The axis of planet Bollywood tilts sharply towards the constellation of romance. Impassioned cries for more variety will be made, plucky indie upstarts may be lauded, but we are, all of us, just waiting with itchy fingers for the next iteration of hopelessly pretty actors getting together in the final reel after four songs and an angst-infested montage, with a healthy dollop of pining.
The strike of recent months turned the otherwise torrent of films into a sputtering trickle, and even those films that did come out were hardly the kind of indulgent romances we have come to expect as the dal-chawal of cinema entertainment. Indeed, the last glossy romance I can think of came out nearly a year ago.
So, strike over, we can finally return to form, and here to save us is Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal, a film that will, no doubt, make more money than god over the next few weeks.
Too bad it’s a terrible movie, then.
I think I went over the Boy-meets-girl-climax-at-airport routine of Bollywood romances in my review of Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, so I won’t repeat myself here. Love Aaj Kal does feature every convention and cliche that has come to be a staple of this genre, but to his credit, Imtiaz Ali has at least tried to give it a novel twist or three.
So we have Saif Ali Khan as Jai, the standard Punjabi playboy hero type that populates most of these things, and Deepika Padukone as Meera, the fun-loving object of his affections who is equal parts girl-next-door and sizzling hottie (with good dash of an exotic & pretty job — in this case fresco restorer — thrown in). They meet, they flirt, they grin and poke each other in the shoulder–
–and this naturally leads to kissing and dating and passing out in each others’ arms as the months tick by. Meera graduates and is all set to move to India to restore old ruins to gaudy glory, so instead of having a long distance relationship fraught with disappointment and pining, the couple decide to split amicably, and even throw a gala break-up party. The good thing is, all of this happens in the first fifteen minutes of the movie. The bad thing is there’s another two hours left.
On the face of it, there’s a nice circumvention of the standard plot-line going on, but what follows is that the characters go through a lot of disappointment and pining anyway, so any promise Love Aaj Kal shows at the beginning quickly fizzles out. There’s an intriguing montage of shots, for instance, that shows a lot of time passing for the characters, but then it immediately resets, and the rest of the movie is about how those bits in the montage come to happen. Instead of creating excitement, it deflates any tension. I for one would have liked to see a movie that was bold enough to take place after that montage.
Alas, what we do get is two very generic stories of love. Jai and Meera’s continuing tale of separation and trying to move on (or rather, not), and that of Veer Singh (Rishi Kapoor), a cafe owner who is baffled by Jai’s easy goodbye to a woman he seems to care deeply for. So throughout the rest of the film the elder gent narrates his tale of love, 1965 style, which features all of the pining, but thankfully none of the shoulder-poking, as young Veer (also, in a nice move, played by Saif Ali Khan) stalks and silently woos the comely Harleen Kaur in Delhi & Calcutta.
But while I would have expected young Harleen to be played by Deepika Padukone, we are instead forced to endure the awkward charms of Giselle Monteiro, a Brazillian actress who apparently doesn’t speak a word of Hindi. It’s a situation that isn’t made any better by her only having two lines, in case you were wondering.
Not that — were she more vocal about things — Harleen would have any chance to get a word in edgewise. Every character seems to be a vessel into which Jai (or Veer) can spew interminable, rambling monologues. Whether it’s girlfriends, psychiatrists or even a tree, they seems to exist solely to nod and smile as either iteration of Khan assaults them with the unfiltered mass of his thoughts.
Maybe Imtiaz Ali was trying to break his mould. He’s given us two films with interesting, unique female characters, and maybe now he wanted to play with the boys for once. But in doing so, the women in this film have been reduced to silent dolls. Sure, Meera has the odd line of smart dialogue, but it’s all just banter, not character. Beyond the frescoes and the pretty smile, I have no idea what kind of person she is, and why I should even give a damn about her love life. And for all the rambling, neither Jai nor Veer come off as anything but cliched Punjabi mundas with ill-defined goals (Jai wants to work for the Golden Gate Bridge — yes, the one in San Francisco — but I have no idea what he actually does there) and not much between their ears. Neither is particularly likable, or interesting, or smart, so the added attention is a waste.
