Twelve minutes into Dil Bechara and I was sad.
What’s weird was this was one of the few moments when the film wasn’t trying to induce that feeling in me. It had just pulled off a superior version of that standard Hindi movie scene, the musical number introducing the hero: a young man dancing on stage, then climbing down and performing amidst the audience, tracked all the way by the camera. This was achieved with deceptive ease, without a single cut, and it occurred to me that this would be a sensational way to introduce an unknown actor to the public. And then I felt a twinge, because, of course, this wasn’t hello, it was goodbye.
Dil Bechara was always going to be rough. Rajput died less than a month and a half ago, the intervening time marked by profound sadness and terrible acrimony. Now, not only do we have a new film starring him but one that’s based on perhaps the sappiest YA property ever: John Green’s 2012 novel, The Fault In Our Stars, about two young cancer patients in love. What’s more, Mukesh Chhabra’s adaptation, with its likeable leads and wall-to-wall music by A.R. Rahman, really pushes your buttons. The more stoic might last till the final scene before dissolving in tears but most viewers will be sniffling their way through.
“I don’t want to be strong," Kizie (Sanjana Sanghi) says in a voice-over at the start. “I just want to be normal." Instead, she gets a lot of merry abnormal as Immanuel ‘Manny’ Rajkumar Jr (Rajput) dances his way into her life and refuses to dance out. He’s cocky and persistent at first, as most Hindi film heroes are nowadays, but obviously taken with her. She starts off sparring with him (as female leads are supposed to) but it’s half-hearted; even as he makes fun of her name, her music and her primness, a smile keeps breaking through her irritation.
Unlike Green’s book, and the Hollywood film based on it, Kizie and Manny don’t meet in a cancer support group. That scene comes later, with Manny sharing offhandedly that his leg was lost to osteosarcoma. Other than that, though, he seems fine. Kizie is the one who's visibly ill—she has difficulty breathing and carries around an oxygen cylinder she’s named Pushpinder, connected to her nose at all times by a thin tube. The morbidity of the premise is leavened somewhat by Manny’s determined silliness (he ropes Kizie in for a zero-budget film he’s making with a friend) and Rahman’s warm embrace of a soundtrack. There’s even a weird quest thrown in: Kizie is obsessed with an old album and wants to find its reclusive composer and ask why the title track is unfinished (I regret to inform you that this is a metaphor).
The writing tends to get overwrought at times; I rolled my eyes when Kizie tells Manny he’s as important for her heart as Pushpinder is for her lungs. Shashank Khaitan and Suprotim Sengupta are fine comic writers, so it’s surprising that the dinner scene with Kizie’s parents (played by Swastika Mukherjee and Saswata Chatterjee) and the couple doesn’t sing the way it ought to. A trip to Paris yields little more than a couple of touristy montages. Sanghi, in her first lead role, has an appealingly non-pixie manner, a measured voice and a fantastic alarmed face. She and Rajput are a believable odd couple in love, but their stabs at genuine emotion are diluted by the almost cynical premise and the frank attempts by Chhabra, making his debut as director, to wring every last tear he can.
It’s no shade against Dil Bechara—an adequate weepy romance—that the one thing that makes it unique is the circumstances surrounding its release. Rajput is gentle and moving, yet I doubt Manny would have moved me to tears had this released a year ago. It’s the sight of Rajput as Manny, listening to his own eulogies, that breaks through the choreographed tear-wringing and is just elementally, desperately sad. Thankfully, Dil Bechara doesn’t end without offering some hope. Cinema takes away, but it also heals. Tacky films by Rajini fans get an appreciative screening. Songs unfinished for years are made whole. Imperfect farewells are rendered graceful and complete.