If you grew up in Pakistan in the 80s, you must surely remember this ad for a lemon-flavoured clear carbonated drink in which a cowboy encrusted with dirt staggers into an Old West-style tavern on a blazing hot day, and in a tortured voice asks the proprietor to give him a pack of potato chips. Then, as the proprietor looks on in amazement and horror, the cowboy starts chomping on those razor-like chips, his face screwed up in torment as the voice-over man tells him to “go ahead… build up that thirst until you can’t stand it anymore…” Finally, the cowboy whips open his leather bag, filled to the brim with chunks of ice and two bottles of the beverage in question, and proceeds to blow his thirst away.
Now imagine that those chips are the current circumstances in Pakistan, as well as all the depressing films you might’ve been watching lately, and that refreshing beverage which blows it all away is Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. It’s pretty simple really: if you want to exit the cinema wanting to plunge a dull knife into your skull, watch Bol or the like; if you want to come out humming ‘Take the world and paint it red’ and ready to book a flight to Spain (or Google Earth it, at least), go for ZNMD. For in these decidedly unpleasant times, the film is panacea, an unapologetically cheerful, optimistic, and, yes, uplifting diversion that, despite some well-spaced weighty moments, never takes itself seriously enough to become a bore.
The narrative structure is a familiar one, as is the story of three friends with unresolved issues in their lives taking a road trip together. As in Zoya Akhtar’s first directorial venture, the brilliant Luck By Chance, the characters are fairly broad ‘types’ – Arjun (Roshan) the ambitious workaholic, Imran (Akhtar) the jokester with hidden depth, and Kabir (Deol) the slightly geeky everyguy who also plays referee in any and all conflict – but somehow, yet again, she makes them work, as believable individuals to be identified with, instead of mere caricatures. And of course their journey (both the physical and the figurative one) offers up life-changing episodes. For Arjun it’s finding out that money isn’t everything when he meets diving instructor Laila (Kaif, finally relaxed and unselfconscious in a relatively brief but well-sketched role), while for Kabir it’s coming to the realization that in being the nice guy always trying to please everyone else but himself, he has perhaps painted himself into a corner with pixie-ish but compulsively jealous Natasha (Koechlin – superbly on-the-outer-edges-of-reason). And Imran has to decide whether he wants to risk putting his own sense of self into jeopardy by seeking out his long-absent father (Shah). Along the way, you can feast your eyes on some jaw-droppingly handsome Spanish landscapes.
But all the geographical eye-candy in the world would have come to naught if it had come accompanied by a trite script. Thankfully, that is far from the case here. The Akhtar siblings along with co-writer Reema Kagti keep it snappy with dialogue that is smart, fresh and engaging. It also helps that the three lead actors are so comfortable in their parts; Roshan mixes it up for himself by playing against type – Arjun is not an immediately likeable character. Deol and Akhtar are a delight, together and apart, whether going for laughs or tenderness.
Comparisons with Dil Chahta Hai are inevitable of course, and perhaps not unfairly so, both are essentially bromances, but ZNMD has actually added something to the narrative. If DCH was a coming of age story, then ZNMD takes a peek at what comes after, so don’t be surprised to see that becoming an adult doesn’t necessarily mean growing up.