In our families, there are many things we talk about. Like, why did Amita chachi’s youngest son choose to become a bawarchi, instead of something respectable like his older brothers, who are both software engineers? Why did Ranjeet and Somya’s daughter break off her engagement with the lovely, well-settled chartered accountant, who is from such a good family?
And, did you know that Archana has failed to get through to the Civil Services again? Gossip is the fuel that revs up families at weddings and festivals and makes everyone feel like they are one big unit as they speculate over which cousin has started fertility treatments for that desperately needed child and which uncle lost all his money playing the market.
But there are certain things that we never talk about. We never talk about how, each time a family member brings up the question of our singleness or childlessness, they make us feel a little less than what we actually are. We don’t bring up decades-old resentments stemming from decisions that our parents took for their convenience and which hurt us in ways they never even tried to understand, and the feelings of guilt that arise each time we look at our children and remember how impatient we were with them, when all they wanted was some attention.
Very often, we don’t want to admit – even to ourselves – that the family we grew up in isn’t perfect and that they hurt us, every day, in ways they are still to comprehend, let alone acknowledge, and that each time a parent or a sibling or a grandparent rebuked us, ignored us, lied to us or laughed at our fears, they chipped away at our self-esteem. We stew in secret, resentful that our personhood was damaged, and yet, we’re also ashamed of this. We worry that perhaps, it’s something we did. Maybe we weren’t lovable enough or good enough, and that in other, seemingly “perfect” families, such things wouldn’t happen.
Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi brings up these deeply personal doubts and worries, that each of us nurses within, beautifully, with the story of Kaira (a superb Alia Bhatt), who is a talented cinematographer, well on the path towards a successful career, and who comes from a stable, loving – and yes, “perfect” seeming – family. She’s earning enough to live alone in an expensive city like Mumbai, she has friends who are supportive of her and a family that lives elsewhere but which clearly cares for her and is, largely, supportive of her independence.
But Kiara is also damaged in ways that she doesn’t fully understand; this keeps her from being able to form a stable romantic relationship, and it makes her snap at her parents with barely concealed impatience. All of this, it turns out, comes from feelings of being abandoned when she was a child and, as her therapist Dr Jehangir Khan (played by a deliciously grizzled Shah Rukh Khan) says, she has allowed her past to blackmail her present which then keeps her beautiful future at bay.
In 2007, when Taare Zameen Par released, it opened a lot of eyes to the very real problem of dyslexia. Will Dear Zindagi make people more accepting of the fact that sometimes people need therapy to be able to live their lives with more joy and empathy – both towards other and towards themselves? Perhaps. Never mind that Dr Khan – or Jug, as he is known in the film – talks like a self help book. What matters is that at the heart of this film is the struggle of one girl to come to terms with a wounded past and how she manages to do this with the help of her dimaag ka doctor.
No, she isn’t mad, she doesn’t need to be chained and locked up in a psychiatric ward. All that’s wrong with her is that she has a troubled love life and she can’t sleep at night and, as the movie tells us again and again, it is okay to get help for even these problems. Seeking therapy doesn’t mean something is wrong with you, and resenting your family doesn’t make you a bad person. All it means is that, like Kaira, sometimes we all need to open up about our fears and doubts to someone who will listen to us and help us find or way towards a happier, more fulfilling life.