“Jab Tak Hai Jaan”… The Endlessness of the Affair

Posted on November 17, 2012

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At first, we think it’s empty hero-giri. Samar (Shah Rukh Khan), a classic loner, is not with the others of his bomb-defusing team, one of whom struggles to make sense of the tangle of wires in an explosive device at a Leh marketplace. Samar rides in on his motorbike alone, a little later, and when he gets to work, an onlooker remarks that he will not wear a bomb suit. After all, he hasn’t worn one while defusing close to 100 bombs thus far – a record, which fetches him the title The Man who Cannot Die. More remarks follow that build Samar up, in our eyes, as some sort of outrageous superhero. The onlooker says, “Iski aankhon mein aaj tak maut ka dar nahin dekha,” that he’s never seen in Samar’s eyes the fear of death, and he adds that Samar walks up to explosive devices as if walking into a girlfriend’s arms. It all seems to be little but empty hero-giri, the kind of image-stoking, ego-massaging scenario that every big star writes into his contract.

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But slowly we see that Samar is no reckless hero, that he has a death wish, that he’s really The Man who Wants to Die. For love, naturally. Yash Chopra’s Jab Tak Hai Jaan (co-written by Aditya Chopra) is something of a companion piece to Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (which the younger Chopra directed). Here too, we’re treated to two flavours of Shah Rukh Khan – one silent and withdrawn, one the exuberant embodiment of life itself. Here too, we have Anushka Sharma, playing a Discovery Channel filmmaker named Akira, torn between these two personas – except that, this time, she falls for the introvert. And here too, the big guy up in the sky plays a pivotal part. This time, though, it’s a different god, one who hangs on a crucifix and whom Samar refers to as Sir Jesus. In other words, we’re watching Christ Ne Bana Di Jodi, which could be the title of the translation of Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair.

That’s where this film’s plot comes from – at least, a portion of it. But the changes weaken this adaptation. Instead of saving the crucial revelation for the end, which is how we realise how much love there was, we’re clued in to the fact as it happens. And while the heroine of the novel was a married woman, and therefore had more to lose, Meera (Katrina Kaif) is merely engaged to an Englishman named Roger, whom she calls “a really nice guy.” (Translation: he doesn’t stand a chance.) But most puzzlingly, we’re never clued in to why this Punjabi girl worships at the altar of Jesus. We are all free to choose our own deliverers, of course, but wouldn’t it have helped to show how this bond was forged in the first place? (The novel’s Catholic guilt, on the other hand, is instantly understandable.) All we see is Meera transacting with Sir Jesus: “Give me this, and I’ll give up that.” It sounds like child’s play, not a deep-rooted belief system. And how does Samar – someone who does odd jobs in London before becoming a waiter at a restaurant – join the army and turn into a bomb expert?

It is perhaps a testament to Yash Chopra that he shepherds us past this material without making it look entirely ludicrous. Jab Tak Hai Jaan is a sturdy instruction manual on how to handle melodrama in the classiest possible fashion. None of Chopra’s earlier romances show this hushed restraint, this refusal to punch up the proceedings with thunder and lightning – the film could be unfolding in a cathedral. The matter-of-fact manner in which Samar expresses his love for Meera is mirrored in the matter-of-fact manner in which Akira tells Samar she’s fallen for him. They could be talking about the weather. There’s a steady rhythm to the narrative, without abrupt shifts in tone like the antakshari sequence in Lamhe. Even the heroine’s mandatory taandav is incorporated into a night out at an underground club, and it segues neatly into a song. Younger audiences may snigger at a story about divine retribution and a diary that conveniently reveals the protagonist’s past, but now that Yash Chopra has retired to that great chiffon swath in the heavens, it’s easier to accept these contrivances as the final flourish of a signature style.

At times, Jab Tak Hai Jaan is a reminder of the best of Yash Chopra. This is certainly true of the episode involving Rishi and Neetu Kapoor, who worked with Chopra in Kabhi Kabhie, among other films. They’re just wonderful together, and they make you wish this film had told their story. Rishi Kapoor got a lot of praise, this year, for his turn in Agneepath, where he huffed and puffed and pretty much blew the house down, but this interlude here is where we see what a fine, unfussy actor he can be, especially in the moment where he regards Meera with a glass of wine in his hand. He looks like the most content person on earth. As for the heavens, they send down flakes of snow when Samar first sees Meera. That’s Yash Chopra’s cinema for you. In the Greene novel, the heavens dropped a bomb on the couple during a wartime blitz.

That sense of cataclysm is strangely missing here. It’s all very well to be subtle and subdued, but when God worms his way into a love affair between a poor boy and a rich girl, we expect upheavals of Biblical proportions. After a while, the low-key nature of the happenings begin to lull us into a stupor. Somewhere in the second half, something horrible happens to Samar and, suddenly, a new movie (or a Part 2) seems to unfold. Just when we expected the events thus far to cohere and concentrate, the narrative becomes diffuse and the film slows to a crawl. (During the final stretches, you may fear that the film’s title is an indication that it will go on till the life ebbs out of you.) And the end is hugely unsatisfying, a cheat. It does not warrant the sufferings that came before, as it seems to hinge on a simple change of heart. After investing three-plus hours in a love story, we’re left with an abject anticlimax.

Part of the problem is that the leads never really catch fire. Anushka Sharma makes history as the first Yash Raj heroine to refer to a bodily orifice that gets little sunlight, but she has played this part many times before (she’s the tomboy counterpoint to Kaif’s feminine ideal), and in this early stage of her career she comes dangerously close to giving a greatest-hits performance. Still, her portions with Samar are among the film’s best. There’s life in them. Shah Rukh, bearded and guarded, is excellent here, but in his track with Katrina, he gives his own greatest-hits performance, and he looks too old, too tired to be doing what he did with Kajol in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. And what can we say of Kaif? She’s staggeringly ineffective, and she gets countless close-ups to offer us repeated proof of the fact. How can such a heavy role be entrusted to someone so lifeless in front of the camera? She’s like a little girl with an Easy-Bake Oven trying to manufacture loaves for multitudes gathered on a mountaintop. That’s a miracle beyond even Sir Jesus.

Copyright ©2012 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.