Thursday, January 19, 2017

Dear Zindagi—Of Jug And Chairs

Gauri Shinde's Dear Zindagi is a lighthearted but an important film. It is the story of Kaira (Alia Bhatt) who is an extremely talented cinematographer based out of Mumbai. Due to some issues in her childhood, she is struggling to maintain long-term relationships with her suitors. She hears a therapist Dr. Jehangir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan), speaking at a conference, and decides to have therapy sessions with him. Jug, as he was called, tries to make her accept her past, and move on so that she can build a future for herself. He imparts some life lessons to help bring a new perspective to her issues. In the end, she moves away from singing "Just Go To Hell" and embraces life by singing, "Love You, Zindagi."
Gauri Shinde's first film English Vinglish was a delightful movie on the struggle of Shashi who wanted to learn to speak English. Shashi's daughter Sapna mocked and disparaged her because she did not know English. Sapna was an unlikable character, and the way she treated her mother was disturbing. Dear Zindagi follows similar contours as that of English Vinglish, with the difficult daughter of Sapna growing up into someone like Kaira. Kaira, like Sapna, is a character who is hard to like. She has a fraught relationship with her parents, especially, with her mother, though she has reasons for that. In English Vinglish, Shashi travels to New York, and incidentally, sees a bus with an English-speaking course ad, and enrolls herself in the course. She makes a great group of friends from different countries in her class. One of her classmates, Udumbke, and her teacher David are gay. At one point, Shashi chides her other classmates for calling gays as promiscuous, and states that homosexuality is normal. Likewise, Kaira incidentally overhears Jug at a conference when she had come to the restaurant for some work, and after hearing him, she decides to meet him. Kaira, like Shashi, has a similar group of friends, who form her support system. She, too, has a gay friend, Raunaq, who is coming to terms with his sexuality. Dear Zindagi talks about acceptance of homosexuality, and says that there are more gay people in the film industry because there is more acceptance there. Though Zohra Sehgal did a much funnier lesbian as I-thought-she-was-a-Pisces in Bend It Like Beckham, than lesbian as Lebanese here.
In English Vinglish, Shashi develops a special relationship with her friend Laurent. He makes her see the beauty in her. In the end, Shashi thanks Laurent for teaching her to love herself. Laurent's feelings towards her are romantic, though Shashi's are platonic (perhaps, Shashi's are romantic, too, but she did not show them). In Dear Zindagi, Kaira develops a special relationship with Jug and starts liking him. Kaira thanks Jug for making her feel free, and helping her embrace the beauty of life. Jug does not reciprocate her feelings due to professional ethics, even if he would have wanted to. Thus, the relationships of Shashi-Laurent, and Kaira-Jug are quite similar in the sense that they are forbidden and will likely be frowned upon—a French man in love with a married Indian woman, and a patient in love with her therapist. Not only is there the similarity of the themes in the two films, but there is also a repeating motif of food as well in both the films. In English Vinglish, Shashi prepared delicious food, and made excellent ladoos, of which she also ran a small business and sold them to other people. As she was not respected at her home, she used to get that respect from outsiders. Dear Zindagi, too, is full of food throughout, from pasta to vada paav to junk food. Kaira's mother kept asking her what she wanted to eat as if to compensate for Kaira's abandonment during her childhood. Kaira hated that her mother was always trying to feed her. And, if these references were not enough, Dear Zindagi's background score at many times is reminiscent of English Vinglish.
Kaira hears Jug speaking at a conference on mental health awareness, and she decides to meet him. At the conference, Dr. Jehangir talks about wearing torn jeans, and says that some people might think his wearing of those jeans to be crazy, but it might also be the case that he needs a good stylist. This also explains why whenever Kaira is dressed in jeans, those are torn (popularly called as boyfriend jeans). It is because she needs a stylist, a metonym for a psychiatrist. Kaira goes for a session with Dr. Jehangir Khan, where he tells her that he is called Jug, and then, he offers her a glass of water from the jug lying on the table. His name Jug is a representation of that jug. Like the jug that gives water, Jug offers advice and counselling to those who come to him. 
Torn Jeans
Jug is like the jug 
At some point in the film, Kaira's friend Raunaq quotes William Faulkner, "The past is never dead, in fact, it’s not even the past." It means that our past memories affect our present. Our past experiences are a significant part of how we turn out to be now. So, our past is not really dead. It is very much alive in our thoughts, in our actions, and in our personality. Think about it, this quote is also the premise of Dear Zindagi. Kaira's memories of her childhood have affected the way she is right now. She cannot form long-term relationships with her suitors because she is afraid they will leave her, like her parents left her when she was a six-year old girl. Her abandonment issues affect how she is kind to children, like the time, when she gave her plate of noodles to the street kid. Her past is an important part of her present, hence, the quote by Faulkner rings true.
