Rare is it that you get a brother-sister story in Hindi cinema and that too one that does not reek of the stench of mushy nonsense, over the top justice or downright boring melodrama.
In Zoya Akhtar's latest and second of trips (this time on a ship) dissecting the upper crust of modern day India, she takes a hard and cold but affirmatively truly heartfelt look at a dysfunctional family at the top of the world.
Meet the Mehras.
There's Papa dearest Kamal Mehra (Anil Kapoor). The self made man and patriarch of the family. To the outside world he is a successful business man with the most perfect family and attitude, he is with a loving wife and has two wonderfully raised children.
Then there's Neelma Mehra (Shefali Shah), the mother. A woman who abandoned her family for true love and became the backbone with which Kamal built his empire. She's smart, she's sassy and she is top class amongst a circle of chattering and gossiping friends. The center of attention and equal envy.
There's their son; Kabir Mehra (Ranveer Singh). Heir apparent to the Mehra's legacy, a solid go to guy and a grown man definitely ready to take his father's company AYKA to the next level.
And finally their daughter; Ayesha Mehra (Priyanka Chopra)...sorry, Ayesha Sangha. Happily married to her husband Manav (Rahul Bose) and hopefully on the verge of having their first child. Also running her own top class travel portal and on the top ten of Forbes. A self made woman thanks to the men in her life who let her get there.
Then there's their sweet dog Pluto Mehra (voiced by Aamir Khan). As he himself puts it; the most sane member of the family.
For their 30th marriage anniversary, Kamal has planned a cruise along with his family and extended line of friends to show them a good time, or actually show them that they are indeed on top of the world.
The harsh truth?
Kamal is on the verge of bankruptcy. After years of bickering and affairs and silent forgiveness, Neelam is stressed as usual with her relationship with her husband. Ayesha is the neglected eldest of the Mehra's, now not part of the family thanks in part to her loveless marriage to Manav. Kabir is disinterested in becoming the Mehra scion, instead he wants to pilot planes towards his freedom.
Out in sea, Zoya Akhtar brings this collective of combustible elements amidst the so called high society, to form collision of epic proportions.
At the top of it, Akhtar with her team of writers; Reema Kagti, Javed and Farhan Akhtar (dialogues) crafts an ensemble piece that is fantastically relatable, has great subtle nuance of relationships and breaks it all down into one hell of an entertainer with a dose of well earned melodrama.
Clearly playing on a home field, Zoya (daughter of illustrious poet and film writer Javed Akhtar) knows how it is to be part of the elite and uses her knowledge to bring about a film where familial relationships as well as upper class society rules and hypocrisies can be dissected between closed doors.
It's no wonder then that the films superb moments come when the Mehra foursome are left to deal with their problems alone. She breaks down many societal norms and their outright stupidities between the arguments of the family members and in juxtapose their superfluous interactions with the rest of the cast.
This is peppered with some greater sub conflicts that bring the family together eventually.
Kamal and Neelam know the depths of their failures and utilize their own standing in the family to manipulate their children especially Kabir into advantageous positions. While their own marriage seems to have been hanging by a thread all along. They aren’t outright villains though, they have their own faults but they also love their children just don't communicate with them well.
It's what Akhtar does so organically in her motioning of pieces through the film. The family fights, sometimes they even threaten to disown one another over major issues (Kamal's problems with Ayesha seeking divorce), yet at the next point they're hugging it out and discussing other issues like adults and sometimes even children;
A hilarious ship hospital sequence which sees Singh and Shah shine as the mother-son duo including the whole family itself laying out their major issues.
Ayesha is probably Akhtar's finest character so far. Somehow one feels that part of it comes from within herself. She's a dichotomy all to herself, a successful and fiercely independent woman with great business acumen who is the epitome of the modern independent woman yet is afraid to let the world know especially the patriarchal forces that dominate her life (her father and her husband).
Sometime Akhtar however doesn't veer away from clichés, tropes and unnecessary plot devices. Ranveer Singh's Kabir Mehra is the typical rich kid, an immature brat who needs to learn to free himself. He does so in the most cinematically archaic way; shots of him sad at his fate to take over his company, an idea that he is terrible at this and is doomed to fail, his loving hand on a plane that gives him the freedom to fly, falling in love with a near Manic Pixie Dream Girl like Farah (Anushka Sharma) and his final full on typical Hindi film dramatic climax moment that gives him the chance to be who he wants to be.