It’s a device that could have, and should have, worked, had it been written better. And that makes Love Aaj Kal even harder to watch. It could have been great. It has all the right ideas, but none of the execution. This film is two drafts away from being a gem. But any amount of script doctoring isn’t going to save a film that — to put it bluntly — looks like it’s put together from the first set of rehearsals. For all of Saif Ali Khan considerable talents, this is a tired, flat performance from him. If you saw his work in the 1990s, and then this, you might be forgiven for thinking that you imagined the last nine years when he’d matured into a fine, exciting actor. Deepika Padukone may need the same period of ten years before she, like Khan, suddenly turns the acting corner and starts to rock, but I don’t think I can wait around in that hope. So she’s pretty, but that’s really not good enough. And Rishi Kapoor is pitifully underutilised, but we let that pass because the man is charming even when he’s standing bored off to one side of the frame.
It also suffers from what I like to call Kismat Konnection Syndrome. This means that much is made of the characters living in a foreign land (in this case, London) but nearly everyone they meet there is inexplicably Indian. Having lived in a foreign land for most of my life, trust me when I say that this is about as believable as the notion that every world crisis can by solved by the judicious application of a square-jawed white American with a mean right hook.
But realism? Pah. That isn’t what we go to Bollywood films for. And that’s okay, I love a wanton disregard for realism in my films. But I do like — oh what’s that fancy word? — verisimilitude. The notion that everything within the movie follows its internal logic. Ali’s previous films had those in spades, even the generally screwball Jab We Met.
Love Aaj Kal, on the other hand, exists in that film-thin Bollywood universe where every city is just fancy background scenery, everyone is always dressed as if they’re going clubbing, and all lunch breaks are four hours long. A world where songs do show up at the drop of a hat, and then aren’t done with any sense of fun or rhythm. Socha Na tha did songs right, even daring to end on one that seamlessly — and perfectly — tied up its story in a bow. Jab We Met strained a little, but even then there was some elegance and poetry to its musical interludes.
There’s none of that in Love Aaj Kal. It’s a complete u-turn from one of the things that made an Imtiaz Ali movie worth looking forward to; the mechanics — the magic trick — of making a filmi story fit into something that resembled the real world. Heck, even Ahista Ahista (which he wrote) had that.
There are, indeed, smart things happening in this film. There’s the nice idea that the modern couple, constantly in touch through phones & the internet, have much less actual, heart-to-heart communication going on than the ones in 1965 who don’t directly say a word to each other for months. There’s the way the couple are much more candid and free with each other when they aren’t dating than they ever were, and the open acknowledgment of that fact.
But then there are the baffling, ever-more-convoluted constructs of Hindi & English that try to pass off as hip dialogue. There’s the dawning fear that not only did the filmmakers put in shoulder-poking as foreplay, they actually did so without irony. We are expected to think that this is a mature, adult relationship these two are having. If that’s the case, I’m running back to primary school.
As the songs pile up, the blonde gori girlfriends get shafted and take it silently (really, has a white character ever been treated with any dignity in a Bollywood film?), and Rahul Khanna does that Rahul Khanna thing he does, the film decides — Hey wait! — that it’s still got something to say about the expat work situation. So, we get to sit through a song montage in which Jai finally gets a real job, and it ruins his life. Or maybe it was all that late night X-Box — it wasn’t very clear. Then somebody bites his hand for a picture.
Oddly enough, it is precisely for this train-wreck of a sequence, tacked on for no reason other than to have one more Jai monologue where a woman nods while smiling vacuously, that you should go watch this film. Don’t miss the shot where he stands in front of the Golden Gate bridge in a shiny Italian suit and sings about his triumphant employment. It’s a crane shot. Oh yes.
Imtiaz Ali was, until this film, one of my favourite filmmakers in Bollywood. He was the man who showed us that wit, character and zest could still exist within the straitjacket that is the Hindi romantic film. But as budgets have increased and he has seemingly more toys and talent to play with, his films are getting worse. I know I’m in the minority on this one. I know that there is every likelihood that you will go to see this and you will love this film, but I just can’t. Not from the man who made Socha Na Tha.
“La la la la la la la la times are here!” the subtitles say during one song, and if that sort of thing makes sense to you, then perhaps you will derive more entertainment from Love Aaj Kal than I did.