Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara: The Loneliness of Masculinity

Thank you Netflix-Excel deal! I got a chance to watch this movie for a second time, and I liked it quite a bit better on this watch. Especially now that I started with the knowledge I gained on my first watch, that the key to the whole thing is Hrithik.

Hrithik is brilliant in this movie. Every moment, every line delivery, every reaction shot, is perfectly in character. Farhan and Abhay are good, but Hrithik isn’t even acting, he just exists as his character. And because he just IS the character, his is the performance where the lesson of the film is present through out, not just at the end.

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The idea of this film is that men suffer because they don’t know how to open up and be honest about what hurts them. Each of our central three represents a different version of how masculinity is supposed to be. Abhay is “solid”, responsible, reliable. Farhan is a cocky fun flirt. And Hrithik makes a lot of money and works all the time. They have learned to perform these roles, to put on the mask of masculinity to hide what they feel inside. That’s not a bad thing, everyone needs masks. But for these three, they have deep hurts and those masks mean no one can see and help them.

Specifically, no woman can see and help them. This is a male bonding movie that is about how strong male bonds allow men to reach out to women. Farhan and his mother Deepti Naval, Hrithik and his new love Katrina, and Abhay and his fiancee Kalki all need to reach out and open up to each other. But the men are afraid of being hurt, so they shut down, put on their masks, and can’t heal their hurts. They have to be with fellow men, ones who understand those masks, and ones who knew them as children before they had those masks, and that will make them free.

Farhan’s hurt has been there for a year. Abhay’s has been there for 4 months. But Hrithik’s hurt has been there almost his whole life. His character is so damaged that he believes that “mask” he wears is all he is, all he has. And he is terrified of the pain of having it ripped off, that is what is constantly there in his performance. While Farhan and Abhay wear their masks lightly, natural extensions of their personality, Hrithik is drowning in his. Little tics, little gestures of stress, the way he holds himself as though constantly braced for a blow and pretending he isn’t, it’s there in every moment he is onscreen. His performance is actually painful to watch, even in the early scenes of the film there is an instinct to wince away from what he is feeling.

Hrithik’s story is the focus of the first 2/3rds of the film. And then it is resolved and the film moves on to Farhan and Abhay, seemingly. But on this watch, I stayed focused on Hrithik, and it truly is his film. The point of Abhay and Farhan is to see how Hrithik, now finally freed of his burdens, is able to help them. From someone terrified of connections, bad at being there for even his oldest friends, he becomes the most sensitive and supportive and understanding one. This is what happens when men are freed from their fears, from their posturing. There is this great depth of love and empathy and understanding that can spring loose. Hrithik, by some miracle, is freed. And he is able to free his friends in turn.

If Hrithik is the hero of the film, then the catalyst of the film isn’t the three friends reuniting, but rather Katrina. That’s something else I noticed on this watch. All three men are drowning and flailing around, not knowing how to save themselves. Katrina is the one who saves Hrithik. And because of that connection, he can show his two friends how to reach out to the women near them and save themselves. It isn’t a movie about men being together and the importance of their bond, it is about how men need to learn to reach out and be honest to the women in their lives, male bonding can’t solve everything.


The surface version of this plot is really stupid and a little bit misogynist, which I think is why it is so easy to write this movie off. Abhay Deol is trapped in an engagement he doesn’t really want to spoiled rich girl Kalki Koechlin, he goes on a three week bachelor trip with his oldest friends Hrithik and Farhan. Farhan has daddy issues, his father just died and he learned his biological father is an artist in Spain. Hrithik is a workaholic who can’t keep a girlfriend. On the trip, Hrithik falls in love with the beautiful free spirit diving instructor. Farhan meets his biological father. And Abhay (with the encouragement of his friends) breaks up with Kalki.

There’s also a surface version of these characters. Their obnoxious little practical jokes on strangers, the obsession with “adventure sports”, it’s all deeply unpleasant. But if you keep watching the film, you will notice that by the end of the movie all of that has stripped away. They’ve left behind their childish version of manhood and found something better.

