I promised to write this review for Valentine’s Week and then I missed it, so I am squeezing it in now instead. Oh well, I didn’t have anything else planned for today anyway.
This is one of those movies that is kind of too good to be “just” a romance. The romance between Ranbir and Deepika almost feels like a distraction from everything else that is happening around them. It’s kind of a classic character study in two parts, the first half establishing Deepika and her life and changing her, the second changing Ranbir. And sure, part of that changing is falling in love, but that’s equally important with all the rest of it. Maybe the biggest flaw of the film is that I want to spend more time with everything happening around the edges and less on the romance that is supposed to be central.
But I get pulled back into the romance after all because the Deepika-Ranbir chemistry is just so good. And a lot of that is the characters written for them. This is an Ayan Mukherjee movie, and since Ranbir is his muse/soulmate/best friend, of course he wrote the absolute perfect hero for him, taking advantage of his exact acting talents and persona in just the best possible way. I don’t know why Deepika got such a good role, I think it is a combination of good role and good actress. Although, to be fair, Ayan has a history of great female characters, Konkana in Wake Up Sid was pretty awesome too.
The real magic is when the two actors and two characters are together, Deepika and Ranbir both give quietly excellent performances playing quietly complicated characters. They really are very well-matched as performers, a good supply of charm, the kind that makes you want to smile back at the screen when they smile. But also a good supply of subtle emotional cues, the kind that make you cry when all they do is a little lip quiver. This script is perfect for them, because it is a love story full of unspoken moments, two characters who can’t connect enough to speak their feelings.
And on top of these great central characters with great journeys, and also great secondary characters with their own journeys, we have SONGS! And CLOTHES! And LOCATIONS! It’s just a dream of a movie visually and aurally, on top of the actual plot. Just a 100% delight.
I don’t know why it doesn’t quite have the cult living legend status it could have. I can’t remember it ever coming up in the comments here, compared to Piku, Rockstar, even Wake Up Sid. Maybe because it is such an odd fit? A swoony romance in many ways, but a grounded character study in others.
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This is really the story of Kalki and Deepika’s friendship. That’s where it starts and ends, Ranbir is just a detour in the middle. At least, that’s how I watch the film.
Kalki and Deepika went to school together, Kalki was the weird gawky loud outgoing one, Deepika was the one who spent all her time studying and quiet. And then Kalki sees her at the store, being quiet and obedient with her mother, and spontaneously invites her to go along an a week long adventure trek. Kalki reaches out for the kind of stable traditional female friend she has never had, and Deepika is inspired to reach out for the kind of wild irresponsible adventure she has never had. And at the last minute, they are reunited at the train station for the trip that will solidify this new friendship. At which point, Ranbir suddenly falls in between them.
It’s a great twist on the usual romance. It’s not that Ranbir bursts into her life and inspires a change, it’s Kalki who does that, Ranbir is just kind of a surprise in the middle of it. Imagine if Kajol had fallen in love with Karan in DDLJ instead of Shahrukh, and Shahrukh was just the one who helped her get on the train and take the adventure. Kalki and Deepika share rooms and tents and secrets. Deepika sees and sympathizes with Kalki’s painful crush on her other best friend Aditya Roy Kapoor. They build a friendship that can be a bridge to a new kind of future for both of them, right as they finish school and their lives are about to change and they want someone who can change with them.
And then Ranbir bursts back into their life 8 years later. And we learn how Deepika and Kalki grew together in the meantime, Deepika is now the kind of confident woman who gives a speech in public and looks forward to winning a dance contest, and Kalki is happy wearing make-up and having a big party that is all about her. The two of them have been doing just fine without Ranbir. He’s a nice benefit, as a friend for one and a lover for the other, but he is only slightly needed.
That’s also why their romance is so unspoken. Deepika has a crush on Ranbir, but he is just a friend of her friend, not a direct connection. Ranbir kind of likes Deepika, but he is just being nice to her because Kalki brought her into the group. It’s a great look for Ranbir’s character, being super nice just because he wants to make this new girl feel comfortable. And part of being nice is not flirting, not pushing a relationship on her while she is just getting comfortable with herself. Deepika’s in a similar position, trying not to push herself forward into this tight group of friends, being grateful for them inviting her in, as focused on enjoying this new experience as she is on her maybe possible feelings for Ranbir.
And so the first half is a slow dawning of a lot of things for Deepika. She discovers she can stand up to her parents, she discovers she can have her goals and also have fun and friends, she discovers that she doesn’t have to change herself to have fun either (a different movie would have had a drunk scene, but in this one has her stay a glasses wearing good student straight through, just one who learns how to make friends). And somewhere along the way she starts to notice the nice guy she doesn’t really know, who seems to be noticing her too, who seems to have some kind of special connection with her, who seems like he might actually be perfect for her. It all culminates in “Balam Pichkari” when she finally feels free and comfortable and happy with every part of herself, ready to move on to a new chapter of life, and maybe might possibly be ready to admit her love to the boy who maybe might possibly love her back.
And then it all comes crashing down as we discover that this was never just Deepika’s story all along. It was Kalki too, struggling with her feelings for Aditya, only to finally on this trip discover that he will never see her that way, have her heart broken over and over again. And it was Ranbir, wanting this last trip with his friends because he knew his future was going to take him away from them. And it was Aditya, leaping in to life with both feet and trusting that his friends were always going to be there to catch him. And just as Deepika is about to complete her journey, Aditya finds Ranbir’s acceptance letter to Northwestern and this journey goes from Deepika finding herself to Ranbir breaking away from himself, saying good-bye to Kalki and Aditya and India before going off into the great world. Aditya learning he has to find a way to survive on his own. Kalki discovering that she actually can survive on her own, being immediately sincerely happy for Ranbir. And Deepika taking a step back, moving away from admitting her feelings and taking that leap into love and being happy with what she has already experienced.
