet wistful tune. At moments of reflection so deep and personal for the characters, Akhtar uses these delectable packages of poetry to support the visuals and mood. Kudos to Akhtar senior for this valuable contribution.
One of ZNMD's best moments is right after the deep-sea diving sequence when Arjun is engulfed by the emotions of having just shed one of his greatest fears and experienced a truly life-changing moment. His epiphany - directed, shot and performed wonderfully - encapsulates what Akhtar and her team set out to do with the film. The dictum of living life in the moment is nothing new. But it is the way that Akhtar tells the story, with such skillfully crafted sequences, that makes ZNMD worth a watch.