By the end of the movie, their tricks on strangers have changed to be a joyous celebration of reaching out to strangers across gender and culture

The real story is that all three men are broken, and the surface “solutions” to their problems are just the start. Farhan’s story is simplest (and really interesting to me considering that Farhan himself and Zoya who wrote/directed have two mothers). He thinks it is about finding his “real” father that his mother has kept from him, discovering his artistic roots. But it’s really about grieving his father. His father died, and soon after he learned for the first time that he has another biological father out there. He focused on that, on being angry with his mother for separating them, on having this fantasy of a “perfect” Dad out there somewhere, because he was afraid of facing the reality of his grief for his father. He acts at his worst on this trip because he is running from his feelings, running towards this idea of himself as a wild artist just like his “real” father instead of as a responsible loving man like the father who raised him. And then he meets his “real” father and realizes he is an empty man, not capable of love, lost in his ego and artistic vision. It shocks Farhan out of denial, he is finally able to reach out to his mother and share their grief, and admit to his friends that he is only human and feels things too.

Abhay’s story could be easy, tricked into an engagement with a terrible spoiled woman, blah blah. But that’s not the story at all. She didn’t trick him, it was a mutual accident. If anything, he trapped her. In fact, the film is very clear that his engagement is far worse for her than for him, and he has to rescue both of them. That is the story that unfolds, not Abhay realizing he hates her and doesn’t want to get married, but Abhay realizing that the “her” that he loved is being killed by this engagement, and that is why he doesn’t want to get married. It’s not actually a story of men being trapped into marriage, but rather how marriage kills and transforms women. What I especially noticed this time is that the end credits song subtly suggests a continuing story. Abhay and Kalki are both good people, who sincerely like each other. But once marriage entered the picture, they became trapped into the worst versions of themselves. In the end credits, with Abhay and Kalki broken up and both guests at Hrithik and Kat’s wedding (another sign that Kalki is more than just the “evil fiancee”, that she is joyfully welcome and happy at their wedding), we see Kalki possibly with a new boyfriend and Abhay sadly watching. There’s something more there, a year down the line they could be engaged again, when they are both ready and truly want it.

And then there’s Hrithik. Workaholic who learns to enjoy life thanks to free spirited young woman, BORING. But no. Right from the start, the audience can see there is more to him than just “workaholic”. If that’s all he was, he wouldn’t even be on this trip. Instead, we see a man who uses work to hide from a constant sense of misery. Whenever his friends start to get to close, he tosses off a joke and says he has a “work call”. When we learn, long into the film, that he works because his father died when he was 8 leaving them massively in debt, it all falls into place. A little boy who is still trying to gain that security he lost at 8 years old, who thinks somehow if he works hard enough and makes enough money, he can make his world right again. Farhan has to work out his grief over his father’s death, Abhay has to figure out how to save himself and Kalki, but Hrithik doesn’t even know how to live, hasn’t been alive really since he was 8 years old.

His friends can’t help with that. We see them trying to deal with the surface part of it. They tease him, try to get him to stop working. But they can’t deal with the crushing misery and hopelessness at the heart of it. They are very good friends, but even the best friendship can’t give Hrithik everything he needs. That’s what the “Farhan slept with his girlfriend” backstory is about. We don’t get a flashback to that moment (as we do to other painful moments in Hrithik’s life), and Abhay dismisses the girlfriend herself as to blame for the whole thing (Abhay being the kindest most objective character, so probably telling the truth). The reality of Hrithik having a girlfriend at some point who played the two friends against each other is painful, but not the kind of painful that is unforgivable or tragic. That’s the point, this ISN’T really an end of the world kind of sin. That’s why Farhan can’t understand why Hrithik is still upset, and Abhay thinks Hrithik can/should still go on this trip with them, and Hrithik himself feels like he isn’t justified in cutting Farhan out of his life totally. If we were just talking about friendship, it would be no big deal. But Hrithik is dealing with things that are far more than friendship. He needs to trust, he needs to feel loved, he needs to feel like he has value in the world beyond the money he can make. That is why what Farhan did hurt him beyond all logic or reason. Farhan realizes that, in the end, that it isn’t about what he did but about understanding the effect his actions had on others (just as his biological father can casually explain his decisions without considering how those decisions hurt other people, that is what Farhan was doing). That is Farhan’s journey, a journey of friendship. Hrithik’s journey though, that is far beyond Farhan’s sin or his apology. He needs to find a way to heal the hurt inside that made Farhan’s actions so painful for him.

