Haseen Dillruba, On Netflix, Is A Unique & Brave Attempt At Filmmaking

Writer Kanika Dhillon and director Vinil Mathew create a unique world, as unique as the name of the town the film is set in – Jwalapur. Starring Taapsee Pannu, Vikrant Massey, Harshvardhan Rane and Yamini Das among others, Haseen Dillruba is now streaming on Netflix…

Roald Dahl had once said, “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” For me, this is what a lot of Vinil Mathew and Kanika Dhillon Haseen Dillruba felt like. Mathew and Dhillon paint a world with no rules. They don’t even attempt to follow many rules of filmmaking, and that’s what makes this Netflix film a very unique and brave attempt at filmmaking. It has its flaws, yes, but not once does Haseen Dillruba feel like a film that shouldn’t have been made.

Kanika Dhillon is one of my favourite Hindi film writers, especially for the manner in which she writes her women. Dhillon’s stories, mostly set in small towns, often have women who will not submit to the fact that an Indian woman’s life is defined by those around her. Look at Rumi (Manmarziyaan) who cannot look beyond her mad love, or Mandakini (Kedarnath) who falls in love outside of what her staunch Hindu family can even think of. Rani Kashyap (Taapsee Pannu) is no different. She’s not the “homely” wife Rishu (Vikrant Massey) is looking for. She is what she is and no matter what may happen, she’s not going to live her life based on decisions made by others. Even when Rishu wants her to go back to her parent’s house in Delhi, she doesn’t. Even though she was the one who asked him if she should go back, she doesn’t. Rules aren’t for Rani, as they aren’t for this film.

Even the absurd seems normal in Haseen Dillruba, and that’s perhaps why even a small, yet significant scene like making tea seems like a marvellous idea.

Dhillon and Mathew weave a wonderful story set in a small town, fictitiously named Jwalapur, alongside the banks of a river. In the first ten minutes, it’s established that this small town isn’t for Rani. First, there is the hesitation to marry someone from here, and then when she does marry and arrive at Jwalapur, it’s raining cats and dogs. Rani takes this as a bad omen, and wakes up late the next morning, only to hear taunts from her mother-in-law, played by a fantastic Yamini Das, about her not being homely. Rani looks at herself as a sundar and sushil woman, who admits that she’s not homely. An MA in Hindi Literature, Rani can’t even make tea, and not once does Dhillon make Rani feel guilty about it. Why should she! A fierce Rani marries a docile Rishu. Before meeting her, Rishu’s mother says that the names go well together. But is an arranged marriage set-up that easy to establish and then define? Perhaps not. She reads novels by Dinesh Pandit all day long, he indulges in homeopathy, without any education of it. These are people poles apart, but they somehow make it work.

Yamini Das & Harshvardhan Rane in stills from the film

Haseen Dillruba is a wonderful commentary on arranged marriages, and India’s obsession with it. What happens when there’s no love between two people? How do they adjust with each other? Through hilarious scenes, Dhillon explains how we perhaps haven’t evolved. Men, and their families, are still looking for women who can be controlled. In one scene, Rishu’s best friend, Afzar (Ashish Verma) tells Rishu that he needs to “train” Rani. He even gives her a timetable that Rani should ideally follow. It involves making tea, so we know this won’t happen. What’s been put across as humour in Haseen Dillruba is the truth of many small town families.

Love, lust and deceit are at the forefront of this film. In the very first scene, we’re told there’s a murder. The first half of Haseen Dillruba sets the stage for the climax, while dabbling with societal issues. The journey to the climax is unique. Told in throwbacks, as recollections at a police station, the story seems known on the surface, but we eventually realise that this is more than a crime thriller. Even though the film focusses on the murder, it wants you to look at the daily ills of life too. 

But what starts off as a great film eventually loses control. Like in Kedarnath or even Judgementall Hai Kya, Dhillon looses her grip over the writing in the latter part of the second half. The film becomes incoherent and her Roald Dahl inspired climax doesn’t get any justice. The short story she borrows from is one of Dahl’s finest works. But what seemed like a great idea on paper isn’t executed well for the screen.

Taapsee Pannu & Vikrant Massey in stills from the film

Even when at its lowest, what keeps Haseen Dillruba going are the performances by Taapsee Pannu and Vikrant Massey. As Rishu, Massey is perfectly cast. He seems to have aced the lost boy template for films. Rishu is a confused soul when you meet him first and eventually transforms into a psychopath-ish man. While Massey owns both the identities, the narrative cannot keep up with his talent. Nevertheless, Rishu will be seen as one of Massey’s finest performances. Taapsee Pannu as Rani is terrific too. Over the last few films that Pannu has been a part of, she’s shown so much range, even as the “strong, independent woman” trope that her characters follow. Wild in Manmarziyaan, self-made and confident in Thappad, and now selfish and hot-headed in Haseen Dillruba. While Rani borrows from Rumi (also written by Kanika Dhillon), Pannu’s portrayal of both are poles apart. If I may say, Taapsee Pannu has redefined what it means to be a Hindi Cinema heroine – something that Vidya Balan had done, and continues to do, years ago. 

What’s been put across as humour in Haseen Dillruba is the truth of many small town families.

Haseen Dillruba is not a perfect film. It has flaws — a clumsy and incoherent climax, a loose grip on the writing towards the end — but most of the film seems only organic. Even when Rani quotes dialogues from Dinesh Pandit’s works, it all seems like a part of this mad universe Dhillon and Mathew have created for us. During serious interactions with the police, Rani mouths dialogues like, “Pandit ji kehte hain ki sambandh toh mansik hote hain. Shaaririk toh sambhog hota hai.” 

Even the absurd seems normal in Haseen Dillruba, and that’s perhaps why even a small, yet significant, scene like making tea seems like a marvellous idea. Another marvellous idea is watching Haseen Dillruba on Netflix.

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