Vinil Mathew's debut feature, Hasee Toh Phasee, was one of the better romantic comedies of the past decade. His new film, Haseen Dillruba, falls among the weaker thrillers of the present age. And it's a specific age we are talking about here. Netflix for one knows how to cut its trailers.
I was swayed by the presence of Taapsee Pannu, screenwriter Kanika Dhillon and composer Amit Trivedi - the same trio that brought us Manmarziyaan (2018). But Haseen Dillruba can't measure up to these names, let alone the iconic lyric of its title.
The film opens, chronologically, with a wedding. Rani (Taapsee) and Rishabh (Vikrant Massey) are starting a new life in the small-town of 'Jwalapur'. It's hardly a start - Rani, hooked on pulpy crime novels, fancied someone adventurous but settled for the shy engineer.
Rishabh, meanwhile, wanted a 'homely' girl but went with the superior catch. "This is your destiny now," he tells his wife after a fight. And though it's him who is unable to jazz up their marriage, the onus falls on Rani, with her own mother telling her it would be unwise if she visited home so soon.
It's an old setup, familiar from countless domestic comedies, and for a spell Haseen Dillruba resembles exactly that. But then Neel (Harshvardhan Rane), Rishabh's distant cousin, turns up at the house, and starts a sparkling affair with Rani.
What happens next - following an explosion in the downstairs kitchen and Rani being accused of her husband's murder - forms the basic puzzle of the story. "It's a juicy one," remarks a junior cop, to the chagrin of his no-nonsense boss (Aditya Srivastava).
Though the film jumps around in time comfortably, the tumble into thriller is rough. Kanika is a fine writer when working with fraught relationships, not so much when plugging holes in her plot. The central gambit is a paper-thin one, seemingly inspired by the 1953 Roald Dahl short story Lamb to the Slaughter. Other inspirations are less flattering. The scene with Rani and Rishabh on the rooftop is a weird ode to Abbas-Mustan. And a chase sequence that comes out of nowhere could well be called Dhoom Redux.
After Badla, Game Over and now this, a sense of genre fatigue weighs upon Taapsee. There's nothing here she hasn't done before - or done better. Her scenes with Vikrant, now a veteran at portrayals of repressed masculinity, feel effortless to a fault. It falls on Harshvardhan - cannily cast as a red-blooded jock – to add some friction to his part. The actor opts to hang loose, which only makes him more unpredictable.
The film is technically sound. Vinil and cinematographer Jaya Krishna Gummadi go about their job quietly and effectively. The pink house is colour-coordinated with the riverbanks and a faraway bridge. Some element of danger seems to lurk in every corner.
The cooking of mutton curry in a vegetarian household is used to tantalizing effect. All this is helped along by Amar Mangrulkar's fun, dynamic score, though the portentous theme that plays over Rani's adultery should have been junked.
Haseen Dillruba alludes, in story and in song, to the caustic madness of love. The notion might still have some currency, despite our best efforts to move on. To me, though, it sounds more like an excuse. When all else falls apart, they just blame it on love.
(This review was published originally on cinemaexpress.com)