Enter Katrina! God, this love story is so beautiful. It’s love at first sight, in the real world. Katrina is beautiful of course, but that’s not why Hrithik falls for her. She is just a woman in a flowered dress on a beach. No glamour shot, no make-up, no perfect lighting, none of those moments that in film language tell us she is a shockingly beautiful woman that anyone would love. Hrithik sees her and something happens that he can’t explain. And then the same thing happens with Katrina. He says “I’m Arjun” and shakes her hand and she smiles, and then his other friends talk to her while he stands back, and she keeps glancing at him, shifting her body in his direction. They have dinner that night, are talking about other things, Hrithik is silent, and Katrina suddenly bursts out “do you have a girlfriend?” like she knows it is a strange question but she can’t live any more not knowing.

There love story isn’t about this magical woman breaking down Hrithik’s boundaries, it’s mutual. For both of them, there is something there that they can’t resist. The way it is played, it feels like if Hrithik hadn’t decided to throw away his workaholic life in London, Kat probably would have given up her free-spirited life and come to him. That’s already what she is doing, drawn into his orbit over and over again. Hrithik doesn’t actually pursue her, Kat is the one who suddenly shows up for dinner, invites them to join her on her road trip, chases him in the car to kiss him, Hrithik is working on her just as she is working on him. But in the real world. There is that weird spark between them from the start, but they still have to talk, to get to know each other, to get comfortable with each other. The first kiss isn’t at the first meeting, it is a week later. The first night together is just talking, trading histories. Everything they say isn’t brilliant and witty, they don’t agree on everything, but they are really really interested in each other. And there is nothing the other person can say that will make them NOT be interested in each other any more.

Ultimately, that’s what Hrithik needs. He needs someone who will love him and want him no matter what. Even if he doesn’t have money, even if he lets her down sometimes, she will still love him. Katrina coming to him is a miracle, that there is someone out there who will love and want him immediately and forever. What the film leaves open is that Hrithik is a miracle for Kat too. It isn’t her movie, we don’t get her flashbacks, but we know that she lives a traveling existence, she doesn’t like anything to tie her back. She resists Hrithik, resists acknowledging this bond, until she can’t any more. There could be another movie made about her, about a young woman with mixed race parents, from London and Delhi, who took a long time to find herself and finally has a life she enjoys and is trying to make it last as long as possible and resist change. And who suddenly meets a man who forces her to change everything about her thoughts and feelings.

This brings me back to the starting point. This is a movie about men, who need to learn how to reach out to women. The women in this film aren’t magical creatures who will “save” them, but fellow human beings that they need to learn to see as fellow human beings and stop expecting them to be perfect. Again, Farhan’s story is simplest. He is angry with his mother because she wasn’t perfect, but then he meets his biological father and suddenly is able to see things from his mother’s side, a young woman left alone and pregnant and desperate. The scene is perfectly written and acted, Naseeruddin’s speech so focused on himself and yet still giving just enough hints for us to see with Farhan what he is revealing about Deepti Naval’s situation (“I was 25, she was a few years younger” and so on). And with Farhan’s face slowly falling as we see that he is not hearing this story as a great story of a rebellious artist and true love, but instead a pitiful story of a young woman abandoned. Farhan had to meet his “father” in order to fully find and understand his mother. Abhay had to see Kalki on the road with them, to understand the desperation that brought her to the point of joining on this trip, and to remember that she is a person herself, before he could understand that his resistance to marriage isn’t a selfish impulse but rather a sign of love for Kalki who has gone from this interesting funny independent woman to someone who is so insecure she can’t be away from him. And Hrithik to really see a woman, and listen to her, and understand that someone who is so different from himself can still love him and he love her.

