In Defence of Love Aaj Kal 2020 (and Imtiaz Ali)


Be warned: here be some spoilers…

 

As I write this opinion piece, Imtiaz Ali’s obituaries (as a director) have already taken social media by storm. Much of it is unwarranted, of course, but it’s hard to miss the delightful glee with which certified mental cases (a self-proclaimed critic whose name rhymes with SRK) and certain box office sites (for idiots) have jumped the gun on this. According to these shining beacons of intellect, cinema should cater to the masses, only – and any film that even attempts to push the proverbial envelope deserves to flop. Worse still, this lynch-mob mentality isn’t just restricted to the film itself – directors who attempt to make such films are consistently singled out, derided and almost bullied into submission. Alas, if Modi-ji could just put a tax on stupidity, India’s dwindling economy would be out of ICU soon, and as a side benefit, Twitter and social media would be rid of India’s modern-age Eberts and Kaels. This ingenious bit of advice aside, I’m aware I have sadly digressed.

Back to Love Aaj Kal, the original 2009 film juxtaposed two love stories from 1965 and 2009. A good choice, as the two periods represent pre and post liberalisation of India. In other words, one story is set in a third-world country, whereas the other focuses on first-world problems (without India ever being a first-world country, which is ironic but par for the course, as far as aspirational-behavioural economics is concerned). Love Aaj Kal 2020, introduces a third period – the 1990s – the inflection point of Indian economics, into the mix. There is, of course, 2020 as well but that’s hardly any different from 2009. It is the 1990s that makes LAK2020 a companion piece to the original.

 

So, how do the two films come together? In 1965, life is shown to be simple, and so is love. You like someone, you sing a few songs, stalk the girl (with her permission) and get married. In 2009, you break up because of your career, and celebrate the break up with a party! Confusion, chaos, and love form a complex threesome in the noughties. Given that context, in LAK2020, Imtiaz Ali makes the 90s tale a sort of origins story. The origin story of confusion and chaos. A case-study of innocence lost; of ideals taking a beating in the face of “available options” and a critique of fast-changing social norms. As the economy starts to expand, so does our greed. Not just greed for more money, but also greed for more partners. This may be a simplistic correlation on Imtiaz Ali’s part but I found it fascinating that at its core, LAK2020 is a story of an aching heartbreak. Not because of circumstances, but because of greed; because suddenly there were many more options available… and commitment to a single partner became a gnawing sign of weakness.

 

The metaphysics and politics of the film aside, LAK2020 brings to the fore Imtiaz Ali at his best and his worst. Which is to say, Imtiaz Ali doing Imtiaz Ali things. Ever since he made Jab We Met, Imtiaz Ali has given up on linear storytelling. This is perhaps why most people think Jab We Met is his best work to date. Since then, he has started to rely on surreal imagery. A lot. Also, there is no real beginning to his stories anymore: we enter in medias res, and this confuses the hell out of people. Indulgence is the word that’s bandied around a lot, which is partially true as well, but I consider it to be an honest aesthetic choice. Should it be considered wrong to confuse the audience (by opening in medias res) when his film is trying to talk about confusion (in matters of the heart), in the first place?

 

Ali’s biggest strength lies in being a chronicler of cinematic moments (none of his films, post Jab We Met make complete sense). He’s obsessed (much like Bhansali) with creating the perfect frame, the perfect camera angle, even the perfect backdrop, to create those fleeting moments of brilliance. It helps that he has wonderful taste in music, which he uses to great effect. In LAK2020, there are at least 3 songs that have his unmistakable stamp on them. The quirky, time-tripping, Haan Main Galat, the soulful Shayad, and the emotionally affecting, Mehrama. The staging of Haan Main Galat deserves a special mention as well. Its picturization is a miniature version of the film itself – apart from the cross-cutting timelines, it encompasses the film’s final message, the film’s philosophical viewpoint in rich, colourful fashion. Notice the graffiti in the background and also the lyrics (Tootenge bikhrenge behkenge sambhlenge dono…Dil ke is maamle mein na akal ko laga…Aklon mein uljhenge… to phislenge dono). It’s also worth pointing out that with this song, Ali pays homage to his most surreal film to date, Tamasha.

