Love Aaj Kal, With Kartik Aaryan And Sara Ali Khan, Is On Netflix: A Rewind Of This Imtiaz Ali Romance, Which Needed A Better Cast

Imtiaz Ali peddles a peculiar flavour of Kool-Aid. It’s admittedly not for all tastes, but I love it. I can guzzle gallons of it. Even the lesser IA films soar far above most other romances — which is why Jab Harry Met Sejal came as a shock. You can understand a film not working, but here was a film that wasn’t even trying. I saw it again a while ago, wondering if my disappointment — nay, my devastation! — was a result of opening-weekend hype and unrealistic expectations arising from one of our foremost chroniclers of love uniting with the greatest romantic superstar since Rajesh Khanna. Nope! One of the purest pleasures of modern-day Hindi cinema is watching the mind-meld of Aarti Bajaj and IA. She really gets his time-passage conceits, and she really knows how to put them across on screen. Heer toh badi sad hai races through four years of a character’s life in five-odd minutes. Even those rhythms were missing in JHMS. Every filmmaker is allowed a misstep, or five, but JHMS made me wonder if the Kool-Aid — over the various films, over the years — had become diluted to the point that it now tasted like plain water.

Watching the superb opening stretch of Love Aaj Kal (2020), I finally exhaled. A boy stands at the corner of the frame, the right end of the screen. An aggressive girl walks up to him from across the street (and across the frame) and gives him a shelling. As she walks back to her corner, there’s a peculiar edit. (A cut? A sharp dissolve?) Whatever it is, we are in one of those trademark time passages. The girl, midway through her walk back, transforms into another girl. That was the past. This is the present. This time, the boy is at the other end of the frame, the extreme left — but his fate is the same as his predecessor. He receives a shelling. A few seconds, and the whole film is set up. All of which is just another way of saying: Phew! Those rhythms are back!

Love Aaj Kal, With Kartik Aaryan And Sara Ali Khan, Is On Netflix: A Rewind Of This Imtiaz Ali Romance, Which Needed A Better Cast

LAK-2020 is not first-class IA, but it is very much of a piece with his other works — and in a very surprising way. The driving force of any love story is change. At the very least, the girl changes her mind about the boy, or the strict parents change their stance: “no” becomes “yes”. But the IA love stories tackle change at a far more fundamental level. This change transcends the “no”/”yes” decisions of the heart and drills its way down to the very soul. This is the kind of change that redeems, transforms. Sexually abused girls are transformed into women with agency. Mediocre singers are transformed into rockstars. Career-minded machines are transformed into free spirits. 

But what if we want to change and we… can’t? What if love does not redeem us, transform us? What if love isn’t… enough? What if — as a character puts it, here — “jo main hoon” can never be reconciled with “jo main hona chahta tha“? This is a shocking-enough turn for any mainstream movie, but for IA, it feels thrillingly blasphemous. In LAK-2020, you get what feels like a happy ending. You get the Mauja hi mauja-like song  (a redo of Twist from LAK-2009) that says “oh yes, the couple is back together, so let’s stage a blingy, high-energy number that can be used to market the hell out of this movie”. But sit through the closing credits and you’ll see one of the saddest romantic images ever. A man stands under a harsh spotlight and gazes at an empty balcony. It’s a demolition of one of the most iconic scenes of love: Romeo waits, and waits, but there’s no Juliet.

Love Aaj Kal, With Kartik Aaryan And Sara Ali Khan, Is On Netflix: A Rewind Of This Imtiaz Ali Romance, Which Needed A Better Cast

This Romeo is one of the most interesting IA creations. Like LAK-2009, this film time-travels across two generations of lovers. Raghu (Kartik Aaryan) and Leena (Aarushi Sharma, who’s just lovely) are from the Maine Pyar Kiya era, the Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak era, where Romeos either lived happily ever after with their Juliets, or died trying. Flash forward a few decades, and you have… the Imtiaz Ali era. This couple consists of Veer (Kartik Aaryan, again) and Zoe (a disastrously miscast Sara Ali Khan, though it’s as much IA’s fault for not going with a more experienced actor, capable of weathering the turbulences he tosses the character into). Like in LAK-2009, the attitudes and events of one timeline inform those in the other. But there’s a… Twist. Let’s just say there’s a reason the modern-day hero, here, is called Veer, which was the name of the older hero in LAK-2009. The twist is that old wasn’t always gold.

As a small-towner in Udaipur, Raghu complains that he does not have the QS-cutie kinda feelings. He feels strangled, fevered — and he thinks this is due to his love for Leena. But after his move to the big city, we see that this suffocation is something else. Sure, he loves Leena with all his heart. But below the belt, it’s a different story. Raghu is wired in a way that separates emotional and physical love, but even while acting on his impulses, he yearns to be the kind of hero he sees in the movies, whose love is so chaste it practically comes with a chastity belt. Raghu wants to be… Veer, who lives in an age where this sort of bifurcation between dil and dick (it was dil and dimaag in Tamasha) is perfectly okay, but chooses to wait for The One.

