In one of the strangest scenes of Mukesh Chhabra’s Dil Bechara, a film released on Hotstar after its leading actor Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide last month, Sanjana Sanghi’s Kizie and Rajput’s Manny travel to Paris. There, they meet reclusive singer-songwriter Abhimanyu Veer (Saif Ali Khan), whose music Kizie has obsessively revered and who is the reason for their trip in the first place.
She wants to know why Veer left one of her favourite tracks, Main Tumhara, incomplete. They’re taken aback when Veer, brash, insensitive, obnoxious talks about the unfairness of life, how people lose the will to live after their loved ones die, and bizarrely, about the illegality of suicide. He appears to be unaffected by the illness that plagues Kizie (thyroid cancer), who is disturbed and heartbroken after the encounter.
It’s an awkward yet effective scene that unintentionally captures something deep: the fault in our stars. Kizie must reckon with the same idea that a legion of Bollywood fans are grappling with since Rajput’s death: unlike what we tell ourselves, our idols are broken and imperfect. The quest to excavate the reasons for why a work of art was left incomplete — or why the journey of an actor was abruptly cut short — will never yield satisfying answers.
It’s best to not seek them.
Given Dil Bechara’s eerie preoccupation with death and incomplete stories, it’s impossible to divorce the experience of watching the film in light of what we know and what we’ve lost. Seemingly innocuous scenes from the movie take on sinister meaning and inspire both disbelief and discomfort.
The film begins with a funeral, ends with a memorial and in the time between the two, meditates on the difficulties of living after losing someone. Early on, a dialogue talks about the non-existence of happy endings. On their first date Kizie and Manny, one terminally ill and the other in remission, go by the lakeside; Rajput wears a maroon t-shirt that says ‘Help!’.
Under ordinary circumstances these scenes wouldn’t mean more than the sum of their parts but to watch an actor who died shortly prior to the film’s release, talk endlessly about death through its length is a strange experience. Not just that, the film itself is a meta commentary on the idea of films. One of the things Manny does is shoot a mockumentary where he slips into the role of Rajinikanth to fight off goons and save his ‘princess,’ a role that Kizie assumes. What Manny cannot get in real life, he attempts to metaphorically achieve through a film: save his lover. It’s an interesting subplot that’s only half-heartedly exploited by director Chhabra who invokes it, forgets about it and swooshes it back in for a tearjerking finale.
Part of why we’re compelled to project Rajput’s tragic loss onto the character he essays on screen has to do with the fact that Manny’s character is written without much attention to detail. We never learn anything, literally anything about Manny’s past. He’s rich, flirty, doesn’t work because he can afford not to. More than ‘traits’, these things come across as inefficient writing that fails to contextualise the character’s motivations.
The Imtiaz Ali-hangover, too, is splashed all over the movie, from the couple’s awkward-endearing meet cute to a scene where Manny and his friend throw eggs on the balcony of his best friend’s girlfriend, after she dumps him. It’s the physical equivalent of Jab We Met’s Geet abusing Anshuman over the phone in the presence of Aditya who incites her.
There are moments when the film feels like a montage of shots hurriedly stitched together without committing enough thought over narrative coherence. Abrupt transitions and scenes that seemingly exist in isolation expose the film’s lack of fluidity. Rahman’s sublime album cannot tie up disjointed scenes or cushion a plot that seems directionless and characters whose terminal illness and foreordained romance is the sole reason for our sympathies, not their idiosyncrasies, complexities or humanity.
The background score and richly-composed songs give a false sense of grandness to the film and the over-reliance on the music to suffuse the scenes with ‘melancholy’ yet again reveal the limitations in its writing (Shashank Khaitan and Suprotim Sengupta.)
Other than Rajput’s heroic sincerity, where he tries his best to flesh out Manny’s vulnerability while projecting a veneer of strength, it’s Satyajit Pande’s gently-lit frames that make Dil Bechara look like a postcard from the past. Pande, who’s a master of imbuing a strong sense of milieu through his images (Kahaani, Dangal) explores Jamshedpur’s quietude with the familiarity of a local while bringing Paris alive with the vibrancy of an exuberant traveller. The way the film is lit serves to offset its obsession with morbidity, the only time it’s able to effectively suggest the celebration of life over its fixation with death, something Shonali Bose’s The Sky is Pink achieved with great effect.
And yet, it’s hard to not fight tears when Rajput says, “Janam kab lena hai aur marna kab hai yeh hum decide nahi kar sakte, lekin kaise jeena hai woh toh hum decide kar sakte hai” or when he lies on his grandmother’s lap, broken and weighed down by his own illness. Here’s an actor who consistently outshone the parts written for him and in the moment when he finally gives up, you’re caught off guard by his naked vulnerability. It feels like a dam has burst open.
Sanjana Sanghi, with her alert eyes, has a refreshing screen presence, but one wishes that Chhabra allowed the love story to stew a bit instead of rushing through it. Sanghi avoids the manic pixie but oscillates between looking alarmed and relieved, never allowing herself to outgrow the brief.
Nothing quite prepares you for the film’s final moments, a commentary on the impermanence of men and the immortality of artists. As a crowd gathers around a screen to silently bid adieu to Manny, one is reminded of a moment where you wish art didn’t mirror reality but resolved it.
Is it cathartic? Will it bring closure to the undirected sorrow coursing through Rajput’s legion of fans? In movies, we seek escape to make peace with an unforgiving reality. Dil Bechara, even with its flaws, knows this and offers a sense of reconciliation. The trick is to gather the strength to find it.