First, let's get this out of the way: there is nothing wrong about depicting the travails of the wealthy as long as it makes for compelling viewing. Human emotions are universal and should ideally transcend all barriers of class. This is hugely dependent, of course, on those emotions being delivered in a genuine, truthful manner.
'Dil Dhadakne Do', Zoya Akhtar's latest film, is likely to be dismissed as another 'rich people's fantasy' -- a charge that was also levelled against her previous outing, 'Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara' (2011). But if you have a problem with that conceptually, shouldn't you also have one with an acclaimed, highbrow film like Ruben Östlund's 'Force Majeure' (2014), which takes a look at a bourgeois Swedish couple's uneasy relationship?
So DDD is part of the time-honoured Bollywood tradition of big-ticket, starry entertainers that delight viewers with exotic locations. The dysfunctional Mehras -- played by Anil Kapoor and Shefali Shah -- invite a bunch of their friends aboard a cruise ship sailing through the Mediterranean to celebrate their 30th anniversary. They've got problems. "Sab upar-upar se baat karte hain," as the son Kabir (Ranveer Singh) says at one point.
There's a lot of material to be mined there, and screenwriters Akhtar and Reema Kagti have the difficult task of handling a cast this big and create enough for each principal character to justify their presence. Kabir is the doted-upon younger son, passionate about flying, but instead an unwilling participant in the family business, a big company named Ayka. Ayesha (Priyanka Chopra), the older Mehra child, is actually a successful (and impossibly stylish) entrepreneur, but is stuck in an unhappy marriage with businessman Manav (Rahul Bose). Meanwhile, the parents can barely have a conversation by themselves and it doesn't help that Ayka isn't doing very well.
The ingredients are all in place and, on paper, it doesn't seem like there is anything missing from DDD. To make sure there is some insight being shed on some of the proceedings, we see a part of the story from the eyes of the family's pet bullmastiff, Pluto Mehra (Aamir Khan) who earnestly provides us with a voice-over so simplistic (written by Javed Akhtar) that he even blatantly calls himself 'the only sane member' of the family, as though the audience would never have figured that one out.
Pluto Mehra, the pet bullmastiff from 'Dil Dhadakne Do'
So, yes, this is a Sooraj-Barjatya-on-imported-single-malt kinda film, with a star-studded cast on a fancy cruise liner that looks like it only services Indians. Akhtar doesn't dwell on the environment much. The cruise liner's only real function is to make the characters feel like they can't escape (although they do stop at several ports in various, scenic countries). It has all the stock characters -- gossipy housewives, bitchy aunts, uncles who drink a lot, that one nerdy teenager who lives for the opportunity to crack a wise one -- and they're sprinkled around the script like oregano seasoning.
A film like this requires two things to work: uniformly great performances and a compelling narrative that keeps us invested in the fates of the characters, even if they aren't all that likeable. The first aspect is almost entirely taken care of by Singh, who turns in the finest performance of his career. His Kabir is the first one to truly start following his heart when he falls for dancer Farah Ali (Anushka Sharma). However, the Mehras are the kind of family who, despite being wealthy and well-travelled, still cling on to patriarchal traditions and want him married off to a potential business associate's daughter, Noorie (Ridhima Sud).
A still from 'Dil Dhadakne Do'
There is enough happening to keep our attention, but perhaps the most frustrating thing about DDD is its unwillingness to truly dig beneath these characters' surfaces. This is especially true when it comes to the family patriarch Kamal, who initially comes across as a gentrified Prem Chopra. He snarls at his long-suffering wife Neelam (a first-rate performance by Shah) and we're told, repeatedly, that he's a terrible husband. But an excellent opportunity to lend some redemption to his character towards the end of the film is squandered as Akhtar and Kagti settle for a 'Little Miss Sunshine'-like sequence to neatly tie things up.
Aside from that, the movie's opulence and event-driven plot occasionally comes in the way of character development, stuffed to the gills as it is with both. We're told free-spirited Ali is from Birmingham and London, yet Sharma sounds more 'Delhi' than even the Mehras. Were a few accent-training classes out of the reach of this movie's budget? It doesn't seem so. Meanwhile, the dialogue, written by Farhan Akhtar (also Ayesha's ex-flame Sunny, who is more stylish and charming than any 'journalist' I've ever seen) is largely functional and even features a few Salim-Javed-esque clunkers ("Main tumhaare manager ka beta hoon!" "Main pehle kuchh banke dikhaana chahta thha!") that seem slightly out of place here.
DDD is a great film for those who don't expect anything more other than gorgeous locales and a script that delivers the expected minimum that it promises. While the songs aren't exactly super-hit material, they provide much of the big-screen magic that a movie like this needs. For example, 'Pehli Baar' is a great showcase for Singh and Sharma's excellent chemistry, 'Girls Like To Swing' gives audiences a chance to watch Chopra and Sharma shake a leg together, and 'Gallan Goodiyaan' is a riotous (if utterly generic-sounding) Punjabi dance number that is shot in one single take.
However, for those looking for a film that surprises them, Akhtar's latest isn't the answer. A fantastic scene, in which Kabir finally opens up in front of his parents, is the closest DDD comes to thwarting audience expectations. The rest of it is as predictable as, well, a travel itinerary on a cruise.