Love Aaj Kal, With Kartik Aaryan And Sara Ali Khan, Is On Netflix: A Rewind Of This Imtiaz Ali Romance, Which Needed A Better Cast, Film Companion

I wish IA had shaped his entire film around the tortured Raghu. In the present, in his forties, he still lives in the past. His café is even named Mazi, which means past — and the quaint word took me back to one of Hindi cinema’s greatest outpourings of unrequited love. In Chalo ek baar, from Gumraah, Sahir Ludhianvi writes: Mere hamrah bhi rusvaaiaan hain mere mazi ki. (My dishonourable acts from my past are my companions today.) This is exactly who this character is, what his situation is. IA doesn’t judge him. But his conflict is too big to be contained in just half a love story, and Randeep Hooda, as the forties’ version of Raghu, doesn’t get the space to locate this character’s core. His big emotional scene falls flat.

But how fascinating that it occurs opposite… Zoe! LAK-2009 had the older man advising the younger man. Here, the gender lines are crossed. The love-centric conversations happen between Raghu and Zoe, who is his tortured present-day counterpart. Like him, she wants to compartmentalise heart and hormones. Like him, she experiences a moment that makes her echo a line of his: The one thing I thought I’d never do, I’ve gone and done it. But unlike him, she’s able to do the IA thing: she changes. Veer’s love changes her, just like Tara’s love changed Ved, who was as much a career-obsessed “robot” as Zoe. “Finding the real you, the inner you” is very much an IA thing, too. As with Ved, so with Zoe.

Another Twist I liked: usually, the parents play a bigger part in the older generation, but in LAK-2020, they impact the present-day lovers more. Veer’s determination to find The One, Zoe’s obsession with making enough money so she won’t have to depend on anyone — it’s all passed down from the folks. Raghu’s father is a generic presence, as is Leena’s mother. They do the usual “parental things” and nothing more — though it’s fun seeing Leena being the bolder one in Udaipur. She’s the one who plants a kiss on Raghu’s lips, while he couldn’t even bring himself to declare his love. She reminded me of Maine Pyar Kiya‘s heroine, who was submissive before elders and yet chose to bare herself in front of her boyfriend.

In the first half, Pritam’s lovely (if similar-sounding) songs open in the older timeline and then come down to include Veer and Zoe. In the second half, after we’ve realised that that older love was not as ideal as we thought it was, the songs — now sadder in tone and lyrics — focus on the present-day, with callbacks to Raghu and Leena. These words sit perfectly on the characters, as do the dialogues. When I saw LAK-2009, the Hinglish lines seemed odd. This time around, it didn’t grate when I heard “Maine tumhara fairy tale kharab kar diya” or “Ab main apna career give up kar sakti hoon!” I couldn’t decide whether the passage of a decade has made this mix more prevalent in the movies, or it’s just that I’ve gotten used to it.

Remember the scene in LAK-2009 where the present-day hero is mugged and refuses to give up his wallet, because it has her photo inside? This film’s older-timeline hero gets the photo in the wallet. I think you’ll find more echoes if you watch the two films back to back, but even the echoes within this film are exquisite. Earlier, Veer’s bike is a mere convenience to Zoe, just something that will drop her wherever she wants to go. In a later scene, it becomes a lifeline. Even better is the echo in the Raghu-Leena storyline. Early on, after a school dance, Leena searches for Raghu. She cannot find him. Towards the end, at a café, she searches for Raghu again. And again, she cannot find him. And both times, they were together just moments ago. How quickly things happen! IA does something beautiful with Leena. He doesn’t sentimentalise her. She’s able to move on, like we all do. But then, when that one person from the past shows up again outside the window…

Oh, what a scene this is! Two people gesturing to each other, their inability to talk echoing their snapped communication lines… 

Despite its many imperfections, if there’s one thing that gladdened me about LAK-2020, it’s that IA hasn’t lost his ability to write those great scenes we want (and expect) from him.

 

A strangely pindrop-silent nightclub… He sees her… She sees him… And slowly, as the attraction escalates, the music builds in the background…

That school dance… Two kids losing their inhibitions in public and dancing like madmen, because it’s not (yet) a time you can lose your inhibitions in private…

Those moments after making love… She runs outside and weeps… She realises, “The one thing I thought I’d never do, I’ve gone and done it”…

The time he takes her to meet his parents… She gets cold feet and pulls herself together and gets colder feet and unravels totally…

That morning he shows up to say thank you and goodbye, and she tears up but won’t allow herself to cry… So she makes loony camera-ready faces so he’ll remember her that way… 

The utterly ironic (perhaps even senseless) scene where he beats up the man who catches them kissing, because this man uttered a word that reduced this “love” to mere “lust”… This difference is something he will ponder about a lot in the future… 

That some of these scenes don’t work as fabulously as they sound on paper is solely due to the performers — though I must say I enjoyed watching Kartik Aaryan as Veer. He has dweeby glasses and tousled hair and the sweetest stalkery tendencies that amuse Zoe to no end. I felt for Veer. His head is almost always lowered, as though he doesn’t want to meet anyone’s eyes. Hilariously, he quotes Rumi and Kabir in a manner that shows IA is laughing at his own tendencies for similar quotes. As Raghu, the actor puffs his chest out like a pigeon and tries to portray a small-town man who’s struggling with who he is — we see the struggle in the performance, too. I recalled Nargis Fakhri. I recalled wondering how a director could write so complex a part and not see that it’s not translating on screen! 

Oh well. I haven’t decided yet where LAK-2020 falls in my ranking of IA films, but it’s a semi-strong comeback, and for now, I’ll take that. 

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