Readers Write In #145: ‘Love Aaj Kal’ and why we need to respect our auteurs

Posted on February 17, 2020


(by N Madhusudhan)

I haven’t seen Love AajKal (2020) yet. The vicious attack against the film, which is supposedly Imtiaz Ali’s worst, has slightly dented my interest levels. This has happened before. I still haven’t watched Jab Harry Met Sejal. I took my time to watch Tamasha, which is now receiving so much love, because of the similar negative response to the film when it released (albeit less intense than this one). I had a mixed reaction when I watched it first. There were bits I loved. There were also bits that weren’t easily likeable. But I knew there was more to it than what had immediately registered. I didn’t rant against the film.I chose to take my time and make sense of my reaction. It kept growing on me over the next few weeks.A month later, I was arguing with my friend that Tamasha was one of the most audacious dramas to come out of Bollywood. She strongly disagreed. She felt Ali is making the same film over and over – the most popular criticism against him on the internet right now. You know, the European locations, following one’s heart, love stories involving men / women already engaged / in a relationship / married, etc. Few people are willing to look beyond these tropes and realize that with each film, he takes you on a crazy ride to unnamed areas of experience.

Over the years, Ali haschosen to deal with more messed up characters and ever-increasing level of conflicts. He’s only taken more risks and has sometimes gone batshit crazy in breaking the stereotypes. Tamasha was a product of this wild imagination and conviction that only Ali could be associated with.

5 years after Tamasha, I was quite excited that Ali was making Love Aaj Kal again. Kinda like a reboot, not a remake. More than anything, a new Ali film promises newer levels of madness Ali is known to dive into. With so much expectations, it was sad to read so many negative reports against the film. Twitter had a ball roasting the film.The most common criticism seems to be against the performances, Ali’s treatment, unconvincing portrayals of the film’s central conflicts and an apparent disregard to the twitter-imposed guidelines on politically correct representation. One of the articles went on to state that Ali is losing his way and his body of work is going through a mid-life crisis, whatever that means.

Ali’s films heavily rely on the performances to translate his vision convincingly. Of all the actors who have starred in his films, I’ve foundonly Ranbir Kapoor, RandeepHooda and Deepika Padukone pulling off the characters successfully. It just feels right, and they seem to belong in Ali’s universe. Imagine Karthik Aaryan playing Ved and you’ll know what I mean.

When I watched the trailer of Love Aaj Kal, the performances instantly rang false. It made me wonder why Ali cast these relatively new actors who have clearly not grown enough to deliver the layered performances that Ali demands.You never know.  We think that a filmmaker of his caliber wouldn’t settle for such bad performances. But then, it’s hard to judge what they look for in a performance. I had a similar experience watching Karthi’s performance in KaatruVeliyidai. It works for the most part of the film but hits a few false notes at some crucial places – some close-up shots, expanded eyes and all. It throws you out of the film and creates an instant disconnect. It makes a huge difference in these films because they revolve completely around their characters. And none of theseare easy characters to play.

I think it is because very few actors understand the world these filmmakers try to build. I don’t think any actor plays a Selvaraghavan protagonist better than Dhanush. I don’t think there’s any actor right now who knows how to play a Mysskin protagonist, other than Mysskin himself. I sometimes wonder whether the filmmakers themselves understand this or they merely settle for bad performances because they don’t have any choice. It baffles me everytime.

Neither of these filmmakers operate in a space that involves ticking off pretentious political correctness while writing. I think their films come from a far more honest place. You either love them or hate them. There’s no in-between. But this expectation that there shouldn’t be stalking, heroines shouldn’t seek the hero’s validation etc. just seems plain silly. The question really is “Why”. Is it because Ali thinks that his characters behave that way in a certain milieu? Would these characters really care about being woke? They wear their heart on their sleeves and matters of the heart have never been black and white. When the characters and the film’s world are so vastly different from yours and mine, does it even make sense to apply the rules of the real world to a film that builds its own?

Yes, they repeat their favorite tropes. But it’s true what Ali said in his interview with Film Companion – the envelope may be the same each time, but the letter is different.I fail to understand why people would think that Rockstar, Tamasha and Highway are the same films. Apart from the abovementioned tropes, each film is both stylistically and thematically poles apart from the other.

Rockstar wasn’t just about that shattering heartbreak that makes its protagonist the person he is.It emphasized that love defies societal norms of living and the conventions of rights and wrongs. Tamasha was about a man facing his real self and finally embracing the inner child.It was a journey powered by love.Highway was about a girl finding home outside home. It was the last thing from a love story. You could say that in essence, they’re all about people trying to break free from oppression imposed by themselves and the society. But that’s just the destination. The journey is what makes these films different. That’s the crazy fucking ride.

I feel it is important to understand these factors when you follow their work. Because we watch their films to experience this uniqueness. Not because they make successful or politically correct films. Because we also know that there are only a handful of such filmmakers in mainstream cinema right now. And theirs are films that really stay with us. When they set out to make films with such lofty ambitions, they’re bound to fall a few times.

Is it fair to say that they’ve lost their way? Are we wise enough to say they should stop making films? Shouldn’t we be more patient before conveniently writing them off? Don’t they deserve more respect, for what they’ve meant to us all these years?

Am I saying we shouldn’t criticize their films? Not at all. But don’t get personal. Is it possible to express your displeasure against a film you didn’t like without passing personal comments? Yes, if you care to try.