If The Wolf on Wall Street can be labeled “indulgence cinema,” Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara is the cinema of transcendence. Director Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi, on paper, sounds like a Bollywood take on The Hangover: three immature men go on a bachelor’s trip to Spain to fulfill a decade long pact where each picks an extreme sport to partake in. But, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara couldn’t be more unlike The Hangover. Rather than excess and lust, Zindagi breaths the air of the Platonic maxim: the true, the good, and the beautiful.
Each of the three main characters, Arjun Saluja (Hrithik Roshan), Kabir Dewan (Abhay Deol), and Imran Qureshi (Farhan Akhtar), carry emotional and spiritual baggage to Kabir’s bachelor’s party. Arjun, unable to locate leisure, defines workaholism; Imran recently learned his father was actually his stepfather; and Kabir’s fiance is controlling, and “checks-in” on the bachelor party. Likewise, each picks a sport—though, the others mustn’t know until the day-of. Each character, then, experiences a moment of pure transcendence during one of the other characters’ sport of choice.
Akhtar establishes character creatively while not departing far from the genre. On the road trip, we learn Imran and Arjun haven’t been on good terms for years because of Imran’s immaturity and Arjun’s unwillingness to forgive. The latter can’t stay away from work and constantly makes phone calls and Skype interviews—he didn’t really take time off as much as change his office space. In one scene, he abruptly stops driving, gets out his laptop, and starts Facetiming his Japanese business partner. In the backdrop, mostly in deep focus, is a beautiful Spanish mountain range captured in excellent cinematography. The other two characters comment on the irony of the situation: one of the most beautiful sites in the world is present before them and Arjun’s back is literally turned to it, stairing at a device. Arjun doesn’t know beauty.
A few moments in this film refuse to leave after a single viewing. They linger. After my second viewing, some of these moments feel indelible. In one such moment, the first sport, deep-sea diving, confronts Arjun’s inability to swim and he must rely on the instructor and love interest, Laila (Katrina Kaif). During the dive, Carlos Catalan’s cinematography captures nothing less than beauty itself—one of the Platonic Transcendentals. This moment had a profound impact, in the word’s etymological sense of “collision [or the] act of striking against,” on Arjun. When he surfaces, I’m convinced viewers no longer see Arjun, but Roshan. His performance—and I mean this without hyperbole—is either one of the best in cinema or it’s just not a performance. I wouldn’t be surprised if Roshan himself had a life changing moment under the water—a statement corroborated by his choices in roles after this movie by leaning more into artsy and purposeful roles.
This scene, and the others like it, reminds me of Howard Thurman’s experience in the Himalayas: “At first there was just a faint finer of pink in the sky, then suddenly the whole landscape burst into one burnished gold radiance: everything was clear….The glorious sight lasted no more than a minute,” he continues, “More than forty years have passed since that morning. It remains for me a transcendent moment of sheer glory and beatitude, when time, space, and circumstance evaporated and when my naked spirited looked into the depths of what is forbidden for anyone to see. I would never, never be the same again.”
The other two incidents, in their own ways, confront the other transcendentals, truth and good, in that respective order. Imran must confront the truth of his blood, who his father is, and Kabir faces a dilemma of good, a dilemma he failed to answer with confidence last time. The outcome of Kabir’s situation supports this interpretation. Rather than breaking up with his fiance, based on the end credits scene, they just postpone their engagement. It wasn’t right, or good, at the time, but this doesn’t mean he doesn’t love her. In each of the three sports, a character faces a demon of fear. But, avoiding Eat-Pray-Love philosophy, the fear isn’t hyperpersonal, but rather the opposite of the transcendentals: the depravity of the truth, the good, and the beautiful.
Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara is an unforgettable movie. And while it certainly has its shortcomings—including the necessity of wealth to experience the depths of the transcendent—it’s been formative for me. In this movie, I feel a sense of what William James called the “something more,” and I’m not sure I can say that of another film.
Howard Thurman quotes from his autobiography: With Head and Heart.