 

In the rap song Parmeshwara, Ali uses a bizarre-looking raconteur, who narrates the story of two broken marriages. The first one involves Zoe’s (Sara Ali Khan) parents. As the song progresses, we also get to see how Veer (Kartik Aryan) is part of a broken family too – his parents aren’t divorced but they live separately, under the same roof. These are nice touches, again reminiscent of Tamasha. The best moments though, belong to the nostalgia-infused 90s section, involving Raghu (Randeep Hooda’s younger self, played by Kartik Aryan) and Leena (Aarushi Sharma), set in the small town of Udaipur. These are the moments that truly shine. Kartik Aryan’s goofy charm, his geeky demeanour, along with Aarushi’s measured performance create on-screen magic. We get to see Kartik Aryan dance to Dil Deewana (Maine Pyaar Kiya), imitate Salman Khan’s hairdo from the early 90s and watch QSQT in a crowded single-screen theatre. For someone who grew up in the 90s, these scenes stir up a whirlpool of cherished memories.

 

When Raghu and Leena dance together, awkwardly, or when she chides him for talking too much (Baatein to phone par bhi kar sakte the na!), you get the feeling that these characters are lived in. They are real. It’s a pity that Imtiaz Ali doesn’t imbue Zoe and Veer with the same amount of depth and understanding. Even if one keeps nostalgia aside, it’s difficult to warm up to their antics. Their scenes together have a staginess that exposes Imtiaz Ali’s understanding of the current generation. Incidentally, this was a problem with the original film as well – Saif and Deepika looked great together but their scenes carried little significance. This inconsistency lends itself to other scenes as well (both Zoe and Veer give job interviews that are so badly staged they can only exist in a parallel universe). Veer’s idealism, for lack of a better word, is also more irritating than endearing. His dream job entails taking a trek to the Himalayas and working on water harvesting. Yeah, you read that right. The fault, unfortunately, lies in the writing.

 

It also doesn’t help that in key moments, both Sara and Kartik Aryan falter, sometimes badly. When Zoe says, Tum Mujhe Tung Kane Lage Ho, in a moment of despair, it’s the audience that feels the pinch. And not for the intended reason! That being said, Sara and Kartik (#Sartik?) do look good together. Their chemistry isn’t red-hot but it’s palpable. Once the burden of emotional heavy-lifting is past them, they settle down and even blossom. In the film’s most moving scene, which appears towards the end, Kartik Aryan displays wonderful restraint, as he encounters Leena for the very last time. It’s a scene where no words are spoken, and yet it’s powerful enough to leave one misty-eyed.

 

When Zoe rushes to meet Veer, mirroring the original film’s ending, Imtiaz Ali sets up a small surprise: there is no clear resolution, no end to conflicts in 2020. Zoe and Veer may be together but her doubts linger on (she’s still afraid that perfect moments don’t last forever; that relationships eventually fizzle out). Veer has also changed in the meantime. He isn’t as rigid about his principles anymore and wishes to live in the moment, which is a cop-out/compromise ending, but it’s still better than the original film’s, where everything was wrapped up in a neat little package. The enduring message from LAK2020 then is that old-fashioned values still make sense. In this day and age. The fact that Imtiaz Ali chose a heart-breaking love story to sell its importance makes the message harder to ignore… and somewhat easier to forgive his other follies.

 

 

 

20 Responses to “In Defence of Love Aaj Kal 2020 (and Imtiaz Ali)”

  1. saket, you planning to become a defence attorney?

    Like

  2. tonymontana Says:

    An interesting note, tempting me to check it out msyself
    Flawed though that they were, have personally liked most of Imtiaz’s films. consider Cocktail to be his only dishonest effort (haven’t seen JHMS properly)

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  3. These critics and websites have to be tolerated and ignored. They are attention seekers. The website wants dumbing down. It did not even spare a successful Zoya A. How can we expect them to spare an unsuccessful film maker?
    I just go through their nonsense just to see how low they sink.

    It is good that atleast some of these european films make money and get some awards. Filmfare snubbed them by giving all the awards to GB. And that film was quite successful.

    Imtiaz should atleast care for his audience and make coherent movies with some good editing. He should take the criticism in a positive way.

