I couldn’t believe my ears. Was I really watching a Hindi film whose score didn’t actively work against it? Shor Police’s wash of keyboards for Dobaaraa seemed to recall the ‘80s soundtracks of Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter. But soon a familiar dum-dum-dum-dum motif started and I realized the inspiration was more recent, a sound refracted through Stranger Things on its way to an audience that will soon see both titles on Netflix.
Like Stranger Things, Dobaaraa is initially set in a Spielbergian world, even though the film unfolds in Pune. Young Anay rides his cycle at night in a hooded jacket, as if auditioning for E.T. He wears a shirt referencing Back To The Future. Spooky things happen to TV sets, just like in Poltergeist. It’s 1996, but no one’s tired of Terminator 2 yet. We’re knee-deep in someone’s childhood nostalgia—perhaps screenwriter Nihit Bhave’s. It definitely doesn’t feel like Kashyap’s.
For the first time, Kashyap seems like a hired gun. This is a cleverly constructed, efficiently directed film. Aarti Bajaj edits it to a brisk 135 minutes. If you’re willing to go along with a few imaginative leaps, then the pieces click together satisfyingly. So it’s not exactly a criticism to say this doesn’t feel like a Kashyap film. I don’t mean it’s an atypical film by the director—it shows no sign at all of being made by him. I haven’t loved every single film he’s made, but even the ones that don’t work for me feel unique to him. But with Dobaaraa, had another director’s name popped up at the end, I would’ve bought it.
When Anay glimpses a fight in his neighbour’s home from his bedroom window, he goes to investigate. On the floor in their house, he sees the dead body of Rujuta before he’s discovered by her husband, Raja (Saswata Chatterjee). As he flees onto the road, a passing vehicle rams into him. The film then jumps ahead 25 years. Antara (Taapsee Pannu) and Vikas (Rahul Bhat) have just moved into the house where Anay used to live. She’s a nurse who could have become a doctor. Her marriage is crumbling; she’s only hanging in there for the sake of their young daughter. It’s a life you sense she’d rather escape—and what an escape she gets.
On a stormy night, Antara turns on Anay’s old TV. Suddenly, they can see and hear each other: she in 2021, he in 1996. She warns him not to go to investigate, because she’s learnt from a friend what happened then. It works—but something shifts in the balance of the universe. When Antara wakes up, her world is askew. She’s herself—or at least she thinks she is—but everyone else is living a different reality. Vikas isn’t her husband. Her daughter doesn’t exist. Anay is alive, somewhere. Apart from a sympathetic cop (the appealingly soft-spoken Pavail Gulati), no one believes her.
All this is mapped out patiently and carefully by Bhave and Kashyap (the source is a Spanish film called Mirage, which I haven’t seen). It might be a bit too systematic: I kept hoping for the narrative to crack open, but instead we get a serene procession of twists. Antara’s confusion is real—and Pannu does a good job of suggesting a calm person trying not to panic (Bhat is a nice bit of meta-casting, given that he played the father of the little girl in Kashyap’s acrid Ugly). Yet, I was never really afraid for Antara. This is the kind of film where another sleight of hand is always around the corner.
I wrote earlier that this film doesn’t show any signs of coming from Kashyap. I’ll amend that slightly. Without giving anything away, I can say that Dobaaraa ends with a surge of emotion. A decade ago, Kashyap might have closed with nihilism or cleverness. But something has shifted in his recent work. Mukkabaaz, Manmarziyaan and Choked are sweeter, softer, more forgiving than his earlier films. This might be a quick sketch rather than a painting, a palate cleanser before a personal project, but it ends up in a surprisingly resonant place. In this respect, and this only, Dobaaraa feels consistent with its maker.