It’s a rare thing to find that a film director’s sophomore effort is as good as his or her first. So much of what an artist wants to say to an audience has been piling up in their head for many years before they finally get a green-light to make one. It follows that, after giving us the proverbial “everything they’ve got,” they might, honestly enough, dry out, inspiration-wise, for quite a while.

This is definitely not the case with Zoya Akhtar’s second movie that opened this weekend, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, which for those of us Hindically challenged, means something along the lines of “you won’t get a second chance at life.” Ms. Akhtar has taken her own title to heart and thrown everything she’s got, again, into this lovely film and come up with another winner.

Just the choice for the hot summer weather, Zoya takes us on a holiday ride through sunny Spain with her “Three Musketeers” Arjun, (Hrithik Roshan), Imraan (Farhan Akhtar) and Kabir (Abhay Deol) who have promised each other this trip for years. Kabir has just gotten engaged, and this is a way to celebrate their friendship now that their bachelor circle is about to be broken.

Using as assured and fresh a touch as in her first film Luck By Chance, the director has, once again, given us a feeling of really knowing these people and sympathizing with them as they muddle through life’s complexities. LBC showed us a fresh twist with a more realistic insider’s look at the workings of the Mumbai film industry, (written by a real insider), and even got us die-hard romantics to smile at her non-traditional bittersweet ending. In ZNMD, Ms. Akhtar again flips things on their head by giving us what looks like a rollicking fun bit of fluff and then makes us cry when we’re not expecting any deep emotions at all.

Resisting a western ninety minute format, in ZNMD the director takes the time to let us get to know each of these young men and the problems that they are dealing with, time to care about them all, when she could just as easily let us coast by on the sheer beauty of the film.
The scenery, wonderfully captured by cinematographer Carlos Catalán dazzles us as they visit Barcelona, Seville and other acres of glistening Spanish countryside. To add to this, our three amigos are a truly seductive trio, and I’m not referring (only) to their already famous faces and physiques. Now it’s obvious that these characters are a privileged lot, affluent enough to travel first class and stay in more fabulous abodes than most of us can afford, but the richness that they flaunt most flagrantly, and to greatest effect, is their obvious affection for each other.

Their chemistry is everywhere, evident in the banter, the practical jokes, always leavened with the humor of their past history. This rapport builds slowly at first, as “the bwoys” reacquaint themselves with each other after a few years apart, and gradually beats down their barriers, gaining rhythm and warmth until they hit a level of almost electric shorthand communication between each other that sings as well as any vocal in the engaging Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy soundtrack. It engulfs everyone they meet on the road, as well. It’s a tribute to the direction and the acting talent (and the personal charm) of the cast that we feel like one of the gang by the end of the film. By the way, where was my invitation to the wedding, if I may ask?

The only negative I might add, if one can quibble when I was obviously so entertained, was the need for more dancing. It’s become my standard request these days, because it’s what drew me in to Hindi film in the first place. And yes, I realize that full choreographed “item numbers” might be considered going backward in a filmmaker’s quest for complete international integration, but Zoya, Dah-ling, when you have dance talent like that at your disposal, one and a half dance numbers is just a tad…ungenerous. Share with those of us who will never be as close as you are to those Terrible Twins of Terpsichorean Talent (I swear that I heard Farhan use that very phrase on Koffee With Karan on one occasion. With Abhay getting to be so good, too, he’ll be promoted to a TTTT ranking, soon)…Please, Zoya, take pity on us! For those who don’t know what I refer to, check out the Making of the Senorita Video clip on YouTube, here.

Oddly, online buzz has been quick to stick ZNMD in a slot marked “Sorta-like-The-Hangover-Crossed-With-DCH”. All I can say is that the slot must have evolved before these category-happy people had even watched the film. In The Hangover, the only similarity is the basic bachelors in a warm climate premise. The Hollywood superhit boasted a trio of argumentative, obnoxious bozos, whose so-called humorous hi-jinks are centered on solving the mystery of locating their lost hours and what is left of their dignity (not possible).

The only mystery in ZNMD is what the three friends find when they look into themselves and discover what parts of their youth they should discard or fully embrace. Growing up in this movie is about finding freedom rather than tying one down, and certainly not about “tying one on” in search of a lost weekend. As you can tell, The Hangover is a film experience that you’d have to pay me to repeat. Zoya Akhtar has given me a trip to the cinema that I felt the need to see twice in its opening weekend, dragging my friends along for the second ride.

The second comparison, where Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara is just Dil Chahta Hai reworked, is almost as easy to dismiss. Granted, superficially there are some similarities, both are stories about three close male friends, and both have wonderful male bonding scenes and maturation of the characters. Nay-sayers cite the roadtrips in both, but can’t they see that the trips are used in completely different ways? In DCH, the trip to Goa was an enjoyable hiccup in the plotline; I can’t say that I wouldn’t miss the colors it lent to the film, but if you lifted the whole scene from the screenplay, it wouldn’t have hurt the character development much. It is a fun embellishment to an already well-nigh perfect romantic-dramedy script.

The roadtrip that the friends take in ZNMD is, in itself, the key to unlocking their future happiness and the cementing of their friendship. Other similarities between the two films are inevitable. Both have catchy scores by the same composers. Both films had the same dialogue writer, and Farhan has a unique way of finding just the right words to make a conversation ring true. It was almost inevitable that both Zoya and Farhan know their way around a script, a side effect of being raised by parents, Javed Akhtar and Honey Irani, who surrounded them with excellence in writing for film.

Even given these similarities and the fact that they work together, frequently and to great effect, I don’t find that after viewing and thinking about Farhan and Zoya’s films, that I would end up ever confusing them with one another. Farhan has obvious fun flexing his cinematic muscles, trying on different genres and very diverse styles with DCH, Lakshya, and Don. Even his smaller films like Positive, all have solid, clear plots at their core, and he always sets a distinct mood and tone in each. He won’t be pigeonholed. If there is a common trait, it’s that his characters think and talk a good deal, and often they enjoy what they say, and how they say it. It’s all about the words, which is wonderful. Now, Zoya’s films seem to be developed more with visuals and silences than those of her brother. She has her characters say things more by a touch, a look, a single tear, than other directors say in whole speeches. What she has them say is eloquent, but often, as in the results of Kabir’s psychological “tests,” Zoya gives us her answers in what these boys don’t say or how they don’t say it. It is very effective directorial technique, plain and simple. You don’t have to compare Zoya and Farhan at all, just look forward to what they do next.

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