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Dear Zindagi is a film of our times about Kaira (Alia Bhatt) leading a life on her own terms and trying to cope with the difficulties that arise due to not conforming to a more traditional gender role, including working a fixed-salaried job, getting married, not expressing opinions before elders and being with a single partner for life.

Dear Zindagi (2016)

Cast: Alia Bhatt and Shah Rukh Khan

Director: Gauri Shinde

She is on a crusade against the sexist objectification and the patriarchal scrutiny she faces as her family members and friends try to mould her into the woman they think she should be. She lives in her own apartment and works as a cinematographer, not a very “normal” career for women characters, has an active sexual life, speaks her mind, dances all by herself in her room and avoids her family because they don’t accept her way of life.

However, after she has a fall-out with her partner and moves in with her family, the pressure of having to validate her every move, the lack of the unquestioned adulation that her brother receives on account of being a man and her abandonment issues lead to sleepless nights and she finally seeks help from a therapist, Dr Jehangir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan).

Here comes the part where Dear Zindagi falters as the camera fails to present a responsible depiction of Kaira’s depression or depression, in general, even though the film has been touted as a one of India’s pioneer films to discuss mental health openly. Depression is not only about one nightmare and breaking down before a therapist; it is a routine that takes over one’s routine life and shadows every activity. In Kaira, we see a woman going through a rough patch but excited about life and the rigour of depression does not come across.

However, Dear Zindagi is an absolute knock-out when it comes to exposing the duplicity that exists in society.

Kaira’s parents marry and have a child, according to the norms of the society, but don’t have the financial standing to look after her. They leave her with her grandparents and go away to find work abroad, ensuring a better upbringing for her brother, Kiddo. Later, as grown-ups Kaira and Kiddo get completely different treatments, as the family praises Kiddo for his career advances and constantly nudges Kaira to get married. This kind of sexism is apparent in today’s society – boys are encouraged to study and build a future while girls are relegated to the position of care-givers in the family.

Even if a woman digs in her heels and builds a career through her own efforts, she has to constantly prove her worth in fields that are dominated by men. Kaira’s love interest, Raghu (Kunal Kapoor), while offering her a project in New York, says that he approached her because he found her hot and later clarifies it as a joke, but we are left wondering what he actually means. Such sexist jokes in a work environment are discouraging for women because it diminishes their hard work and abilities.

Kaira’s field of work being unconventional also turns into an issue. Her relatives drool over Salman Khan’s abs and are excited about her job when it comes to whether she has seen him. At the same time, they fail to grasp the significance of her work or that physical attractiveness can be an attribute that Kaira seeks in a partner.

After Kaira finally succeeds in creating her own short film and holds a screening, a relative approaches Raghu who had once made her a job offer and thanks him for her success, dismissing her talent and the fact that women can make it in this world without the help of men. Raghu’s response to this, though, was pleasantly surprising and much needed.

In the beginning of the movie, we see Kaira censoring and judging herself because of the lack of encouragement and negativity around her. She has a breakdown before Dr. Jehangir Khan, where she opens up about things bothering her. One of them being the topic of changing partners as society brands such women as sluts. She also mentions about her nightmare in which she sees a crowd of married women in red sarees laughing at her as she lies in a muddy puddle. She adds how she avoids her family because it puts her on guard about her work and lifestyle. Adding to which she explains how her relationship issues stem from her being afraid to discuss her feelings with her partners, lest they be ridiculed.

But with therapy we see her changing for the better, as she embraces herself the way she is, which makes it okay for her to express her emotions, she stops trying to impress the men in her life, including Raghu, and decides that self-care comes before a lucrative offer.

Kaira’s relationship with Rumi (Ali Zafar) re-establishes her control over her life as she realizes she cannot have a proper conversation with him and hence, a long-term relationship with him was not a possibility, even when he is handsome, charming and wooing her with lovely songs.

In the beginning, Kaira is looking for validation (in a scene she ties up her hair because Raghu tells her to), but she takes things into her own hands by the end and she is comfortable with herself as all her past boyfriends get invited for the screening.

The best part about Dear Zindagi is that Kaira’s life does not revolve around her boyfriends. When her therapist asks her to name the people closest to her, Kaira names two of her female friends, her brother, and her house-help. Kaira broods over her failing relationships with men but we have finally got a heroine whose life goes beyond being a man’s girlfriend or daughter or mother. Also, I really wish to laud this movie for its realistic portrayal of the institution of family. Because of how big we’re always on families and them being the happiest and most supportive. However, this is far from the truth for many, many individuals increasingly and Dear Zindagi conveys that unabashedly.

Alia Bhatt as Kaira is very believable as she stutters, tells jokes that fall flat and keeps clumsily bumping into things. On the other hand, Dr. Jehangir Khan is the preachy man who guides Kaira, just like Deepak Sehgal (Amitabh Bachchan) guides three women in Pink, but Khan has lighter speeches, one of them weirdly comparing partners to armchairs. However, there is no mistaking that it is Kaira’s film as she evolves over the length of it.

Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi deserves a watch but the next movie on mental health has to remember, to paraphrase Hannah Nicole, “Depression does not always mean/beautiful girls shattering at the wrists… sometimes depression means not getting out of bed for three days/ because your feet refuse to believe/that they will not shatter upon impact with the floor.”

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