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On Haseen Dillruba's Greyness
The film — a love triangle and murder-investigative — gets neither genres right, content with a greyness that it hopes is edgy.
Last week I wrote about personal essays or the “first person industrial complex”, a genre I am growing disillusioned with increasingly. I tried to articulate why, but there is a reverse engineered quality to that piece — which is most pieces really, but this one more so — because it came from a visceral gag caused by reading bad writing. Oddly, not by design, I spent whole of last week reading Alexander Chee’s personal essays, compiled in his book “How To Write An Autobiographical Novel”, and his essays caused me to be both disarmed and disturbed by the genre. So maybe last week’s piece was more about bad personal essays, than personal essays. It is that badness which I tried to make sense of.
This week I tried to make sense of another badness. A film, Haseen Dillruba that landed on Netflix. A bummer because it was one of the few films I was looking forward to. A bummer because it was a film which wore its problems on its sleeve, and no one bothered to think twice. Do write to me, like, subscribe, spread the word.
Murder is a lovely genre, giving us characters who are rattling towards bloodbath. The murder-investigative is trickier. And I think the industry — which is to say creative people making money — recognizes this. The abject failure of a film like The Little Things, which I wrote about here, shows how hard it is to make an entire film about just an investigation. Few films like Kahaani, Raat Akeli Hai, Gone Girl have done this well. It requires a tight rope between pedantic logic and compelling intensity — if either slackens, the narrative potence unspools.
How To Get Away With Murder and Elite, each spanning 6 and 4 seasons respectively, begin with either a death or a disappearance. This creates an interesting plotting device where the boredom of the investigation is propped by the peppered drama in the flashbacks of how they got there. In both cases, it is the how leading to the murder or disappearance that is much more compelling, more moving than whatever or wherever the investigation leads. Every time they flash forward to the post-murder scenes, which are thankfully always brief, a kind of ennui sets in.
The investigation itself is a curious thing. It is never meaty, edgy, or compelling enough to carry the show on its own, and so needs the meatier, edgier, more compelling flashback to support it. In Elite the investigation has a pulpy quality, where you are expected to suspend disbelief because of the heightened pitch of irreality. Logic is always in freefall. In How To Get Away With Murder, the investigation has a convoluted quality, trying so hard to make sense, to pull threads together, that after a point, it lets go of its intensity. You no longer care about who did it, as much as hoping that these characters, sculpted with love and care, are okay. The success of these shows is in how the inter-personal drama, etched with a shock value, helps you coast through the binge. A reviewer noted during the earlier seasons that they wouldn’t be shocked if there was incest in the later seasons of How To Get Away With Murder. None that I recall from my binge, but incest certainly makes a centerpiece plot point in Elite. They thrive on the bizarre.
What I was trying to figure out in Haseen Dillruba, the film that just dropped on Netflix, is which part do I care about less, the events leading to or leading from the murder? Both have a lifeless but ambitious quality. Ambitious because both are etched in a “project” — of bringing grey female characters to the fore, almost celebrating them. It is the over-corrective of Hindi cinema’s decades long gaze of women, especially post the 1980s, where it was easier to slot them as homely or home-wreckerly. (A lot of people, like Kareena Kapoor Khan herself, has noted that strong female characters have always existed in our films — I just re-watched the splendid Saheb Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962) which has its hero tutored and taunted by two strong-willed women, which by no means was an exception — but it is easier to sell yourself as a pioneering project instead of a piggybacking one, so that nuance is thrown out of the door.)
This project of aspirational greyness is one of the central paradoxes of the film. Writer Kanika Dhillon has noted that she wants to write characters based on “the kind of women I’ve seen”. It is a project that aims for greyness as realistic, representative of women as they are, faults and flaunts. But at the same time the film dabbles in unrealistic, unrepresentative storylines and plot twists, a kind of pulpy exaggeration which, I think, would be much better served with one-dimensional heroes and villains. Pulpy, exaggerated stories with rooted real characters? This needed some genius screenplay writing to pull it off. Dhillon falls short, and in the second half the severity of this failure is glaring because the film is suddenly confronted by the delicious mess it has on its hands which it needs to tie up now, somehow. It is also confronted by the sudden change of genre from light hearted romcom to murder investigative — the former more restrained, and the latter all over the place.
Why I feel the generic hero villain template might have worked better is when the genre of the film changes, suddenly I realized that I had no emotional investment in any of the characters. If they indeed were the murderers or not, if this was a crime of passion or not. My conviction was strengthened after watching Saheb Bibi Aur Ghulam which too has this exaggerated quality — a wife of a waning Zamindar who thinks sindoor will magically solve her marriage, a child marriage between two unaware kids who end up meeting as adults. But it was so clear in whose side the film was on from the very beginning that as the plot thickened with fantasy, it was easy to forgive because you just want the lovers to be together, and the wife of the zamindar to find her peace. To want something for your characters, that should be important as a viewer, noh?
In the film's defense, towards the end it lets go of its greyness and gives us a villain to hate, a hero to root for, and a heroine to hope for. But by then even the film seems to realize the futility of greyness in a film that needed sides, that an “unreliable narrator” needs more than just an impenetrable armour of a gaze. Blank stares don't always imply depth. Sometimes they could just be empty.
The film follows Rani (Taapsee Pannu) who marries the vanilla Rishabh (Vikrant Massey) she met once in her kitchen, when his parents came to arrange this match. It is made clear that she has had boyfriends, lived a life before, and intends to live a life after. She has an MA in Hindi literature but exclusively reads pulpy books by this one small-town crime author, Dinesh Pandit. Here are some titles
Raat Javan Hai (The Night Is Young)
Phir Khooni Kaun (Then Who’s The Murderer)
Sushila: An Eye Candy, of which she has two copies
Adamkhor Ka Pehla Pyara (The Man-eater’s First Love), of which she has two copies
Ishq Ka Janjaal (The Problem Of Love)
Sulagti Aag (Smoldering Fire), of which she has two copies
Rishabh is the good boy, probably a virgin though this isn’t made clear, but definitely virginal in his coyness. She is feisty and he is feeble. She fucks his cousin brother — the bad boy. Guilt charges her to confess, and the love between Rani and Rishabh snowballs into a weird territory. I say weird because I had no sense of what was happening as the film kept greying the moral landscape. It felt like these characters lacked conviction, so anything they said or did had little impact, except of course, murder. Like in Raanjhanaa, these characters do emotionally explosive things but nothing strikes because nothing feels at stake. The actors are putting on a performance, which they are, but I am seeing it as a performance, always at an inert distance from the goings on.
The more I think about it, the more I feel that Taapsee Pannu’s eyes have an icy quality you are unable, and after a point unwilling, to crack through. Even the scenes where she’s supposed to be with her hot brother-in-law have this lazy quality, so even when they finally kiss, it doesn’t feel like tension melting, or tension mounting. It doesn’t feel like anything.
But that is not what the film is about. It begins with a bomb blast where they find Rishabh’s hand. (They know it is his hand because he tattooed her name on it) Therein begins the investigation into the blast, and Rani, a suspect, narrates her life through flashbacks.
A few things about detailing. The blast takes place at their home when Rani is outside feeding the dogs. The gas blows, and it is only second later that we see Rani react. I thought the timing was odd. Perhaps, it was to show us that she knew exactly when it was going to happen. As I would find out later, I was wrong on that front. It’s just badly timed direction. The other is Urdu. The train station of Jwalapur notes the name of the fictional town in Hindi, English, and Urdu. But the production design in charge did not realize Urdu is written from right to left, and so got a translation of each letter and placed it, without connecting letters as they are in Urdu, from left to right, like Hindi, like English. So if you read it in Urdu, the town’s name is “Rupalaj”, when what they intended was “Jalapur”. A part of me was hurt, especially coming from an industry where once even screenplays were written in Urdu. It is these details that take you out of a film, making you unable to buy into its vision. A resentment sets in. It made me wonder if the two copies of the pulpy books on her shelf was sheer laziness, an inability to cook up interesting names of books.
The real dent, however, is its inability to be either compelling or logical. The criticism the film can also be read along those lines. The whole investigation makes no sense — using lie detectors for open ended questions as “evidence”, the timeline where she is brought into the station two months after the murder to recount her story again, the whole sequence leading up to the murder. Suddenly she is seated at the back of a police car, suddenly she is walking free. But this I expected walking in. Dhillon, as evidenced in her previous film Judgmental Hai Kya, has an inability to tie intrigue neatly. If I remember correctly, part of the “solving” of the central drama in that film involved googling. Here too, she contorts the investigation beyond a redeemable limit under the excuse of “pulp”, but without characters I care for in any way, it all falls flat.
What I wanted was some nice, edgy storytelling with irreverent characters saying irrelevant things, like platitudes about love and lust, nothing to take seriously.
But I realize that there is a difference between an edgy character and an edgy story. The former isn’t a guarantee for the latter, and perhaps isn’t even necessary for it. I also realized that greyness doesn’t make a character edgy. To be edgy is to be a swirling tensile creature who can snap or snag at any time. But tension needs be earned, it cannot be a given. You can't wish it into existence with your intention.
Is Greyness Worth It?
Last week, a Malayalam anthology film released on Amazon Prime Video, Aanum Pennum (Women and Men). I loved it in a way I haven’t loved movies in a while. Not an ecstatic hurrah, nor a dull ho-humming. Three films, half hour each, the directors chose instead of creating complex characters, to create complex stories, and have morally flat characters to use time more economically. The women are feisty and are at the moral and emotive center of the films. The men are whining side characters. It works as an over-corrective because it creates characters towards whom affection and hatred comes easy. To be with a one dimensional character is to follow the story, knowing fully well that the character won't snap. There is a comfort in that too.
I felt similarly about Manjul Bajaj’s book In Search Of Heer, where she takes the epic Heer-Ranjha tragedy and keeps its moral fabric intact while spinning some feminist embellishments on Heer. It made me realize how much I missed reading books where the villain, the heroine and the hero were clear moral categories. It also made me realize that to create grey characters is more difficult because to care about them is more difficult. They are stripped of the emotional excesses of good-bad, and when wedded to realism are incapable of even emoting hyperbolically like the films of the 50s. It is easy to see such characters and think, as Anupama Chopra noted in her review of Sherni, “it needed more cheese”. At the end we all just want to feel something.
Watching Haseen Dillruba made me reconcile my desire for morally complex characters with my desire to be invested in the movies I see. I didn't realise that they could in opposition. All it took was one bad film. To fewer of those.