What is the story about?
Power engineer Rishabh Saxena, who is married to Rani Kashyap, mysteriously dies in a gas explosion in his house, and Rani becomes the chief suspect in his alleged murder. As Inspector Kishore Rawat interrogates Rani, a tale of adultery, betrayal and murder comes alive.
While watching Haseen Dillruba, you cannot shake off the feeling you have seen a story like this before. Kanika Dhillon's screenplay is a classic case of two disparate halves. The first half of the film is a real breeze. The fictional town of Jwalapur, which is obviously a stand-in for Hardwar, is portrayed as a conservative place where the free-spirited Rani feels like a fish out of water. Rani is a compelling character: she is independent, loves devouring novels by Hindi pulp fiction stalwart Dinesh Pandit, can't cook to save her life, and wants affection of all kinds. In contrast, Rishabh is the quintessential "Momma's boy" who is generally shy around women, and cant believe his luck at landing a trophy wife like Rani. Dhillon perfectly delineates the throttling traditions of the small-town middle-class family, where Rani and Rishabh try to get on with each other, and how their opposite personalities create animosity in their household. I especially laughed at specific sequences, such as when Rani colours the hair of her father-in-law, or her clumsy attempts at seducing Rishabh. But the sequences showing the growing distance in their marriage are also neatly done, and therefore, when Rani gets seduced by the charismatic Neel, the nephew of her mother-in-law, it's not surprising.
Until this point, Vinil Mathew's film is squarely enjoyable and believable. But it's a different story in the second half. Honestly, whether you love the film or not will depend on how you react to its second half, that goes into bizarre territory. Rishabh's transformation from a meek-hearted man to a scorned man might be easy to believe, but it's hard to digest how Rani goes from independence to meek submission. There are also disturbing sequences which show the extreme limits to which domestic violence can go, and Dhillon's screenplay tries to portray them as some sort of twisted trial-by-fire for the penitent Rani. And then there's the climax, which is supposed to be the epitome of madness and cruelty, but ends up looking like an exercise in silliness.
More than being inspired by Hindi pulp fiction, this film is strangely reminiscent of some of the most beloved revenge thrillers in the 90s and early 2000s, with Abbas-Mustan's Daraar and Humraaz, Satish Kaushik's Vaada and even Anurag Basu's Murder coming to mind. Yet these films had a sincerity in their narrative, which this film lacks. I'm being generous when I say this, but perhaps Haseen Dillruba would've worked well without its second half. It really didn't need to spill blood in order to tell the story of the ever-shifting balance of power in a marriage.
Taapsee Pannu is arresting as Rani in the first half, but even in the ludicrous second half, you see her point of view even when her character becomes uncharacteristically docile. Harshvardhan Rane is smooth as the suave Neel, who provides a warm blanket for Rani's cold conjugal life. Aditya Srivastava channels his inner "Abhijit" into the character of the hard-nosed police inspector Kishore Rawat. Yamini Das is a hoot as Rani's mother-in-law, with several hilarious yet biting sequences beteen her character and Rani. Dayashankar Pandey and Ashish Verma are all right in their roles.
But if there's an actor who makes Haseen Dillruba watchable despite its glaring flaws, it is Vikrant Massey. Massey turns Rishabh from a dour lizard to a ruthless chameleon at will, and he is engaging not just in the dramatic sequences, but also in his comical efforts to be dominating in the first half.
Music & Other Departments
Jayakrishna Gummadi's cinematography plays around with colours very well, especially in documenting the various moods of characters. Amar Mangrulkar's background score is a bit too on the nose and needed subtlety, while the production design by Madhur Madhavan and Swapnil Bhalerao makes the constricted nature of Jwalapur and the Saxena household come alive. Amit Trivedi's tracks are all right, with Phisal Ja Tu being a highlight.
Vikrant Massey's performance, and the first half, are definite highlights.
Definitely the second half.
Did I enjoy it?
Overall, the film is a letdown.
Do I recommend it?
Only watch it if you're a fan of Taapsee Pannu and Vikrant Massey. Otherwise you're better off watching revenge thrillers from the 90s.