YOU’VE GOT STALE
Extremely winning leads do their best to add freshness to a film that feels a decade old (and about as long).
JUL 4, 2010 – IMRAN KHAN HAS, IN HIS REPERTOIRE, about one-and-a-half emotions, and I mean this as a compliment. Too often, good acting gets mistaken solely for the ability to do anything (and everything) – and that’s impossible to ask of every actor. Some roles might not fit an actor’s physical persona, or some might hover beyond reach in terms of age or experience. In a broad sense, therefore, some of the best performers play the same part over and over, astutely redistilling their essence into characters of different shapes and sizes. As Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na and the superb Coke commercial with Kalki Koechlin proved, Imran’s essence is this: he’s the guy who won’t break a sweat in order to communicate an emotion. He’s the anti-Shah Rukh Khan. He cannot pull off portions where he has to break a sweat, which is why his laboured attempts at antiheroic swagger were so laughable in Kidnap and Luck.
He has an over-the-phone-line scene in Punit Malhotra’s I Hate Luv Storys where, as Jay, he stifles a sob in the memory of a lost love. He’s so unconvincing in this attempt at overt emoting, I burst out laughing, which is surely not the intended response. But elsewhere, when asked to deploy his standard-issue arsenal – a half-cocked eyebrow, a crinkle of the forehead, a rueful twist of the lower lip – he comes up trumps. Within the gamut of those one-and-a-half emotions, he’s terrific to watch. It’s the same with Sonam Kapoor, who plays Simran. The jury is still out with respect to her range of talents, but she has a summery presence that intensifies the wattage of every frame she’s in. Part of the pleasure of romantic comedies is the sight of charming people (and it doesn’t hurt if they’re good-looking as well) negotiating the tricky terrains of true love, and Imran and Sonam, in the early portions, make their scenes sing.
The film, unfortunately, quickly runs out of tune. Like any self-respecting rom-com, IHLS loses little time in establishing the oppositeness of its leads. Jay smirks at the very mention of love. “Tumhara naam Simran hai?” he gapes, when he first runs into her. “Seriously?” Imagine his mirth, then, when he discovers that her fiancé (Samir Dattani) is named Raj, and has a penchant for deeply hued formal wear, always creased and tucked in. (That, needless to say, is rom-com shorthand that Raj is a stuffed shirt; Jay, of course, leaves his often-crumpled shirts unbuttoned, so that we don’t fail to realise he’s a fountain of irrepressible fun). For a while, the director gets a good rhythm going by employing zingy he-said, she-said voiceovers, which let us glimpse these romantic entanglements from the alternative viewpoints of Jay and Simran.
It’s the mouldy mould from Dil Chahta Hai, where a playboy too cool for anything as commonplace as commitment is chastised by the very overblown emotions he sneers at. There, it was the opera. Here, Jay’s arc takes the shape of a similarly operatic Bollywood production, on whose sets he is employed. This film-within-the-film, Pyar Pyar Pyar, is concocted from every drippy romantic cliché known to the combined houses of Yash Raj and Karan Johar, and that’s the undoing of IHLS, which attempts to fashion something fresh from these clichés. What promised to be a hip outing congeals into something terribly tedious – something that could well have been named Nafrat Hai Mujhe Duniya Ki Mohabbaton Se. (Why title a film in slangy SMS-ese when only its surface is young, and when the rest of it is crammed with endless references to melodramatic movies that have already been endlessly referenced?)
Several plot threads are dangled tantalisingly before us only to be yanked away before they can begin to mean something. Why highlight, repeatedly, the fact that Simran is the product of a Gujarati-Punjabi union? Why bring up Jay’s atheism as just “cool” conversation filler? If the shadow of his parents’ divorce looms over his present day, as the reason for his inability to commit, why not shine a brighter light on it? At least Preity Zinta, in Dil Chahta Hai, clung to the patently unsuitable Ayub Khan because she felt beholden to his family – but other than being friends since childhood, what keeps Simran and Raj glued at the hip to the extent that they wear clothes in matching colours? When a film envelops us with its momentum, we willingly sweep a thousand nits under the carpet, but when it has feet of lead (the second half, especially, crawls painfully towards the expected end), the molehills morph into mountains.
The director has little investment in the idea of love apart from the clichés he’s simultaneously mocking and ministering – like his hero, he appears to get his cues solely through the movies. You get the sense that a filmmaker like Imtiaz Ali has drawn from the well of life, which is why he’s able to write an encounter as self-flagellating as the one in Love Aaj Kal. Saif Ali Khan thinks he’s simply alleviating Deepika Padukone’s anxieties on her wedding day (after all, he is too cool for anything as commonplace as commitment), but slowly, to his horror, he realises his feelings for her, and he ends up increasingly frustrated that he’s not as cool as he thought he was. Jay’s realisation is nowhere as wrenching, and without being forged in these fires, his love comes off as a mere screenplay contrivance. We don’t ask for much from rom-coms, but how can we be expected to root for a romance that exists only on paper?
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