Love Aaj Kal, a love-story that received no love, is now streaming on Netflix. The film is about Zoe (Sara Ali Khan) and Veer (Kartik Aaryan), the monosyllabic 2020 couple vacillating violently between love and career. Zoe listens to Raghu (Randeep Hooda), the owner of her co-workspace, and uses his story- of disyllabic young Raghu (Kartik Aaryan) and Leena (Arushi Sharma) to try to make sense of hers. It’s a brilliant ode to the act of storytelling- how someone’s story can so profoundly move us to try to rhyme our story with theirs.
But the writing, the acting, the editing, and the conceit of Imtiaz Ali, the writer-director, to say something radically profound all evolves into a hot mess. The first time I watched it in the theatre, it was too painful to think about. But when I heard the album after, something inside me moved. Ali’s soundtracks are balm for tired and lost lovers. Why was I not comforted? [The answer will lie in Ali’s newfound cynicism]
I was waiting to rewatch the film, and see how this music was used and restrained through the movie. Perhaps, I wondered, if I paid more attention to the music and the lyrics, by Pritam and Irshad Kamil respectively, that fill the silences between, the pain would have been gilded. Since the film dropped on Netflix, it was time to revisit it, but this time just for the music.
Falling short of Rumi quotes, Ali stuck with silence.
It’s odd that for the rousing musical film Love Aaj Kal was supposed to be, the most poignant moment is the one minute of complete silence in the second half. Raghu, four years after leaving Leena, runs back to her only to find her pregnant. They are separated by glass, and there’s no music, no sound.
Perhaps Ali realized not even music, folded and stretched over Irshad Kamil’s lyrics, could rationalize such an odd circumstance. Raghu lost Leena four years earlier because of his sexual appetite that he fulfilled outside of the relationship. Four years later he is mistakenly addressing his current flame with Leena’s name, her photograph still tucked behind the slots of his leather wallet. Why her? Why now? And after seeing her, content and perhaps, committed, what next?
What sufi thought could this situation be sung to? Falling short of Rumi quotes, Ali stuck with silence. This is death knell to the Ali of yore. Even after the rousing beauty of Shayad, there isn’t a cut to a different scene. It’s just silence by the lakeside after he stops singing, as if to doubt the very point of singing, the band-players lying confused, and Raghu wondering what now? All that musical beauty undone by those few seconds of silence.
In Ali’s world, the less characters say, the more bearable they become. The more they sing or are sung over, the more brokenness they elicit. If Rockstar had a less elaborate album, it would have made for a vastly insufferable journey.
The rest of the film though is Pritam’s music, and Kamil’s lyrics that together try to make sense of the meandering plot. I argue that these are the strongest, most endearing moments. The rock and roll beats of the Annual Social that morph into Shayad is one of the most kind moments of the film. (I say kind because this film does awful things to its characters) ‘Kahe bina samaj lo tum shayad’; in Ali’s world, the less characters say, the more bearable they become. The more they sing or are sung over, the more brokenness they elicit. If Rockstar had a less elaborate album, it would have made for a vastly insufferable journey.
When Ali chooses dialogue over lyrics, often scenes fall flat. The reason the ‘Agar Tum Saath Ho’ scene was iconic and the ‘Tum Mujhe Tang Karne Lage Ho’ scene fell flat is because the former was largely set to music and the thoughts communicated through lyrics, while the latter was dialogue driven. (Of course the questionable acting chops is also an important function. But I doubt if even a Deepika-Ranbir rehash of this Love Aaj Kal scene would have done much.)
This is largely a cinematic maxim: to keep the metaphors for the song lyrics. In dialogues they come across as choppy, unwieldy, and other-worldly at best, and pretentious at worst.
So, it makes sense that it is only when ‘Yeh Dooriyan’ croons right after the breakdown scene, that the emotional gravity of that scene is felt. Mohit Chauhan singing “Inn nazdeekiyon se mili yeh dooriyan” is far more emphatic because through the musical landscape of the film the sense of being and unbecoming is made clear.
In the very first song, ‘Shayad’ it is said that he exists only because she does; that without her, without love, he is nothing. Now that he got her, this closeness has only yielded pain, distance, and dissonance. Nothing of enduring beauty comes from proximity- it’s a beautiful thought; an oxymoronic take on love. Even much later in ‘Aur Tanha’ KK croons, “Yun tera hona bhi, aur tanha karta”. Being together is but an excuse to be lost, to be distant. It’s this idiosyncratic, jaded view of love that sets Love Aaj Kal apart. But it’s god-awful treatment of character, dialogue and confrontation makes you ignore that very lyrical tectonic shift happening beneath it.
Even the most disposable song (narratively speaking), ‘Parmeshwara’, where both Veer and Zoe’s parents’ distancing, fragmented love is shown, is quite telling of Ali’s cynical view of love.
“Ladega tu, bhidega tu, commit jo hai, karega tu, yahi phasega tu.”
That to be together, you will fight the world, and all its entrapments of caste and class and gender and sexuality, only to find yourself in another trap, another cage with different rules, different expectations. Making an entire worldview of a director comes alive through song is Ali’s strength. But alas, the dialogues are his undoing.
Zoe’s word vomit, and Raghu’s verbose advice will ensue and frustrate. (Perhaps the lack of female voices in circumstance-songs make Zoe so unbearably talkative. Veer, a man of music, seen carving ‘Stop This Train’, John Mayer’s classic lyric onto a wall is relatively content with the monopoly of his voice in the album.)
When Zoe is confused she runs to the aged Raghu screeching, “Just tell me a story ya”. Raghu winces with the hint of a knowledge drop. This was the second time I was watching the film. I knew what was coming. A long monologue followed by that one minute of piercing silence. I was bracing for impact. The good kind. In the back of my head, as Raghu articulated, I agitated. Skip the talk! Give me nothingness. Or at least, give me another song.