In Aristotle’s Poetics, the Greek philosopher had expounded on the concept of mimesis or imitation stating that art is but an imitation of reality. In his 1891 essay The Decay of Lying, Oscar Wilde challenged this proposition by suggesting the reverse: life imitates art, meaning that art does not hold a mirror to life nor is it supposed to. Good art should not sacrifice itself on the altar of realism. Instead, it must represent itself, and even lie. Films and literature have forever straddled these binarised theories, serving as outlets to depict actuality or brandishing the medium as an escape from it. The need for the latter and the comfort derived from it have never been more urgent than now. Even though compelled to confinement, every effort is being taken to thwart it leaking into art. Videos are being shot at home and cleverly edited to retain the illusion of togetherness, burying the reality of social distancing we are living now. And then a film like Dil Bechara comes along and in spite of fuelling this discourse, locates the porosity.
Last month, Sushant Singh Rajput’s sudden death by suicide sent shock waves across the globe, uncovering lids of conspiracy theories and collective denial. Screen grabs from his films were shared, Instagram comments were dissected, and lack of a plausible narrative prompted stories being constructed to make sense of an incident that refused to make any. In many ways, Mukesh Chhabra’s directorial debut, an adaptation of John Green’s 2012 novel, The Fault in Our Stars, comes closest to filling in the gaps. Faithful to its original material, it revolves around two 20-something protagonists, Kizie Basu (Sanjana Sanghi) and Manny (Rajput), whose collective awareness of life’s transience, rather than their common affliction of suffering from cancer, brings them closer. What follows is a familiar tale of braving upheavals in the hope of being with each other and constant reassurance of being there for each other.
Essaying the role of a fatally ill boy fits right into Rajput’s oeuvre. For the irony that hovers over his filmography resides in the tragic ending most of the characters essayed by him (in Kai Po Che! Kedarnath and Sonchiriya) suffer from. Since last month, this has been repeated as a premonition we all failed to notice. But the biggest irony was reserved for later when his last film, ending the way it does, overlapped with his own story. Having said that, Dil Bechara, adapted by Shashank Khaitan and Suprotim Sengupta, is an exceedingly shoddy film that gains from its timely release and sly editing: the film opens with a short video of Rajput playing a guitar and the last ten minutes (effectively better than whatever precedes it) is dedicated to his memory in the form of a moving montage witnessed by a crowd of people wiping tears. The film’s sloppiness and reliance on a love story that remains obdurately ineffective and surprisingly chaste, even after the tragedy that would befall on the characters is known, impede it from being the goodbye the actor deserved. But Chhabra’s film manages to be the missing epilogue of a story whose prologue is being shared and celebrated. It manages to be the goodbye we needed.
Watch the trailer here.
Suffering from bone cancer, Manny is not identified by his illness. It is Kizie, lugging around an oxygen cylinder and surrounded by concerned parents, who is visually suffering. Her voiceover guides the film and lets us into her life. Manny’s effervescence provides her with a crutch and will to live. His purpose is to make her realise her purpose in life; his short-stay intended to egg her to spend the limited time with a rare gusto. The character of Manny exists to ease Kizie’s existence. And yet, Dil Bechara ends up being so much about Manny, not just because the makers wanted it that way but because it feeds into the perceived idea of the actor.
In course of the last month, voices demanding an inquiry into his death have only grown, emboldened with the belief that Rajput could not have suffered from depression, or even if he did, he was not ‘weak’ enough to take the drastic step that he did. These theories hinge on locating external circumstances as a contributing factor, discarding completely his own will in the process. In many ways, the ever-so giving Manny let down by the resurgence of cancer and evoking an image of a drowning man with a desire to live on his lips serves as an extension of the actor’s persona many are still holding on to. It is fortuitous, ironic and ultimately devastating when the character soothes Kizie saying, “I am not dying,”, the moment moving you not through its obvious emotional manipulation but in spite of that; art being affective not by accurately imitating life but in the hope of being imitated by life.
So much of the collective bafflement and discussion post Rajput’s death have been shaped by a sense of betrayal: not knowing what happened, being caught off guard, and missing out on the ending of a story whose beginning played out for all to see. Dil Bechara gives us that in the voice we wanted to hear and in doing so, it comes closest to providing a closure.
In any other instance, beginning an article about a Bollywood actor with Greek philosophy would have seemed superimposed intellectualisation. But for Rajput, who befriended stars, quoted Sartre and as Instagram bears witness was reading up on stoicism, it seems oddly fitting. What also strangely fits is his final film providing the needed catharsis not by unfolding as a good tragedy but by imitating one: his life. When alive, Rajput had widened the gap between reality and illusion by inhabiting a narrative many only aspired to have. In death he blurred it, upholding what is seldom considered in the debate of perfection in actuality and art: the fragility of life.
Dil Bechara is streaming on Disney Plus Hotstar
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