If you’re sick to death of the steadily more misogynistic, if not just plain misanthropic, fare out there masquerading as romcoms, you might want to head on over to a screening of Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal. The love story of a bridge engineer who can’t get in touch with what he wants and an art-restorer who can’t figure out how to put her emotional life back in its proper place, it’s for people who don’t appreciate being sneered at while being relieved of their money.
First off, for those of you prepped to watch Jab We Met Part II: it’s nothing of the kind. Or let’s put it this way – LAK is to JWM what JWM was to Socha Na Tha. It’s got the two people who’re clearly perfect for each other, who understand each other to the point where you’re glad that they do because it’s unlikely anybody else (least of all yourself) would even know where to start, and they screw things up in all the ways they possibly could. But their journey is very much their own.
Which leads me to the second thing you should be aware of: this is not an exuberant movie. It keeps threatening to go the distance, but Jai (Saif Ali Khan) and Meera (Deepika Padukone) are simply too laidback and grounded (in a stuck into unyielding soil kind of way) for things to fall out that way.
The tone is set at the very beginning of the movie, as the credits roll to a stop, and Jai and Meera meet at their favorite London cafe to discuss their future or, rather, lack of one. Meera restores frescoes and wants to go to Delhi to do it; Jai is an engineer obsessed with the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fransisco and is working hard to get there. It’s a truism of our times that long-distance relationships never work, so they decide to leave things when they’re still good, throw themselves a break-up party, and set out on their separate civilized paths.
They’re not lovers out of legend, as Jai (who has a habit of blathering when nervous) explains to Meera. It’s one thing for Romeo and Juliet or Laila and Majnu to die pining for love. But this is real life and they’re aam junta – ordinary people – or what he punningly calls The Mango People. And Mango People don’t die of broken hearts. They go with the flow coz they know life goes on.
So that’s that. But with nearly two hours to go in the movie, what next?
Well, life goes on is what next. They meet other people, they keep in touch, career goals slowly fall in place, Rishi Kapoor intermittently shows up to test Jai’s Theory of the Mango People… nothing very dramatic. Unless you think emotional two-timing is dramatic.
As Meera experiences her moment of epiphany in the latter half, for the first time ever that I can think of in a Bollywood movie a character recognizes the utter lack of virtue in a relationship where one party is forever emotionally engaged with someone else. “What am I doing?” she mutters to herself in disbelief as she finally recognizes the utter mess she and Jai have managed to create in their well-ordered, logical fashion and the deep-reaching impact it’s going to have on innocent by-standers. In the hands of a more experienced actress, I suspect that scene would have blown me away – but even with Deepika flatlining in the middle of it, it’s still a remarkable moment because Meera sets up her guillotine in the middle of her freakin’ honeymoon suite without trying to so much as blur the edges of the blade.
[Digression: how many people do you know who called things off within months of their marriage? I was thinking about it, and I seem to know about five couples personally who did so and I’ve heard people mention at least three more. Is that odd or par for my generation? Yet another reason why I should stop attending weddings: “You don’t want me at Pinky’s wedding – I jinx the happy couple, Auntie!”]
To say that Deepika puts in her career-best performance is hardly praise of the first order given her debut movie required her to be a beautiful animated poster girl in a Shahrukh Khan extravaganza and her last two releases were Bachna Ae Haseeno and Chandni Chowk to China through which she pretty much sleepwalked. And as the scene above illustrated rather painfully, she has a fatal tendency to transform into wood when asked to do two things at once – like act while delivering dialogue.
But to give credit where it’s due, she nails the moments of quiet retrospection. So it’s a pretty good thing then that Meera is such a reserved figure, given much more to reaction rather than exuberant action unlike, say, Geet in Jab We Met or even Aditi in Socha Na Tha. In one pivotal scene as the tangled emotions between Meera and Jai reach their knottiest, she doesn’t utter a single word; the camera stays focused on the back of her head as Jai stutters, stammers and fumbles his way to a recognition, not quite an understanding, of what lies between them. It is only then, at the very end of the soliloquy, that we see her face and in that instant, it says a whole lot more than any other scene we see her in.
Instead of growing apart from each other, as the film progresses Jai and Meera grow up apart from each other. One of the funniest sequences in the movie (well, nobody said my sense of humor was a thing of light and joy) comes as Jai ends up in a deep funk towards the end, rather comically so. If you’ve ever known an Indian man (sorry guys, but it’s not a secret, is it?) completely stuck on a girl, it’s a hilarious variation on a theme. The only difference between Jai and the sepia-tinted Veer Singh (Saif as Rishi Kapoor in his salad days) is that Jai’s depression sneaks up on him in his modern day isolation cube of brown bag lunches and video games, while Veer celebrates his despair with his friends just as much as he celebrates his foolishly romantic love.
And it is as you watch Saif (getting better by the minute) painfully arrive at his hard won moment of epiphany, blindingly obvious as it was to everybody else, and make his way to Delhi to once more run his Theory of the Mango People past his best girl, that you’re shocked to feel the stirrings of affection in your heart for these two crazy kids.
Because frankly, while you like Jai and Meera as people, and you like the way they are together, the movie does a good job of showing us an alternate reality where they really could go on the way they were up till then and things would’ve been fine. And if they were other people, other Mango People, without that strong sense of individuality that infuses these two, then perhaps their choices would have been different. Perhaps Jai wouldn’t gone into a tailspin if only he could’ve talked to Meera every so often; perhaps Meera would have stuck to her guns if Jai didn’t like to talk aloud when nervous.
The difference between the lovers aaj and the lovers kal, Love Aaj Kal seems to say, is that lovers back in the day weren’t held back by the fact that they were Mango People. When Veer falls for his Harleen (a very pretty girl who can’t lip-synch worth a damn and is either called Gisele or Shweta or Simran – nobody knows!), his first thought isn’t that he isn’t equipped to be a lover when all he has is a bicycle and a bunch of louche friends, neither of which she appreciates; love has exempted him from Mango-status. Even though the lovers these days have more choices and more options, the movie says, they seem to be a little too taken by their Mango-status to ask for the things they need while busily running after the things they want.
The smartest, and perhaps even bravest, person Jai meets on his journey might well be Jo the Swiss Blonde (what’s with Saif and Swiss blondes anyway?) who may not be able to speak English very well but is clever enough to directly address the big gaping hole in their relationship and ask him for what she needs – and then sweetly tells him to take a shovel to the bullshit he offers her instead.
Didn’t I say it was a good thing Meera and Jai have each other? Maybe that’s what made for each other really is – when you meet the one person in the world who is willing to wait for you to realize that you’re standing in a field of manure… by your side.