And then we end with Hrithik and Katrina’s wedding, a perfect joining of male and female. On my first watch, I found that an odd tag on ending. But it’s important. Especially the final shot, the friends taking a photo together and Hrithik dragging Kalki in to join them. It’s a story that started with men trying to break off and be alone, and it ends with them trying to bring people in, healing wounds and rifts, showing that being open to love is the most manly, and human, thing you can do.

(final question for those who have watched it recently, do you vote for “Abhay and Kalki will get back together eventually” or “this will be a little bittersweet memory that will make them better partners in their next relationship”? I am firmly on the side of the first one myself)

26 thoughts on “Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara: The Loneliness of Masculinity

  1. You didn’t talk about the scuba scene! It’s so important to the narrative. Hrithik has to literally be taken out of the world and completely dependent on Katrina for his barriers to be broken down for the first time and when he comes back up (up for air, you could say) he weeps because he’s so overwhelmed by the experience of letting go of the constant self-consciousness he has in real life. Just the little scene where they trade the oxygen back and forth and she has him look her in the eye, gah. It’s so beautiful and moving.

    Zoya has said that Hrithik is her favorite actor and I find that absolutely fascinating. He’s not the obvious person you’d expect.

    I vote Abhi learns from his mistakes and moves on to a new relationship. I think Kalki is too proud to be open to a reconciliation after he broke up with her. BTW, I read an interview with Zoya where she said she casted Kalki because she could play the comedy without turning the character into a caricature. I thought that was interesting.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Other thing I noticed on this watch, Katrina seeks him out during the scuba scene. As their trainer, she knows he is nervous and a bad swimmer (and we see on the boat at the end there is another man, presumably another trainer who stayed with the other two men). But it’s more than that, she talks about how scuba diving is like meditation for her. And she takes Hrithik with her, holds his hand and leads him. So it’s partly the experience itself, and partly sharing it with her, and partly having someone who loves him enough to take care of him.

      I agree about Kalki not making her character a caricature. Abhay’s whole argument is that Kalki used to be a different person before the engagement, and there is enough there for us to see that different person inside. She’s funny and nice and a little off-beat, just drowning right now in her internal expectations for herself as a “bride”.

      On Thu, Dec 19, 2019 at 10:37 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



      • I was going to say the same thing about the scuba scene! Water is set up as his greatest fear. He has to confront what he’s most afraid of (life? lack of control? the beauty of the world he’s been ignoring?), and Kat gently leads him deep into it and back out again.

        Have you done a 101 on water? Is it life? Everyone always gets wet at a moment when they’re embracing or surrendering to the joyful side of life.


        • I haven’t done a 101 on water, but I did include it as a discussion post related to Bahubali. Best metaphorical meaning I can come up with is one of two things, first that cleansing with water is one of the things you have to do before a religious ritual, clean body and clean clothes. And second that the monsoons mark the end of the long hot dry spell and the start of the harvest and good times (sexy). In this case, I think it is more the cleansing with water before a ritual, right? He comes out clean and fresh and ready for a newer better life.

          On Thu, Dec 19, 2019 at 10:02 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



        • Yeah, that’s what they’ve been saying for years. I’d be cool with it, they’ve known each other their whole lives, neither of them is in a place to remarry (because of young children concerns if nothing else), if they get together when the kids are with their co-parent for some fun and companionship, I would be happy with that.

          On the other hand, if they want to get married (to each other or just in general), that’s sad. Because I don’t think Shweta can/will ever get a full divorce.

          On Thu, Dec 19, 2019 at 11:49 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



        • Oh, and that reminds me! You said Zoya said Hrithik was her favorite actor. They grew up together, part of the same kids party film brat crowd, and I wonder if that is why she is able to get such interesting performances from him and sees him in a different way from other directors? I feel like the Zoya-Hrithik is a lot closer to the skinny kid with the bad stammer than to the 6 pack ab film hero everyone else knows.


          • This role pulls on that so much, the perfect put together golden man who is struggling with deep insecurity. But did you kind of feel that with LBC too? Because I did. All we see onscreen is Hrithik as the Top Star maintaining his stardom. But there is some kind of layer there that makes his character feel like someone who wanted stardom to cancel insecurity, not for power or fame or the rest of it.

            On Thu, Dec 19, 2019 at 12:13 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:


            Liked by 1 person

          • Oh, and also (I keep having great thoughts right after I hit “send”), I wonder if that is why his most vulnerable performances tend to be with old friends. This one, LBC, Lakshya, he was with people where he felt safe because he knew them his whole life, instead of the scary new directors like Sidharth Anand where he puts on this veneer of confidence over every moment of screen time.

            On Thu, Dec 19, 2019 at 12:13 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:


            Liked by 1 person

          • Yes to LBC. That scene with Karan at the party really stuck out to me this time. It shows him at the moment when he realizes his insecurity might have just cost him a great role.


          • Yes! And his attitude of constant wonderment that he is a star. Everyone worships him, but he doesn’t seem to understand why.

            On Thu, Dec 19, 2019 at 10:06 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  2. I’m so glad you went back to this one and wrote a review! Love this take about the women, who mostly have small parts but nonetheless reveal so much about the leading men.


    • Yes! I managed to write this whole review without comparing it to DCH, but now I will in a comment. In DCH, the men definitely rescue the women. From very specific sympathetic interesting bad things, it’s not the standard “rescue” kind of story. But it’s still about them rescuing women. In this movie, the women don’t rescue the men, and the men don’t rescue the women, the reach out and help each other.

      On Thu, Dec 19, 2019 at 10:09 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



        • Why does no one but me believe in the Kalki-Abhay love story???? He so obviously regrets losing her, and his friends like her and stuff, I want them to make it after all.

          On Thu, Dec 19, 2019 at 11:10 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



          • Meh, dudes always want what they don’t have, and he’s clearly that kind of character. As a couple they had more of a friend vibe than physical chemistry. Also they failed the basic test of good couplehood, which is bringing out the best in each other. I think Kalki will find someone who appreciates both her adventurous and nurturing sides and makes her feel safe and powerful, and Abhay will find someone who challenges him to step up more instead of hiding from his problems. Meanwhile, Abhay and Kalki will stay friends and give each other support and good advice, now that they’re wiser about one another.


          • Oh oh! Sequel idea sprung fully formed into my head! Kalki has an arranged engagement to a nice guy, Abhay decides he is “in love” with her and wants to break up the wedding. Kalki’s wild young sister also wants to break up the wedding because she thinks Kalki is settling. So I guess kind of My Best Friend’s Wedding but with the gender’s reversed and a wild younger sibling co-conspirator thrown in.

            Anyway, over the course of the wedding hijinks, it becomes clear that Kalki and her arranged marriage groom are actually perfect together and deeply in love, and somewhere along the line the wild younger sister falls for Abhay but hides it because she thinks he loves Kalki, until Abhay finally wakes up and sees that Kalki is all wrong and the wild sister is all right for him, does a grand romantic gesture, and he and the wild younger sister get married and she happily constantly turns his life into an uproar.


            On Fri, Dec 20, 2019 at 8:11 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



          • Funny, I feel like we’re rewriting the end of Dev.D along with ZNMD.

            Not very creative, but I really like Jim Sarbh and Kalki together, and it would be nice to see them in a happy ever after that wasn’t dysfunctional and destructive to the people around them. Jim as the arranged husband. The little sister…hm…I think Taapsee could go toe to toe with Abhay, but I’m not sure if she has the silly chaotic streak you’d want for the troublesome little sister. Anushka? Is that a crazy idea?


          • Love Jim Sarbh. We can have a kind of Mr. Darcy effect maybe? He seems almost scarily cold, Abhay can legitimately be worried that Kalki is in trouble and marrying a man who is incapable of seeing a wife as anything but a possession. Oh oh! Flashback sequence seeing their romance! Maybe Abhay gets a letter from Kalki saying her parents want her to marry this terrible terrifying man, because her father is going bankrupt and only marriage with his company can save them. But Abhay was traveling or something so doesn’t get the letter until weeks later when Kalki’s wedding cards are already out.

