Science-Fiction

Dobaaraa (2022): Three Timelines and One Electrical Storm

Dobaaraa, a Hindi-language film released earlier this year, stands in intriguing contrast to mainstream Indian cinema’s habits, not just in how this compelling remake handles it source material but also just more generally as a contemporary project. It is one of only a handful of Indian adaptations of Spanish films and is an official and very thorough take on Oriol Paulo’s Durante la Tormenta (2018).* But that’s not the only, or most interesting, thing about Dobaaraa. While its story is significantly a mystery, it also falls within speculative fiction, a context that Hindi cinema does not often pursue, generally preferring to pin inexplicable occurrences on the divine or just auspicious, convenient coincidences rather than on deviations from the laws of physics. 

Perhaps most unusually of all, there is a woman at the center of the story and of its telling. Lead character Antara is played wonderfully by Taapsee Pannu, a very competent performer who is well established but is not yet the level of superstar that most producers would want to gamble their investment on in the leading-man-driven Hindi film industry. With the exception of an extended cameo by veteran Tamil actor Nassar, Pannu is the biggest name in the cast, and most of the story posits events and emotional reality from her perspective. 

Dobaaraa presents three timelines, connected and then disrupted by a massive electrical storm. In the 1990s, 12-year-old Anay (Aarrian Sawant) is making a video for his father who works abroad. In the middle of filming, Anay witnesses his neighbor Raja (Saswata Chatterjee) attacking his wife Rujuta, but when he goes to investigate, he is immediately killed in a road accident. Flashing forward 26 years to the present, Antara (Pannu) and her husband and daughter have just moved into Anay’s old house, and they find his camera and TV. Their new neighbors, who have lived there for decades and explain what befell Anay. That night, with a storm again raging, Antara and Anay find each other on their mutual TV screen, talking to each other across time. She manages to communicate enough to him to save his life, but it’s at a cost: the next morning, her life as she knew it has vanished.

In this third timeline, where the film spends most of its runtime, she is no longer a nurse but a surgeon; she is not married to her husband but instead he was briefly her patient; she struggles not with her husband being at work suspiciously long hours but with depression and alcohol dependency after failing to save a child in surgery. As she tries to find her daughter, whom she slowly realizes has never existed, she interacts with the police and eventually tells them about Anay and what she knows of Raja’s crimes from reading about him in her previous life. In this world, Raja was never apprehended, so she and an accommodating detective (Pavail Gulati) look for an explanation about where Rujata and Anay have gone. 

The resolution of all of these threads is very satisfying, and I was hooked by all the little twists and turns along the way. Apart from the asynchronous communication via TV equipment and the jumps between current-day realities, everything and everyone feels very real. The setting looks more like the American suburbs (despite the Spanish source material) than I’ve ever seen in an Indian film, with detached houses on a tidy residential street, which adds to the “ho-hum, nothing to see here, don’t look closely” atmosphere that the mysterious residents probably want to project. Antara and her husband—and Anay and his mother in the flashback—have ordinary problems and ordinary responses to them. Moments of joy are small but tender. Grief and secret-keeping are weird and wearying. 

Building on the thoughtful, saturated script by Nihit Bhave, Pannu gives Antara an impressive resoluteness, keeping her strong despite the strangeness and drama around her. She is the eye in the center of this storm, almost as unblinking as the red light on Anay’s old video camera. While her search for her daughter in the alternate timeline is her dominant motivation, she’s also smart and strategic enough to respond rationally to the hurdles in front of her. A less careful adaptation would have given into mainstream Hindi film versions of traditional womanhood and used Antara’s disappearing status as a mother as an excuse to unhinge her mental state or subsume her existence. In both the original and the Hindi version, the lead character’s parental love extends to the boy she is connected to—which, after all, is what imperils her, because if she had been able to walk away from the startled little face on the TV screen during the storm, none of this would have happened. The other mother figures in the story (Anay’s mother, their neighbor Sheela who is the guardian of Anay’s best friend) do not get a lot of lines or screen time, but they are significant to the story and emerge as distinct, complex characters, even moreso in the Hindi version than the Spanish. 

[mild spoilers, in discussion of how Dobaaraa compares to Durante la Tormenta, but no plot resolution will be revealed]


If you’ve seen the Spanish original, most of the Hindi version will be familiar, but there are a few small differences in plot, characters, and tone. Despite its Stranger Things-y background score and the dissolution of Antara’s marriage being more of a plot point than in the Spanish version, I find the Hindi version to be a little more delicate. It’s less emotional and melodramatic, I think owing significantly to Pannu’s controlled performance. The threats to the central character’s world are the same, but Antara approaches them more calmly, and that really works. I do love a mystery, and once I realized Dobaaraa was going to feel more investigative than timey-wimey (at least to me), I was eager for its intellectual buzz. What stands out most, though, is the expansion of Raja’s role than his Spanish counterpart—however, I could probably be convinced I’m imagining this, because I’m such a fan of Saswata Chatterjee that maybe his presence just impacted me more? Like most Indian audiences, I’m delighted to see him as a creepy murderer again after his similarly plum little role in Kahaani a decade ago; the fact that he’s not clearly visible in the trailer makes me wonder if the filmmakers wanted to hold this impact in reserve for the in-cinema experience. To my knowledge, Chatterjee’s steady work in Bengali cinema has not made him a quotable sensation in the same way that film did, but everything I’ve seen him do in both Bengali and Hindi has been excellent, and he is a welcome addition to any cast.

[/end spoilers]

Shapes and lines kept coming to mind as I watched. Circles pepper the sets and props (the camera’s lens, clock and watch faces, planets in Anay’s model of the solar system, Antara’s jewelry), reminding me how grief can suck people into a repetitive orbit. Antara’s alternate timeline is a vector propelling her further from the life she had, but she tries to bend events back to the rupturing point in the storm. Around all this geometry, the natural forces in the storm rumble ominously, while human nature towards curiosity and self-protection are just as unsettling. 

As of this writing, Dobaaraa  (trailer) and Durante la Tormenta are both available on Netflix in the US with English subtitles. Watch them in either order, but definitely watch them: for the cohesiveness of story, for the atmosphere, for the trails of clues, and for Pannu’s impressive performance.

* For more on Indian remakes of foreign films, consult How the World Remade Hollywood: Global Interpretations of 65 Iconic Films by friend of the Gutter Ed Glaser. Two more of Paulo’s films have been adapted in Hindi: El Cuerpo became The Body and Contratiempo became Badlaa, both in 2019 (and had previously been unofficially remade in other Indian industries, so whether the Hindi versions were more inspired by their compatriots or the Spanish originals, I could not guess).

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You can see the Gutter’s own Beth Watkins on your television on the podcast, Filmi Ladies. It’s probably not related to time travel.

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