After ‘Socha Na Tha’ and ‘Jab We Met,’ Imtiaz Ali dreams up another winning romance – about love today versus love yesterday.
AUG 2, 2009 – AFTER ONE OF THE NUMBERS IN PRITAM’S UTTERLY INFECTIOUS soundtrack – this one named Twist – Jai (Saif Ali Khan) hooks up with a charming blonde, and subsequently, in order to share the good news, he dials Meera (Deepika Padukone). (She’s his ex; they’ve had the most gracious, good-humoured breakup in the history of the universe.) At the other end, Meera smiles, genuinely happy that Jai has moved on – but once he hangs up, she’s not so sure. She catches sight of herself in the mirror. She pulls in her waist. She appraises her posture. She parts her lips wide, as if to reassure herself that it’s indeed a dazzling smile, capable of drawing someone charming into her life too, perhaps her boss Vikram (Rahul Khanna) who’s taking her to dinner – and she changes into a dress that reveals more-than-necessary leg and cleavage for a casual evening out (even if it is something of a date.)
In a film more attuned to melodrama, you can imagine the scene ending with Meera dissolving into self-pitying sobs, but in Love Aaj Kal, the moment (like the movie) is remarkably low-key – and it highlights, with pinpoint precision, the free-floating sense of anxiety and unease that pervades relationships today. Initially, the title of Imtiaz Ali’s beautifully written third feature appears to point towards the two parallel romantic tracks that play out – the first (Love: Aaj), set in the present day, between Jai and Meera, and the second (Love: Kal), situated in a sepia-tinted yesterday, between Veer (Saif in the flashbacks, Rishi Kapoor in the present) and Harleen (a willowy newcomer who’s as lusciously exotic as the early Zeenat Aman.) And for a while, it does look like the director is simply out to have a little fun comparing and contrasting long-ago love with what it’s transmuted to in our modern age.
The older love was barely audible, content to be manifest in secret glances and silent smiles, while lovers, today, communicate incessantly, through phone, through SMS, through chat, through e-mail. Where, once, physical expressions of love were reserved for after marriage, it’s not uncommon, now, to try to cop a feel in public. But more importantly, where earlier generations went after love with their dil, their unabashed hearts worn on their unashamed sleeves, today’s love sprouts from the dimaag, the ever-calculating brain. Jai and Meera broke up because they intellectualised that it would be too difficult to pursue a long distance relationship, what with him in London and with her moving to India. Such a practical facet of love – sacrificing mutual chemistry at the altar of geography – would have been unthinkable earlier, where people believed that love surmounted not just distance but also destiny, across seven lifetimes.
Unlike Meera in the present, who dithers between Jai and Vikram, and unlike Jai who attempts, with laughable desperation, to convince himself that he has a future with his blonde, Harleen and Veer know they are meant for each other. They felt it with their hearts and that was all that was needed. Is such a love practical in today’s terms? Perhaps not! But it sure as hell would make things simpler – and part of Ali’s agenda is also to lay out, for us, the ways in which we, aaj kal, overcomplicate our relationships. And it is this aspect of the film that truly soars. The complementariness in the cross-cutting love stories is pleasantly diverting (if not particularly memorable), but what lifts Love Aaj Kal to a different plane altogether is its employment of a long-ago age, when a man simply laid eyes on a woman and went about securing her, in order to bounce off riffs on our age, when a man lays eyes on one woman, and then another, then yet another, unable to decide who, if indeed anyone, is right for him.
After the low-key delight that was Socha Na Tha, Jab We Met made me wonder if Imtiaz Ali had opted to go Bollywood with a vengeance, especially as the refreshingly unpredictable first half gave way to the increasingly banal latter portions, rife with convenient (though undeniably crowd-pleasing) coincidences. But here, he recaptures the grace as well as the grit of his first feature. He’s unafraid to show how love can make even good people become temporarily… not-so-good. (A scene where Meera winds up hurting Vikram is reminiscent of the one in Socha Na Tha where the hero ends up hurting the girl he thought he was in love with.) Ali is the rare director who puts his protagonists through embarrassingly imperfect (namely, all-too-human) paces that sometimes makes them feel like antagonists. When Jai visits Meera in India, her reaction, at first, is to have him meet (her boyfriend) Vikram, but she instinctively decides it’s not such a great idea.
She wants Jai to herself, even it means reneging on her unspoken compact with Vikram, and soon we see why. When Jai and Meera are on a local train, he makes fun of the distance between them and asks if he can put an arm around her. The minute he does, she leans back and closes her eyes, and her mock-protest of a second ago (“doosre log samjhenge nahin,” that others won’t understand) assumes a new meaning. Who else can really get what she feels when she’s with Jai? This comfort, this feeling of home that one shares with an ex is an aspect that’s never found its way onto our screens before. Every time we try out a new person in a new relationship, there’s so much work involved that it’s easier, sometimes, to just be with someone who’s already familiar, perhaps overly so, and especially now that there’s no relationship baggage.
All this heavy lifting is typically leavened with Ali’s now-trademarked brand of understated humour. He has great fun with the notion that we tiptoe on eggshells while in a relationship, but once we break free of the ties that bind, things become simpler (and, frankly, less serious). One of the film’s best scenes has Jai and Meera, post breakup, volleying back and forth about the things they did not like about each other while they were still a couple. (“Jab saath mein the tab itna mazaa nahin aata tha,” Meera delights later, that their togetherness was never this much fun.) In a relatively short span, Ali has become our foremost chronicler of the warts-and-all modern-day romance – and possibly the only thing that keeps Love Aaj Kal from true greatness is the lead pair. (I kept imagining Ranvir Shorey and Konkona Sen Sharma as Jai and Meera, but then the lines at the ticket counters wouldn’t snake around the block, would they?)
Deepika appears too callow for the part, and Saif too callused. (Plus, he’s really the last actor you’d cast as a Sardar.) She isn’t quite equipped (at least, as yet) to pull off the heavier scenes, while the edges of his solipsistic character are softened by light moments that try far too much to make us like him. (Though with Ali’s memorable non-sequiturs, it’s hard not to laugh when, for instance, a tipsy Jai enters a building and casually enquires of the doorman, “Aur bhai, kya haal chaal?”) Perhaps Saif is in a stage of his life now where it’s easier to channel the weightier stuff. It’s impossible not to imagine how much of himself he’s putting out there in the superb scene where, when confronted with a life-altering decision that Meera makes, his emotions vacillate like quicksilver. Like they say you can’t play Lear till you are truly old and enfeebled, maybe you can’t enact a man frustrated by the fickleness of love till you’ve stomped around in his shoes.
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