By Courtney Thomas
Sure, it’s a little melodramatic, and it could have been shorter, but the Hindi-language Netflix movie Haseen Dillruba (trans. Beautiful Beloved) delivers as a romantic, crime-ridden thrill ride. Like the pulpy crime novels with which its heroine is obsessed, the movie is concerned with its own ability to shock, and ends up in somewhat predictable territory, but these shortcomings don’t take away from its entertainment value.
Among the predictable elements it features are various familiar tropes from Indian popular cinema, including tension between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law who doesn’t cook and a rocky beginning to an arranged marriage in which the couple eventually learns to love each other. But while these tropes seem characteristic of a comedy, the film goes out of its way to manufacture an aesthetic edginess that’s fitting of a dime novel detective story.
The film starts with an explosion at the house of Rina, the heroine, who’s played by Bollywood star Taapsee Pannu. Her husband Rishu’s hand, with her name tattooed on the wrist, is the only thing recovered at the crime scene. The police instantly suspect foul play. Flashbacks and Rina’s interrogation at the hands of a police chief who’s sure that she’s the murderer tell the rest of the story. As the chief of police (Aditya Srivastava) observes, every character has a different version of what happened, but don’t get it twisted. This is no Rashomon. The timeline is slightly confusing – What has Rina been doing during the two months the police have spent investigating? – but the main plot points and the central crime are clear and remain suspense-packed.
Taapsee Pannu is the true star actress, carrying the film, although critics have complained that the project was beneath her. They say the script didn’t give her enough room to showcase her abilities, forcing her to move too quickly between her character early in the film, a confident, flirtatious and modern Rani unsure about marrying an engineer, to a dissatisfied housewife to a docile version of the character who ends up begging for love.
The exposition is both too long and rushed, packing in the couple’s first meeting, their wedding, and their early life together. The couple is far from happy, with husband Rishu scared of intimacy and wife Rani feeling neglected and underappreciated from the start. The overly long exposition even includes Rishu adopting a Petruchio- style approach to integrating his new wife into his family at his friend’s suggestion, but he can’t pull off the necessary swagger. The murder investigation story is supposed to add drama to this portion, as the viewer learns more about the couple’s relationship, and with each new detail, a new potential motive.
The inciting incident doesn’t come until Rishu’s cousin Neel (Harshavardhan Rane) arrives to stay with the family. To borrow a phrase from Rohan Naahar at the Hindustan Times, Neel “has trouble written all over his chiseled body” (incidentally, Rohan Naahar’s take was that “everyone involved is capable of better”). Rina falls in love with Neel, who’s presented as everything her shy husband is not, but the affair ends unhappily. Once her husband finds out about Rina and Neel’s affair, a major shift in his character occurs, and a frightening version of Rishu emerges. The film asks the viewers to believe that Rina falls in love with this more confident but violent and uncaring Rishu, who cannot conceal his hate for her.
Although she has the chance to leave what is quickly becoming an abusive situation, Rani decides to stay, motivated by a mixture of guilt for her affair and ‘love’ for Rishu. The two are not really a pair worth rooting for, but they come to believe in a toxic definition of love built around intensity. For this couple, “Eternal love requires a few drops of blood.” Throughout all of this, Rani is perpetually quoting the works of Dinesh Pandit, a fictional crime novelist whose work inspires the saga’s final twist.
Dinesh Pandit’s imagined novels are the key to this movie. The story is fun but not brilliant, well acted and watchable, but not life-changing. It is meant to be consumed like a cheap paperback thriller you buy at a train station. However, exactly who the author Dinesh Pandit is within the film’s universe is unclear. Rani has a degree in Hindi Literature, and it is implied that Pandit was the subject of her studies. The prop books, however, have the sensational covers one would expect from ephemeral popular crime novels. Indian film critics have largely lambasted the movie, complaining against the familiar conventions it makes use of and demanding something of more complexity and depth. The problem then, is that this movie is an ode to a book genre that relies heavily on its own set of conventions, and while exploring the genre, it isn’t trying to do anything new.
The romantic relationships are built around the idea of an insatiable sexual woman becoming dominated by her husband, and when he fails to dominate her, she begins seeking romance from another man. It’s pretty unambiguously a product of the patriarchy and its fears, with women’s empowerment being tied to the ability to attract men. The film’s entertainment value lies in its ability to pump these ideas full of drama and reflect them back to us. It dramatises a toxic kind of love, but it is one that many young women are conditioned by the media to seek. Maybe the film’s ability to make this relationship entertaining and cinematic, and assumption that audiences will accept it unquestioningly, is something the critics are right to reject, but for my part, I’m not bored of sensational crime plots and femme fatales yet.
Interestingly in terms of gender politics, the cop who attempts to beat a confession out of Rani is a woman, and instigating this act of violence seems to be her only role in the film. The Rani of the beginning of the film is a threat to her husband and the stability of his household, both in her choice to have an affair and as an educated modern woman who refuses to cook (her hobby instead is practicing as an amateur beautician). Rani’s husband’s attempts to harm her, however, only strengthen her love for him in a Stockholm syndrome kind of way. Her character arc isn’t particularly feminist, but during her interrogation she is self-possessed and holds her own under the pressures from both male and female police officers. The reaction to the film likely represents a hunger for strong female characters that are more than a collection of tropes, and contain more nuance than traditional femme fatales. Nevertheless, the movie tells a story with all the bingeable ingredients- violence, romance, suspense and high-stakes. If unoriginal, it reminds us that popular tastes are slow to change, and that today’s movie makers expect the public to be satisfied by out-and-out drama more so than clever subtlety.