    Like

    • Agreed, Sanjana!

      I’m quite happy to see that Gully Boy swept all the awards at FF.

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    • tonymontana Says:

      Quite a bit of truth in what you say. Zoya’s favourite films for me have been her first (LBC) and Dil Dhadakne Do. Prefer the latter to the vastly overrated ZNMD, which had the entire “introspective” angle misplaced.

      Like

  4. Ah, this title is a relief! I’m not gonna read until I’ve seen the film later this week.

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    • You probably need to hurry, judging by its box office performance!

      Like

      • Loved your piece.

        My thoughts…

        I went into the cinema hall ninety percent certain that this was going to be a bad film, as it seems to have been almost universally panned by the critics. Given how excruciatingly dreadful When Harry Met Sejal was, I was sadly ready to accept that perhaps Imtiaz Ali, the guy who made Tamasha, my favourite film of the past twenty years, was no longer making great cinema, or for that matter even tolerable cinema.

        But within about twenty minutes, I felt reassured that WHMS was indeed a blip and that the real Imtiaz is back in the house. (One can only speculate how much the SRK factor impeded Imtiaz as it did Anand Rai in zero). In LAK Imtiaz’s stamp is visible in every frame – complex characters, fragile mental states, glimpses of mental illness, protagonist growth through a catalystic co-star, messy relationships, soulful music. The film evokes both nostalgia as well as the internal discomfort that we’ve come to expect from Imtiaz.

        That’s not to say this is by any means a flawless piece of art. I’m not even sure it’s a great film, but it’s certainly interesting, recommendable and revisitable. The angry reactions it’s provoked would be baffling if we hadn’t seen this before (Raavan is probably the best example of a fine film getting vitriolic attacks from all quarters).

        The main negatives are the inconsistent performances. Sara handles some scenes well and her rawness is generally a strength, but on several occasions she is not quite convincing in her portayal. Randeep meanwhile is unable to hide his limitations as an actor (further hampered by some clumsy dialogues), and that’s a shame given his central role (he does however shine in his very moving final scene, which is quintessential Imtiaz). Sara has a really screwed up character and I was left thinking what Alia might have done with this material – if only… Similarly, imagine Irffan instead of Randeep and we could have had something really special. Sara and Randeep’s scenes together are the weakest moments of the film, and that brings me on to Karthik, who I thought was really good, but I’m not sure if I might feel differently in retrospect. As in the original LAK be plays both roles; I particularly liked him as the 2020 character – he appears mildly spectrumy, and is rigid, uncompromising, idealistic and pure, with an inner confidence inspite of his awkwardness in a world where he doesn’t really fit.

        LAK has restored my faith in Imtiaz and I do hope he doesn’t feel that he has made another debacle as this brand of cinema is a craving that only he is able to satisfy. I’m hopeful that this film will find it’s audience, if only the vicious reviews don’t scare everyone off.

        Liked by 2 people

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  6. Part II is up.

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  7. how about #Karara?

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  8. I’ll watch this eventually but not in an empty theatre! Really enjoyed reading this. MPK and qsqt were 80s, did Imtiaz Ali goof that up?!

    Like

    • Absolute late 80s..but then the 85-95 period in India was quite stagnant economically as well as culturally.
      Sure, the homage to that peiod via MPK/QSQT was notalgic, and the backstory of the young Hooda turning from a cross eyed loverboy to the philanderer would connect with many of that generation. There indeed was sexual liberalization occurring at least in the Metros by the mid 90s. As well as economic transformation starting out in the mid 90s, resulting in rapidly increasing incomes, some of which is captured in Hooda’s story.
      That entire Hooda story was much more interesting and realistic as compared to the contemporary issues unconvincingly portrayed by Sara/Aryan.
      However, for BO purposes, the Valentine Day release was supposed to target the contemporary gen, rather than geysers such as yours truly. Picture waheen maar kha gayi..

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Imtiaz Ali after JHMS, Anand L Rai after Zero, will Rajkumar Hirani have better luck with SRK?

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  10. Actually want to see this movie now after Saket and Salim’s reviews. Tried on Sunday but couldn’t.

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