It's an arc that nearly threatens to sink this ship.
Another iceberg comes in the form of family dog Pluto Mehra. While the dog itself is cute, the plot device to make him the audiences eyes and ears becomes well worn out and a grievance for the viewer. For a film that is so subtle and easy going in letting the audience understand the dynamics and engage with the family thanks to their relatable angle, Pluto's exposition filled musings don’t work at all. In fact the incessant spoon feeding is something one would not expect from a smart filmmaker like Zoya Akhtar and is a let down.
The pacing of the film is also a bit off, but mostly I would blame that on the editing. While Akhtar takes her time to introduce us to the players and reach the necessary driving forces that bring the family to a conflict, her indulgence is let reign free by shoddy editing that could have made this laborious three hour journey into a breezy two hours.
Indulgence makes Akhtar pay, as while the dramatics kick in around the third hour; the audience is a bit too tired to play along. Lucky then, that she has one hell of an eclectic cast who can hold the attention of the audience alone, but make magic as an ensemble.
Every actor is at the top of their game and a couple of them including the leading foursome get time to shine in the sun. Farhan Akhtar makes a fresh extended cameo as Kabir and Ayesha's former childhood friend as well as ex-flame. He gives an impassioned speech about the truths of women's equal rights that feel handed on a platter by men. While he does do this himself with Ayesha, it reflects a sad reality of the fight for equality situation. Still he's worth listening to.
Debutant Ridhima Sud along with the very underrated and talented Vikrant Massey shine as the Romeo and Juliet-esque couple on the trip. While Zarina Wahab has the most excellent timing as the haughty and uptight mother to Rahul Bose's Manav. Rahul Bose himself as the Momma's boy insensitive husband Manav is a delight to watch, the actor goes all out in making you truly not even despise the man but not give a damn about him. His performance is a supporting act through and through that aids his confrontation with Anil's Kamal to have a huge dramatic impact on the viewer.
Finally Anushka Sharma saddled with a terrible character and very little screen time is unable to truly prove what she is made off, but she crafts a great chemistry with ex-beau Ranveer Singh and has good delivery to keep you somewhat invested in their love story.
Speaking of Singh, it is he who keeps the ship afloat through out. He is a bundle of energy as always, but reigns in these regularities and channels his forces towards a performance that truly captivates you long enough to care for his shoddily plotted arc.
Shefali Shah is the understated force of the film, like any mother in a family. She is perfect throughout but gets sublime spurts of moments where she will rip your heart out and move you. Her scene where she eats cake in solace, after being blasted by her husband who is off cavorting with other women is tremendous to watch. Shah speaks volumes with her eyes alone.
Amongst the four it's truly hard to decide who has the best performance, but with such a strong character and a plethora of moments; Priyanka Chopra steals the show. It is her dramatic arc that is the soul of the film and her performances reflects it. Her body language, demeanor and the little ticks she brings to her character are fascinating. When she finally calls for a divorce to her husband, Chopra exudes both a strength and desperations that completes Ayesha so wondrously.
One however will not be able to stop praising Anil Kapoor though. A burdened individual seeking to save his well earned fortunes and misguided father and husband, Kamal Mehra is a perfect match for Kapoor to prove his greatness. This is possibly the finest performance the legendary actor has given in the past two decades. He is witty, hilarious, fearsome, at times hate worthy and at times a terrific hero. His delivery top notch and his handling of dramatic situations epic. Scene after scene, Anil Kapoor is magnificent.
The perfect ensemble is supported by a well managed and game technical crew.
The cinematography by Carlos Catalan is gorgeous, he makes the film, the cruise and the world around look absolutely stunning. He is aptly supported by a great VFX team.
The sound design is great, the score very classy, subtle yet meaningful in terms of emotional context. While the music could have definitely been better, on the big screen it is peppy and energetic especially the foot tapping-ly awesome 'Gallan Goodiyaan'.
Overall, it's definitely not Zoya's best but the idea, message, characters and more especially deconstruction of the upper crust is a wonderful affair packaged in one of the most beautiful films you will see this year. While three hours is a lot, the actors make it well worth the ticket price for a film that is balls to walls entertaining. Don't miss this one.