“Jab Harry Met Sejal”… Girl searches for ring, audience searches for Imtiaz Ali

Posted on August 4, 2017

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Spoilers ahead…

Some fifteen minutes into Jab Harry Met Sejal, when I began to fidget in my seat, I wondered if my expectations were the problem. There’s first that title, suggesting two beloved romances, Jab We Met and When Harry Met Sally. But more importantly, the film unites Hindi cinema’s preeminent maker of love stories with the biggest romantic superstar since Rajesh Khanna. Recent reports suggested that the one-liner was about a man trying to commit suicide, and that the script was rewritten (at the star’s behest) to make it more of an “entertainer.” Maybe the film was taking its time to find its footing in a zone between Imtiaz Ali-ness and Shah Rukh Khan-ness.

But that never happens. The story begins with Harry (Shah Rukh), a European tour guide whose ennui is understandable. He keeps showing people new sights, but for him, it’s the same old thing, over and over – he’s like the windmill we see at the beginning, moving without getting anywhere. He drops his chummy tone the instant he sees his clients off. In short, he’s the classic Imtiaz Ali moper, waiting to be shaken up by the heroine. Enter Sejal (Anushka Sharma, whose Gujarati accent makes Harry sound like Hairy). She’s lost her engagement ring, and she wants Hairy to help her find it. In short, she’s the classic Imtiaz Ali heroine, put on this planet solely to mend this broken tour guide (at one point, she literally tends to his wounds), help this rootless man go “home” again.

It’s a daft premise, but, frankly, I’ve bought dafter ones. One of my favourite romances, Serendipity, has a plot a two-year-old would roll its eyes at (it’s also about a needle-in-the-haystack search, for a phone number inscribed in a book) – but when a film makes you feel, you stop processing it with your head and let yourself be guided by the heart. Imtiaz Ali himself does this so well. Those of us who are fans seek out his films not for logical plot construction, but for emotional moments that leave us gutted. Underneath the pretty faces, the prettier locales, there’s a time bomb ticking away. The suspense is like that in a thriller: When will it explode?

In Jab Harry Met Sejal, Ali forgets to light the fuse. On the surface, he checks all the elements that have come to define his films. The grey area between cheating and succumbing to an impulse. The road-movie romance, a journey that’s as much physical as psychological. The meant-to-be lovers who don’t realise they’re meant to be. (At one point, Sejal declares, “Main woh wali aurat nahin jo apni fiancé ko chhod kar kisi tour guide ke saath bhag jaye,” that she isn’t the kind of woman who’d ditch her fiancé and run off with a tour guide. Hah. Doesn’t she know she’s in an Imtiaz Ali movie?)

But then, what kind of woman is she? The most interesting – and underexplored – aspect of Sejal is that she may be something of a repressed sexual being. Of course, this being an Imtiaz Ali movie, we have no idea what her fiancé is like. (At least, he gets a few lines of dialogue, which is a better fate than that of the fiancé in Tamasha, who was introduced and dumped in ten seconds of Heer toh badi sad hai.) Sejal is stung when Harry says he cannot regard her that way, and their relationship, over time, begins to include hugs, massages, cuddling in bed. When she begins to sing in the Radha number, Harry asks if she can make her voice sexier – and she does. For a change, in an Imtiaz Ali movie, we seem to have a woman in need of an awakening. I wished we’d got that movie.

Instead, Sejal is just an annoyingly flighty creature. She takes a selfie with a stranger. She uses her law degree to tackle an embarrassing situation. She puts herself at risk by wandering around at night. You could argue that Geet, from Jab We Met, was a bit of all this as well, but we got the sense, there, that this was a little girl trying to act all grown-up, until her naiveté was exposed and she was forced to grow up. Sejal is like a grown-up who acts like a little girl, and it’s to Anushka Sharma’s credit that we stick with her even to the extent that we do.

Harry is a more mature version of the Shahid Kapoor character from Jab We Met, but the reason for his lifelessness (a yearning for home) isn’t as convincingly established as the latter’s (a mother’s remarriage). We get snatches of a dream (stripped of bright colour), and no sense of the people he left behind, who they are, what they meant to him. His friend sees his transformation (after Sejal breezes in) and is amazed, but we don’t see it. Shah Rukh is fine in a generic sense (though it’s hard to buy him as a serial seducer of European beauties; he seems too sanskari) – but he’s defeated by the generic character. Maybe Harry should have remained suicidal.

The film is generic as well. Maybe after three “heavy” dramas – Rockstar, Highway, Tamasha – Imtiaz Ali just wanted to kick back and take a foreign vacation. But even such an outing can be written well, and the biggest surprise of Jab Harry Met Sejal is the utter lack of Imtiaz Ali “moments.” The songs seem misplaced. (The second half begins with Beech beech mein!) The set pieces – a slapstick chase that turns dangerous, a run-in with a bizarre criminal named “Gas” – are terribly indulgent; they go on and on, like the scene where people speak English and the subtitles are the Hindi translations written in the Roman alphabet. As a result, the swoony moments are shortchanged, and Jab Harry Met Sejal ends up a cautionary tale about idiosyncratic filmmakers with a distinct voice working with a big star. Imtiaz Ali gets his biggest star yet, and he’s made his most underwhelming movie.

Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi