Cast: Taapsee Pannu, Vikrant Massey, Harshvardhan Rane, Aditya Srivastava
Director: Vinil Mathew
Rating: 2.5 stars
Among the surprises that Haseen Dillruba, streaming on Netflix, springs is a character who looms large over the narrative but never shows up in person. He is a writer of racy crime stories. The titular protagonist cites his words when she is in a bind, which is pretty often. Pulp fiction delivers the pop philosophy she needs when things do not go her way.
One may have issues with the theories about love and lust that Haseen Dillruba spins, but the fact that the film does not feed off Bollywood is refreshing indeed. It draws 'inspiration' instead from Hindi-language fiction that peddles lurid tales of forbidden passion and crime.
Written by Kanika Dhillon and directed by Vinil Mathew, Haseen Dillruba has the spirit of these quickies at its core, but it also aspires to be a serious exploration of gender dynamics and notions of masculinity in a small town. A tough ask that.
The life of the heroine, 28-year-old Delhi girl Rani (Taapsee Pannu), mirrors the sleaze-heavy stories she has been weaned on. The Hindi literature grad devours murder mysteries authored by Dinesh Pandit whose one parallel in the real world would be the exceedingly prolific Surender Mohan Pathak.
Dinesh Pandit's books have titles that make their intentions clear - Hawas Ka Aatank (Tyranny of Lust) and Kasauli Ka Qahar (Wrath of Kasauli). The latter emerges as a central piece of the jigsaw puzzle that Rani's marriage turns into as she struggles to reconcile her desires with the demands of her husband and his mother.
Taapsee Pannu plays Rani with all the flair at her command. The new bride is no pushover. She is a non-vegetarian who fasts on Mondays, but her cantankerous mom-in-law (Yamini Das) can't get her to either play the coy bahu or step into the kitchen to make tea and onion fritters.
Rani believes that she is way too good for Rishabh Saxena (Vikrant Massey), her self-effacing engineer-husband. She has no qualms about keeping tabs on an ex-boyfriend on social media. Being a professional beautician, she even gives her reticent father-in-law (Daya Shankar Pandey) a makeover much to the chagrin of the latter's wife. Here is a Hindi movie heroine who is worth her weight in gold. Unfortunately, her quirky persona does not fully rub off on the film.
Haseen Dillruba kicks off with a homicide in which the victim's body (barring a severed hand with Rani's name tattooed on it) is charred beyond recognition. The film uses pulp fiction conventions as a smokescreen for an intrinsically problematic supposition that love without pain isn't love at all. Amar prem (eternal love), says Rani quoting Pandit, isn't possible unless some blood is spilled.
Not that she weds for love. That is where her troubles begin. Her arranged marriage culminates in an explosion and a grisly death. She is the prime suspect.
The fun-loving, gregarious approximation of a femme fatale winds up in a home that expects her to be docile and homely. She spends the first few months of her choppy marriage trying to tide over her inevitable temperamental differences with Rishabh.
Rishabh's problems are more than skin deep. He rustles up homeopathic concoctions in the hope of enhancing his non-existent sex drive while Rani waits for him to be turned on by her physical charms. Neither comes to pass.
Neel Tripathi (Harshvardhan Rane), Rishabh's hunky cousin, arrives in the Saxena household one day and sweeps Rani off her feet. The dalliance does not end well. It leads to murder, some mayhem, and a whole lot of messy to-ing and fro-ing on the matter of true, and twisted, love and its ramifications.
In one scene, Rishabh asks his wife whether they can start afresh. Much latter, it is Rani's turn to pose the same question. Needless to say, there are no easy answers. The mawkish quickly turns to the macabre as their skirmishes to find common ground intensifies.
Is Haseen Dillruba a true-blue whodunnit? It is more of a who-did-what-and-why-when-nobody-was-looking concoction. Sounds intriguing? It does, but what the film derives from this premise is not as sturdy as it should have been. If you don't expect the world from Haseen Dillruba, the film does pull off a few passably sly sleights of a crime of passion thriller. Sadly, neither the passion nor the thrills generate the sort of tension that could have added up to a riveting tale of a perfect murder.
It does begin with a bang, though. Literally. An explosion kills Rani's husband as she feeds the strays in the lane outside her home. Inspector Kishore Rawat (Aditya Srivastava) infers that Rani is the murderer and proceeds to look for the murder weapon and the motive to substantiate his suspicion.
There is glee writ large on his face as he grills Rani. She responds to his queries as if he were her shrink, spelling out every small detail of her personal life as the film pieces together the past six months of her life through a string of flashbacks.
It is difficult to accept a self-aware woman such as Rani - even if one were to acknowledge that logic is never the strong suit of pulp noir - allowing herself to be subjected to intrusive questioning by the cops without insisting that a lawyer be by her side. Her mother and maternal aunt, after serving as agony aunts for a while, vanish into the blue when she needs them most. That translates into is a canyon-size hole in the story.
Rani makes a clean breast of her unhappy marriage with Rishabh and the aggravation of the situation due to her brief fling with Neel. Her interrogation becomes a spectator sport for the rest of the cops in the police station, who consume every word Rani utters in the manner of captivated readers of crime thrillers of the kind that Rani loves.
Haseen Dillruba plays down the specificities of the town it is set in. It chooses instead to treat the space as an indeterminate, sealed bubble occupied by the stifled Rani, the simple-at-heart Rishabh and the dashing Neel (his river rafting enterprise is contrasted with Rishabh's nine-to-five electricity board job).
Neither of the three is perfect. Each has inadequacies that get the better of them when matters come to a head. Their reactions to provocations are invariably knee-jerk. The consequences are disastrous. When it is time to wrap up this rigmarole, Haseen Dillruba opts for a morally questionable closure.
Taapsee Pannu shines in the pivotal role, but it is Vikrant Massey who steals the show. Aditya Srivastava, Indian television's longest-surviving detective, makes a perfect investigating officer. Yamini Das is a treat to watch as the hero's mother.
In the course of the interrogation, the inspector asks Rani how her marriage with Rishabh was. Sometimes good, sometimes not, she replies. That sums up Haseen Dillruba. It works only in parts.