            And then he shows up at the meeting place she asked him to go to (“my parents are watching me all the time, but I can maybe meet you behind the dressmakers”), and finds Taapsee there too. And learns she is Kalki’s wacky cousin-sister, black sheep of the family, who ALSO got a desperate letter from Kalki. The two of them start working together, Taapsee is sure that Abhay and Kalki are Tru Love 4EVER even if Abhay isn’t 100% himself, and pushes him to do ridiculous things. Including pretending to be Taapsee’s new boyfriend in order to get entrance to the inner family wedding celebrations.

            It culminates in Abhay and Taapsee knocking out and kidnapping Kalki from her wedding to “save” her, Jim is terrifying and calling the police commissioner and his army of goons and ordering them to do whatever it takes and shoot to kill and scary stuff. And then Kalki wakes up and freaks out, Abhay and Taapsee reassure her they are “saving” her, and she finally gets a chance to explain to them that she is actually in love with Jim now and vice-versa.

            And then we get a flashback that intercuts between Jim and Kalki, and Jim stressed stares out his office window, and Kalki talks. Kalki was hired to redecorate a hotel Jim was buying. He watched her through the glass conference room wall while she was in the lobby, enjoyed seeing her carefully perfect fashion and the way she fussed with her hair, and then dropping all her sample cases and struggling to pick them up in heels, and just generally being cute and human. Coincidentally, his meeting was with a consultant trying to find him a wife. He asked his secretary about Kalki, got her name, and had the consultant add her to the investigation list. And then a week later was handed surveillance photos and background and told Kalki is completely inappropriate, good family but their business is going bankrupt, she had a messy broken engagement in the past, and frankly there are other women out there who are younger and more beautiful. And then we cut straight to Kalki’s side of things and her depressing house (since her parents are terrified about the business) and her father getting a phone call, arguing with her mother, and them finally coming in and talking honestly to Kalki about how they aren’t saying she HAS to marry Jim, but if she doesn’t, the business will die and they will all be on the street. Kalki and Jim have a first meeting, which goes very poorly. Kalki tries to make small talk, Jim doesn’t say anything. And then when it is over, her father gets a call confirming that Jim wants the engagement, and Kalki feels she has to say “yes”, and that’s also when she sent the letters to Taapsee and Abhay. Kalki goes through the steps of the engagement, pretending everything is okay. Jim makes time to be at all the meetings with her, whatever she asks for, but he doesn’t really participate, just sits there and says “whatever you want”. Kalki finally asks for a meeting and bravely lays out that she doesn’t want an engagement he doesn’t really want, she still doesn’t know why he even proposed, but she has been through this before and she can’t marry someone who doesn’t completely totally want her. And she gives him back his ring. That night, she gets a special delivery, the ring and a long letter. Jim explains, in the letter, that he always tries to be in control of everything, since he lost his parents at 22 and had to take over their company. He thought he could control his feelings for her, but now he realizes that love means giving up control. He fell in love with her at first sight, he loves to be with her, he just wants her to be happy, please if she feels anything for him or thinks she might feel anything for him, just put the ring back on and try again. And he will save her father’s business either way. And then the next day he goes in to work to find Kalki, perfectly dressed and wearing the ring, asking him to go out to lunch with her. They slowly get to know each other, he opens up, she takes him to art museums and shows him beautiful art she loves, and now they are about to be married and both totally in love.

            And then I guess there are hijinks with Abhay and Taapsee trying to deliver Kalki back to the wedding while ducking Jim’s goons, they finally get her there, Taapsee is all sympathetic to Abhay who must be sad watching his “true love” marry someone else. And then at the reception, Abhay grabs the microphone and starts singing a song to Taapsee (because earlier she had suggested he do that for Kalki, because it is the most romantic thing she can think of). Taapsee realizes she isn’t second best, Abhay really truly does love her. And we end with a big happy dance number with Abhay and Taapsee and Kalki and Jim all dancing together.

            On Fri, Dec 20, 2019 at 8:46 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



          • Ooh, yes. I like the twist and the flashback in time that gives you a different understanding of the characters. Sold. Let’s do it.


          • Yaaaay! And we can have cameos from Farhan and Hrithik and Kat at the wedding.

            On Fri, Dec 20, 2019 at 10:24 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



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