[Disclaimer: the film in my cinema broke at what I think was the very end of the story—Farhan voice-over-ing about being alive or living life to the fullest or some such, as the three men re-join the bull run—so I do not know if there was more to it than that and, specifically, whether we see the leads make good on their "if I survive this" vows.]
If you watched much American tv in the late 1990s and early 2000s, you might remember the glut of teen dramas—Beverly Hills 90210, Dawson's Creek, Buffy, The OC, etc.—and evocative Mad TV parody of them called Pretty White Kids with Problems.
Once it popped into my head at intermission, PWKWK was all I could think about for the rest of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. None of the lead men could pass as teenagers in a world not filmed by the WB network, but these fellas seemed more entranced by their school days than the recent grads of Dil Chahta Hai. But it was the "problem" aspect that kept me from being very sympathetic—empathetic flew out the floor-to-ceiling window as soon as we saw the stunning house Abhay's character rented in the first leg of their Spanish trip—to these blandly likeable guys. Personal problems are no less real than the societal-level problems addressed in films by Zoya and Farhan's dad and Abhay's uncle in previous decades,* but did the answers have to be quite so obvious to anyone who's seen Dead Poets Society (a golden example of PWKWP if ever there were one, though emphasis on the "kids" part of that, as well as being made over 20 years ago)? Or, for that matter, wrapped in the bustier-sporting form of a manic pixie dream girl?
I don't know. I just didn't care. I didn't hate these people, and I didn't think their problems were uninteresting or silly. Mostly brought on by their own decisions, yes, but they also figured out that they had to make changes to their own lives in order to solve them, so that's okay. And I've got no fundamental issue with the trope of "go to a new place to give yourself a new perspective," though I loathe memoirs by westerners who go anywhere east of Turkey looking for wisdom or enlightenment, and it was interesting to see that idea flipped on its head. I think it was the gloss that got in the way. There was some kind of disconnect between the ease with which these people navigated the world and the sadness or anger or dread they felt inside. I can't figure out why sometimes that kind of dissonance is an intriguing surprise and at others it's an obstacle to engaging with a story. Maybe it's because the contrast wasn't news to me—I already knew that rich/creative/sweet people have problems too.
The fact that the women had their sh*t together while the men floundered around didn't really endear me to this either, especially when one is a magically curative one-night stand and another's fate is left dangling as we realize she faces a really rough time ahead. Kalki's character Natasha also suffered from being really, really irritating without much explanation why. "Jealous nagging fiancée" is more of a straw man than an actual character, especially when we see she has no grounds to act like that. We may know why she's insecure, but it's also her own fault that she's engaged to someone she doesn't seem to entirely trust. I think I expected more developed female characters from Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti. Can't there be room for rich female characters even in a film busy showing three boys growing up? On the other hand, Katrina's character is the most honest, happy, and well-adjusted of anyone in the film without being obnoxious about it, and it was great to see a female lead having a life and attitude everyone else admired. The motorcycle moment was cheesy as heck but I liked it anyway in a snap-snap "you go girl" sort of way.**
What else.... The music was forgettable but worked well enough in context. My favorite musical moment was Natasha's unabashed love of the Avril Lavigne-esque "Rock Chick" song on the radio, which pinpointed how unlike her fiancé she was. The one dance number was a let-down, with Hrithik ballet-pointing his sneakers and poor Abhay struggling to keep up. The film looked gorgeous and showed me parts of Spain I hadn't seen before, and the performances were were convincing, even from Katrina (IKR?). I went in expecting to like Abhay's performance most but I walked out having enjoyed Farhan more than anyone else, although he also had the most varied and, to my mind, sympathetic role despite the character's past mistakes. Abhay gave his character Kabir a sweet earnestness that minimized my urge to dope slap him for his bad life decision, but Kabir simply was not emphasized enough throughout to make much of an impact.
I don't want to leave the impression that I hated Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, but for me it was simply very pretty but with very little to hold on to or think about after the moment finished on the screen. The same is true of the teen soaps I referred to at the beginning of this post. I never miss an episode of Gossip Girl, but based on Honeymoon Travels and Luck by Chance, I had expected, maybe unfairly, something richer and more interesting than that. Shahrukh in the Don 2 trailer got more whistles than anything in ZNMD from the sold-out crowd in my cinema. Even if ZNMD isn't exactly a hoot and holler kind of film, that probably says something, doesn't it?
*Did anyone else find themselves thinking "Wow, Javed Akhtar wrote films in which children have to work in order to support their families because the system is corrupt and horrible, whereas his son and daughter have presented me with a film in which people waste tons of fresh produce in order to embrace their inner free spirits." I've got no issue with Tomatina—it's just an interesting sign of the filmified worlds some heroes live in in 2011.
** Though note she just breezed in and breezed back out, very nicely not complicating Hrithik's life or joining the boys' trip until she was invited by one of them to do so. Was this because she knew it wasn't quite the right time or because the film wanted more screen time for the bromance? Hmmm.