One of the recurring things in the film is the use of analogies. As Jug says, the purpose of therapy is to help the person figure out answers on their own. Hence, the use of analogies makes sense. A prominent one is that of the chair. When Kaira talks about how she is labelled a slut for having many boyfriends, Jug tells her the analogy of purchasing a chair. When we go to buy a chair, we try different chairs, and choose the one that is more comfortable, so, what is wrong in having different relationships till you find the one with whom you fit the best. Kaira's suitors were all accomplished men—a restaurateur, a producer, a musician. There was nothing wrong with them, it's just Kaira did not get along with them due to her issues. After she learns to accept her past and moves on, she meets a furniture designer, who makes chairs, a signal that he is the chair that Kaira was looking for and with whom she can have a relationship with. When she meets him, both of them are dressed in the same color of black, giving another indication that he is her chair. In another analogy, we see Raghu as a jar of pasta sauce. Kaira breaks the bottle of Raguu pasta sauce after she learns that he got engaged with someone else in New York.
In Kal Ho Naa Ho, Shah Rukh Khan played Aman, who taught Naina that she is the not the only one in life who has problems. She took so much burden that she had forgotten to even smile. Aman helps her to find happiness in life. Ishwar ki prarthana karne ka kya fayda, agar uski di hui zindagi ki kadar karna na jaano. In Main Hoon Na, Shah Rukh Khan played Major Ram, who is sent to protect his superior's daughter Sanjana, who, like Kaira, has childhood abandonment issues, and has a precarious relationship with her father. Ram convinces her to speak to her father, "Zindagi nikalti jaati hai aur hum sab pyaar ke bina jeena seekh lete hai, kyun pyaar ko mauka nahi dete, kyun apno par vishvas nahi karte. Yeh zindagi nafrat ke liye bahut choti hai." In Dear Zindagi, he officially dons the mantle of a counsellor who advices on life and love. It is entirely befitting that someone known for his romantic roles becomes the guru of love and life. Jug also repairs cycles, and fixes them, like he fixes broken people. Like Rizwan Khan of My Name Is Khan, who carried a placard saying he could repair almost anything, Jug repairs things, and people. Har tooti hui cheez jodi ja sakti hai. He heals broken people. He is truly an artist, and Shah Rukh plays him perfectly. He suits the role, and looks fabulous, and that everyone will want to have a counsellor like him.
There are some things which when added to a film make us think of their significance, for instance, eye drops. There are two times when Jug is seen putting eye drops in his eyes. The first time is when Kaira tells him her story of writing letters to her mom when she was a kid. The second time, he is seen putting eye drops when Kaira and Jug have their last session. I think that the first time, it was normal, but the second time, he was crying and did not want to show his tears. He seemed to have started liking Kaira, too, but his professional ethics do not allow him to say that. Enough has been speculated on other possible reasons of Jug putting eye drops in his eyes (link). I have another line of thought related to it. Jug had personal issues where he seemed sad by the state of things in his life. He was divorced, and missed his son and was worried that he will not leave happy memories for him. Perhaps, that is why young kids came to him with their problems as they reminded him of his son. I think Jug was also going for some kind of therapy. Or, something else was going on with him, like some medical issue. For instance, he cancelled one of the sessions with Kaira, and he did not tell her where he was. We never get to know where he was. He also seemed a little lost that day. It was that day he said to Kaira that their last session was soon approaching. All this points to some event in his life, and possibly, he too had started liking her, and was trying to avoid her. Eventually, in the end, the chair also creaked. At an earlier point, he told Kaira that the chair only creaked when you liked someone but could not do anything about it. The chair did not creak earlier when he used to sit, but after Kaira leaves, it creaks when he sits on it, almost confirming that he had started liking her. Perhaps, his own therapist advised him to get out of it. I am speculating but the chair creaking was a sign of his liking of Kaira. And after all, he is a jug, not a chair, so he really won't fit with Kaira.
Chair creaks
Eye Drops
It is always wonderful to see Alia Bhatt in any film. She has always been a pleasure to watch. She is excellent throughout the film. With no disrespect to hard work, I think some people are truly gifted. When she has a near meltdown in front of her parents, it is quite reminiscent of her breakdown in Highway. When she cries and tells her childhood story, the scene was again quite similar to the one in Highway where she tells Mahabir her story. When she narrates the story of her unread letters, she breaks down, and even the country's biggest superstar is moved. She is a cinematographer, a rare profession for women. I thought about it a lot if her profession has something to do with creating memories. In the beginning, Kaira shoots the scene of a woman who is looking at some other boy, while hugging her boyfriend, inspired from Kaira's own life. She has a lot of pictures, and in fact, Alka refers to her boyfriends using pictures. She remembers her shy doll Shaira, and Kiddo's Tinkle comics. She collects interesting stuff like a cotton candy maker. In her dream as well, she talks about her camera. She struggles to come up with happy memories of her childhood, perhaps, that drove her to her profession.
There is an interesting scene when she is eating vada paav with Fattie, who tells her that Raghu got engaged. She seems to be crying, so, she eats a lot of chillies, and says that her tears are due to chillies. It is later that Jug tells, "Rona, gussa, nafrat kuch bhi khul kar express nahi karne diya. Ab pyaar kaise express karein?" and we get to know how she had struggled to express her emotions during the chilli scene. The film also touches upon Kaira's obsessive compulsive disorder of putting things in the wrong position, like the cushion, the little auto rickshaw in her house, or the refrigerator magnets. She used to always put them in a disorderly way, though it is unclear to me if that was a problem due to her psychological issues or just another quirk. Also, she had a habit of breaking and running into things, while Jug had the habit of fixing things.
