I imagine Taapsee Pannu must have started grinning midway through reading Kanika Dhillon’s script for Haseen Dillruba. For sheer scenery-chewing potential, Rani Kashyap is a tough role to beat. She gets to play a grieving widow, a fish-out-of-water bride, an acidly funny diva, an adulterer and a scared murder suspect—and this is just the first hour. Pannu’s achievement is in making all this cohere as one character, to a greater degree than Vinil Mathew’s film manages.
Like Judgementall Hai Kya (also written by Dhillon) a few years ago, Haseen Dillruba feels like a film with multiple personalities. It starts off as a murder mystery, with Rani the chief suspect in the death of her husband in a cylinder explosion. As she tells her story to the cops, the timeline jumps back six months, as Rani leaves her home in Delhi to begin a new life with dweeby engineer Rishabh (Vikrant Massey) in the small town of Jwalapur. It’s an arranged marriage—of opposites, it’s made immediately and rather painstakingly clear. Rishabh is serious, romantically green, hard-working; Rani is cheerfully blunt and not exactly industrious.
We’re in the well-trodden terrain of Middle Cinema now, the kind seen in Dum Laga Ke Haisha and Shubh Mangal Saavdhan. It’s very funny at times, especially when Rani is bossing Rishabh around, or disappointing her new mother-in-law (“Oh, chai”, she chirps, when she comes down for breakfast for the first time, late and unbothered). Dhillon’s writing has a wicked sting at times; describing her husband’s performance in bed to her mother, Rani sighs, “Uski ghanti baji, mandir band (once his bell rang, the temple was closed for business)”. But these scenes of domestic comedy are also stretched to farcical levels, underlined by Amar Mangrulkar’s annoying score. Rani dropping her sari pallu to seduce Rishabh but instead catching his mother’s disapproving gaze is just about tolerable the first time, but Mathew has her do it thrice.
A little further down the road, Haseen Dillruba becomes a different kind of relationship film. The catalyst is Rani’s affair with her husband’s relative, a well-built cad named Neel (Harshvardhan Rane) who comes to stay with them. Their tryst is clumsily executed, but after that the film acquires a perverse edge—Phantom Thread if it were filtered through the cheap pulp thrillers Rani likes to read. She’s advised early on to not look for kitaabi romance, yet as things get progressively dangerous, her actions suggest she recognizes—and is excited by—the warped desires she’s only encountered in lurid paperbacks. Every now and then, the film returns to being a murder mystery, with Aditya Srivastava’s inspector leaning on Rani to confess.
Structurally, the film has a lot in common with The Usual Suspects. But that film had about a dozen memorable characters, whereas Haseen Dillruba expends its energies making Rani and Rishabh interesting, and has little left over for the rest. Srivastava’s cop is a less-than-worthy adversary; he spends a lot of time asking Rani, “Why did you murder your husband?” Rishabh’s mother, played by Yamini Das, is comic relief; his friend, Afzar (Ashish Verma), has little personality beyond being his friend. And Neel is the sort of self-evident jock who wears sleeveless shirts to dinner.
All this makes for an odd, unpredictable film. Some scenes strain the bounds of credulity, like the talk between Rishabh and Neel after a fight; others such as the rooftop confrontation are perched on the edge of sanity. I found the jokey first half to be more emotionally sound, based as it is on the unhappiness and confusion of a young woman living with strangers in a strange town. After she acts on it, the mounting hysteria makes the characters seem shallower and the film a touch desperate. Like the song it takes its name from, you might end up asking, yeh kya ghazab hua, yeh kaise kab hua—what just happened?
Haseen Dillruba is streaming on Netflix.