And the second half, that is when Ranbir learns over and over again just how much this is NOT his story. I love it when Ranbir learns that. Or, rather, when self-important sensitive young men who are full of themselves learn that. Ranbir is now an internationally successful travel reporter/photographer. He’s had a life of adventure and sees himself as the hero of his own story, has the chance to be the hero of his own story literally when his boss offers him the job of hosting his own travel show. So when Kalki begs him to come to her wedding, he sees himself as the hero, bursts in on Deepika’s heartfelt toast about how she and Kalki have been best friends for 8 years to do a massive song and dance number romancing her, cheering up Kalki, all the good things. He thinks he can “fix” everything, save Kalki from marrying the boring man her parents are forcing on her since she is still in love with Aditya, save Aditya from his business troubles by throwing money at them, and sweep Deepika off her feet.
And then he learns he can’t actually do any of those things. In the first half, Deepika learned to see herself as the heroine, that she isn’t the studious one in the corner who always obeys her parents, but the adventurous one who can climb to the top of a mountain and fall in love and, finally, start off the big roucous dance of “Balam Pichkari”. Ranbir is starting from there, he leads the dance and saves the day. He thinks. But then he has to learn that life has moved on without him, you can’t be anyone’s hero if you are never there. Kalki’s best friend is Deepika now, and Aditya second. She doesn’t need Ranbir to rescue her, because she is fine on her own, she is in love and getting married, she has grown up in the past 8 years and grown away from a childish crush. And Deepika isn’t there waiting for Ranbir to swoop in and sweep her off her feet, she has a life that she loves, her own clinic, achieved her own dreams. And she isn’t going to throw them all away for Ranbir. If he wants to be part of their lives, he has to learn to take a backseat to what they all want, not make it about himself.
Of course, Aditya is the most interesting character. Aditya’s character is a nicely drawn addictive personality. When they are young, he drank a little too much (his dreams for the future were to own a wine shop, that’s a bad sign) and also had a little too much sex. Now, he is almost always drunk, and gambling massive amounts. And Ranbir doesn’t seem to get that he can’t save him. Kalki and Dips have given up, they don’t give him money any more. That’s a sign of how much they care and how much they have been around. It’s the dumb outsider, Ranbir, that thinks this is still a quick fix. Even Aditya knows that, he is offended when Ranbir offers money, aware that a true friend would offer something much better. Aditya’s character is also the one where I most feel the tug of the love story throwing the film off balance. I could use more Kalki too, more on how she went from a wild tomboy who couldn’t express her crush to a confident woman in love with her boyfriend. But Aditya just cries out for a resolution! The end of the film should be his friends giving him an intervention, not anything else. I almost feel like this movie should come with a trigger warning, looks like a happy romance, really a chilling vision of an addict growing up as his friends do nothing.
But the romance is plenty interesting anyway. What makes it so great is that the fact of their love for each other is never really in doubt. Even when they were young, Ranbir always “saw” Deepika. They challenged each other and brought out the best in each other, and just plain liked each other. Deepika prepares to confess her feelings, and the audience doesn’t have that feeling of dread that she will be embarrassed and heartbroken, the know that Ranbir will have to admit he feels the same way. And Deepika knows it too, that’s why she doesn’t say anything, because if she had he would have stayed for her.
And then in the future, it’s a different pull. There is no more fear of admitting their feelings, that is almost beside the point, they move right on to discussion of what to do about them. Can Deepika give up the life she has built in India to be with Ranbir on his terms? Can Ranbir give up his traveling life to be with her on her terms? And if not, when happens now? Do they kiss, do they say words of love, or do they just enjoy this time, knowing it is limited?
This is a really realistic conflict, so realistic that the resolution almost feels like fantasy. His whole life, Ranbir has wanted to travel, has built a career out of traveling, and now his career is taking off. And Deepika is happy where she is, truly happy. She isn’t dying of a broken heart, and she isn’t rushing into a new romance either, she just wants the life she has. I could more easily believe that they say good-bye at the end of the film than that Ranbir suddenly shows up on her doorstep and tells her he is there to stay.
But, Supriya Pathak pulls it off! The first half, that was about Deepika’s deepseated issues and now she is happy and past them. This second half, this is for Ranbir and he really needs to get past his. He isn’t traveling, he is running away. He never made his peace with his stepmother, and now his father is dead. He missed the whole funeral because he was traveling and he can’t stop traveling because he can’t let himself think about what he has lost. He needs to go home, go back to the apartment where he grew up, and say good-bye. Once he does that, starting a new life with Deepika doesn’t seem so impossible.
I wish there had been a little more exploration of this conflict. The idea of “you don’t really love to travel, you just like running away” seems pretty simplistic, but I think this movie could have pulled off some version of it. And some exploration of the other half, Deepika’s life. She stayed in one place and put down roots, not in a trite socially mandated way but in a real way. She doesn’t live with her parents, she isn’t married, but she is peaceful and at home in her life and in the world. That is what Ranbir is afraid of, staying in one place long enough to feel something, to feel at peace. To appreciate what he has instead of running after what he doesn’t have. The movie simplifies it a bit to just have him propose to Dips, but the real ending is the right one. It’s not about the proposal, it’s about reuniting the 4 friends, Aditya and Dips and Kalki and Ranbir all on phones together bringing in the New Year. That’s what Ranbir is committing to, the whole idea of friendship and connections and people who know you down deep. Being in love with Deepika, that’s just a bonus.