Director: Sajid Ali
Cast: Avinash Tiwary, Tripti Dimri, Parmeet Sethi, Sumeet Kaul
What do you say about a film that contains the most exasperating thirty minutes as well as the most enthralling thirty minutes of the year? For anyone vaguely abreast with the legacy of romance in contemporary Hindi cinema, it might hardly be surprising to learn that Imtiaz Ali is involved here. Of course he had to be the co-writer of a love story that has been told so often over so many generations across so many mediums. And of course Laila Majnu won’t be as simple as feuding families and eloping couples in his care.
Perversely, the film – by being a fool in the first half and a phantom in the second – inadvertently internalizes the life cycle of a new-age love story. It opens with absolute silliness: a song called Gayi Kaam Se plays over multiple images of shady men in Srinagar playfully stalking young Laila (a Nargis Fakhri-ish Tripti Dimri) while she coyly smiles, so that we recognize how free-spirited, dreamy and spunky she is. A diehard fan of Maine Pyaar Kiya, she holds white pigeons to her chest so that they can hear her heart beat. She yearns for the Bollywood emotions: A trait that might later explain her attitude and actions, in contrast to his.
Of course Imtiaz Ali had to be the co-writer of a love story that has been told so often over so many generations across so many mediums. And of course Laila Majnu won’t be as simple as feuding families and eloping couples in his care.
Her first moment with rich boy Qais (Avinash Tiwary) is, to put it mildly, “warmly” subversive – she touches his urine before she actually sees his face. Their families are at war, her father is Parmeet Sethi and he continues to behave as if his villainous DDLJ character simply rented a daughter, an aspiring MLA has his sleazy eyes on her – just the usual star-crossed stuff.
Soon enough, like in most works of romantic literature, it is established that ambition or jobs or money don’t define these two. Love is all they exist for. “Our story is written; nothing can stop it from happening,” Qais concludes, with all the conviction of a device designed solely to remind us that this is Imtiaz Ali’s trademark inside joke. In a way, Ali seems to be indicating that this frivolously unimaginative first chapter is what we think he does. And the desolate, existential second chapter is what he thinks he really does.
The more optimistic among us might imagine deceit to be hardwired into this film’s DNA. What if the first half is deliberately formulaic so that the second half punches us right in the gut after our expectations hit rock bottom? Like Sairat, but with quality replacing tone. The more pragmatic among us might believe that perhaps first-time director Sajid Ali handed over the reigns to his brother Imtiaz post-interval. After all, even the songs go from scoring the characters’ feelings in the first hour to becoming their feelings in the second. This would also explain the film’s familiar transformation from a hero-heroine story to a hero story. The ladies of Imtiaz Ali invariably end up with near-zero agency – and disappear, cry, get sick or wait. The men tend to figuratively lose their minds; here, his skill with musical montages helps depict a more literal condition.
Either way, credit must be given to actor Avinash Tiwary (who stood out in the wonderful Tu Hai Mera Sunday) – he bares his soul in an effort to convince us that love stories, but not love itself, can age well when history is contextualized. His performance, not unlike Ranveer Singh’s in Bajirao Mastani and Ranbir Kapoor’s in Tamasha, suggests that if today’s filmmakers dare to deviate from the texts of popular folklore, there might sprout a bit of unhinged newness even within the unoriginal. Writers like Ali thrive on removing a nut here and a bolt there so the entire structure comes crashing down. Only, they find cinema in this demolition. In such cases, watching a story switch rails is a little more exciting than worrying about the rust on them.
Perhaps the biggest clue to this movie’s bipolarity lies in its choice of location. Kashmir. The setting itself is the kind of place that protagonists from his other movies travel to in search of themselves. There is then nowhere more therapeutic to escape to. There is nowhere more lyrical to be reconfigured at. As a result, this film’s inhabitants are somewhat immune to the healing effects of nature. Which sort of explains why the traditionally straightforward desires of Laila and Majnu are complex and unpredictable here. No external factors can do to them what their insides have already done. Their conflicts are self-inflicted. Because it must be frustrating – frightening, even – to be desensitized to the concepts of beauty and freedom. And by extension, to be unable to distinguish between love and obsession. It would drive the best of us insane.