Director: Anurag Kashyap
Writer: Anurag Kashyap
Cast: Karan Mehta, Alaya F, Vicky Kaushal
I admire filmmakers who refuse to get pigeonholed by their own legacies. For instance, there’s no such thing as a ‘Steven Spielberg film’ because of his sheer versatility; you can tell a Scorsese or a Tarantino film from the way they look and behave, but that’s rarely the case with Spielberg. Once considered a weakness, it’s now his greatest strength. Anurag Kashyap’s pursuit of this versatility, however, is fast turning into a cautionary tale. The pathbreaking Hindi director’s quest to divorce himself from the phrase “an Anurag Kashyap movie” started with the mercurial Manmarziyaan (2018). But after the perplexing Choked (2020) and the curiously distant sci-fi remake Dobaaraa (2022), Kashyap has pushed it way too far with Almost Pyaar with DJ Mohabbat.
The inexplicable title had actually given me hope – I wondered if perhaps Kashyap’s return to form would be sealed by an edgy, subversive riff on Gen Z life. But the film is worse than it sounds. It’s scattered, weird, incoherent and Almost Pointless. In fact, Almost Pyaar with DJ Mohabbat is so bereft of identity and voice that it feels like an Imtiaz Ali film gone rogue. I’m convinced that if I write the title enough times, the Pyaar Ishq Aur Mohabbat (2001) album will stop haunting my head. What’s Almost Pyaar with DJ Mohabbat about, then? I’ve watched the 121-minute film, but your guess is still as good as mine. The IMDB synopsis reads: “Young people finding themselves, finding love, looking for it, being hungry for it and prejudices, predatory behavior, homophobia, a total lack of willingness among the older generation to understand”. So basically it’s about everything – but also nothing.
I suppose the idea is to explore the generational conflicts and fears of an internet-nurtured India, one that’s often misunderstood by older storytellers. The trope is familiar: Two parallel narratives, two seemingly disparate couples connected by the almost-ness of love. Alaya F and newcomer Karan Mehta play both couples – a heavy-handed metaphor for the sameness of intolerance across cultures. What makes this gimmick confusing is that the script reveals them as doppelgangers in distant lands; side characters even comment on the uncanny resemblances, only for these scenes to go nowhere. There’s the small-town interfaith story in Dalhousie: Schoolgirl Amrita and local DVD peddler Yakub are buddies who make TikToks and ‘innocently’ elope to attend the concert of her favourite musician, DJ Mohabbat (Vicky Kaushal). They think it’s a harmless week-long trip, but much to their blissful ignorance, her Islamophobic family raises hell to hunt them down.
Then there’s the big-city interclass story in London: Aisha, the spoilt teen daughter of a Pakistani billionaire, gets obsessed with a painfully shy Sikh musician, Harmeet. The bratty girl stalks him and bulldozes her way into his modest life, oblivious to the consequences that lay beyond. The voice-over is provided in the form of a podcast by DJ Mohabbat, who narrates meandering fables as if he’s a wannabe poet trying to impress Gulzar by doing a budget Rumi. There are also Amit Trivedi’s songs in this musical, which more or less sound like they’re one youth anthem broken into many hipster parts. And Shellee’s lyrics, which take the English-words-in-Hindi-songs syndrome too far by rhyming terms like constitution and institution in the track that’s not named Netflix And Chill. Kashyap used to be a master at integrating music – especially Trivedi’s music – into his films. But here he forgets to integrate some film into a soundtrack that aims to convince us how kids today have eclectic tastes.
The film offers some half-interesting observations about modern society. Like how, despite both being interfaith equations, the lawlessness of religion in India is not too different from the politics of consent in the West. Both stories feature a noble 21-year-old with a flaky minor, but only in one of them does it become a deal-breaker; the Hindu-Muslim tension usurps the other. Yet, Kashyap’s efforts to make his commentary accessible are, not for the first time, lost in translation. As a viewer, it’s a bit bewildering to be kept in the dark about a film’s purpose for so long; I was even left twiddling my thumbs in the interval, asking at least a dozen questions that had no answers. Most characters feel like musical placeholders and appropriations of other people their age – defined by random musings and very little emotional continuity.
Amrita is perhaps the most interesting of the lot in how she seems immune to the urgency of her situation. She ponders like an armchair liberal, but also a kid who’s anguished by the dissonance with her right-wing family. She doesn’t get how serious it is because, in her head, there are bigger issues like climate change in the world; her family is but a flimsy footnote. She’s idealistic by virtue of being in the religious majority – a woke theorist with no practical experience. A stand, for her, is something that people take; she has no idea that the thing that balances motorcycles are called stands too. The problem, though, is that all of this is blatant text – her alter-ego, for example, is a comically philosophical Muslim TikToker (presumably a version of Saloni Gaur) – rather than subtle subtext. She literally spells it all out in her videos and chats with Yakub, leaving nothing to the viewer’s interpretation of their love-jihad-themed road movie. Alaya F does a decent job of playing Amrita and Aisha as two separate girls, but the writing ensures that neither of them feel real. Karan Mehta seems too aware of his resemblance to a young Ranveer Singh, and while he’s suitably brooding as Harmeet, his role as Yakub is replete with annoying quirks and simpleton-like gestures. Different doesn’t necessarily mean the opposite.
There are other stereotypes, too, like a predatory gay club manager and a prison montage that looks straight out of Riz Ahmed’s breaking-bad phase in A Night Of. Kashyap’s best films have had rhythm and density problems, where the sheer volume of opinions is at odds with the expression of them. Almost Pyaar with DJ Mohabbat is the reverse; the endless posturing is a ruse for its complete lack of depth. There’s no method, and the madness is generic. People simply while away screen time, barreling towards a final shot that looks like a cute hybrid between Another Earth (2011) and La La Land (2016). The whole movie is based on the feel-but-don’t-think rule, which is often used as an excuse to entertain without engaging. Ironically, the one thing it proves is this: A bad Anurag Kashyap movie is as versatile as other bad movies.