The film's subject and its star power would help in a little more acceptance of therapy, though taboos will remain. At one point, Alka tells Kaira if a brain doctor can solve our problems, then, everyone should go to a brain doctor for help. Kaira asks Raunaq whether he goes to his dimaag ka doctor so that he can tell everyone that he is gay. He says he goes not to tell others but to tell it to him, "Taaki main khud ko bata sakun ki main gay hun." In an earlier moment, he had said, "Pagal kaun nahi hai," like the Cheshire Cat from Alice In Wonderland, who had said, "We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad." Kaira has her own 'down the rabbit hole' fall in her dream. At some point earlier, she tells Raghu that she drinks only on two occasions, when she is in love, and when she is not, as if she is in some kind of a fantasy wonderland, where this time paradox could be possible. It should be normal to ask for help if the most important organ in the body that controls everything else is not functioning properly. Interestingly, the film also has a version of Aye Zindagi Gale Laga La from Sadma, which was also based on a mental disorder. The film also touches briefly on parenting, career choices, marriage, and relationships.
In recent years, there have been many films, where the focus has been more on the internal struggle of the characters. On the outside, it seems they have everything, but they are deeply troubled from inside. We live in an age where the nearest competitor of a potential suitor is our own smartphone. The longest relationship that Kaira has is with her old jacket. We avoid difficult conversations and find succor in food, and shopping. After Kaira started healing, the eBay customer service calls her to check if everything is normal as she had not ordered anything for a long time. We celebrate breakups. Dear Zindagi is the second film this year that has a breakup song. There is a lack of patience in us. Kaira wears zero number spectacles to look older. Raghu says she does not have patience, and Jug tells her that genius is the one who has the patience to reach the answer. Kaira's film in the end talks about the two struggles—external and internal—that Donna Maria had to face, like her own life. In the beginning of the film, Kaira orders a copy of the book No Easy Day by Matt Bissonnette that details the external and the internal struggles of the US Navy SEAL who was part of the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. As we look more toward our inward struggles, we fill face challenges; thus, the attempt to talk about therapy as something normal is an important one. At some point, Raghu asks Kaira as to why is she so complicated, and Jug tries to answer her problems in a simplistic manner, perhaps, that was also a message in itself. We make situations complicated, while they could be solved simply.
No Easy Day 
While watching Dear Zindagi, I mentally started answering the questions Jug asks Kaira. He tells her the study based on the size of the human brain, which actually, is a well-researched theory (link). Kaira names her five closest people, and I loved it that she included Alka. Fattie and Jackie are also such great friends of Kaira. They, really, form her support system. So, I started thinking about my support system. At some other point, Jug asks Kaira about her happiest childhood memory, and I thought about my own childhood memory. And, we all have done the same thing that Kaira does; she writes a text, hesitates to send it, instead sends another text to someone (her ex-boyfriend) instead of the person she wanted to text in the first place.
Twenty one years earlier in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, a young man named Raj, who was, perhaps, of the same age as Kaira, told us that in our life, we will run into two paths—the right one and the wrong one. The wrong one will be an easier one and will try to attract us to it, while the right one will be tortuous, with many an obstacle, but in the end, it is the one that will lead us to victory. Raj refuses to run away with his lover Simran, because he says that he does not want to snatch her away. He wants to get Simran with the explicit approval of her father. There is an exalted status of Simran's bauji as if his decision is the supreme and is all that matters. Years later, a much older Jug, played by the same man, tells us a different view, almost a turnaround of what Raj said to us. In his first session with Kaira, Jug tells her the story of Pyaarelal Ji and the snow leopard. He, then, tells her that in life, we often choose the tougher path, because we feel that to achieve what we want we have to follow the tougher path. We feel we need to punish ourselves. Why cannot we choose the easier path? What is wrong if we take the easy way out, especially, if one is not prepared for the tougher path? In one of the subsequent sessions, he tells her that she should try to look at her parents, not from a pedestal of their exalted status, but as two people who make mistakes, like everyone else. They are not to be treated as God, again a difference of opinion of what Raj told us. While Raj was in love, Jug is divorced, and is no longer together with his wife. Perhaps, Raj might also have a similar view today; who knows. But as Jug says, "We are all our own teachers in the school of life," and we need to find our own way to complete this puzzle of life.

Wonderful to see the film giving credits to the cast of its deleted scenes
Ki And Ka
Jug reads Ha Ha Therapy and Sigmund Freud

Other Reading:
On HighwayLink

Dialogue of the Day:
"Don't let the past blackmail your present into ruining a beautiful future."
—Dr. Jehangir Khan, Dear Zindagi


  1. It is very beautifully written by you! I have observed some things you have written here but for other things you gave me much better view. I really liked similarities between English Vinglish & Dear Zindagi, motif of food, Deja vu of Highway, comparision with DDLJ and Ki & Ka poster trivia!! Lots of wishes, keep writing!


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