Director: Nikhil Mahajan
Writer: Nikhil Mahajan
Cast: Rakul Preet Singh, Pavail Gulati, Akshay Oberoi
I Love You is a film that’s not nearly as awkward as my answer to the question: “What’s the name of that new Jio Cinema movie you’re reviewing this week?” My reaction time to clarify my intentions (“I mean, it’s the title”) has been lightning fast. But it’s still a tad shorter than the period it takes viewers to get that the opening shot of a woman holding her breath underwater is a sign of things to come. It’s almost like she’s practicing precisely because she suspects that she will soon find herself needing to hide at the bottom of a swimming pool. It’s a very specific skill, so let me amuse myself by imagining that perhaps the woman can see her future all along – and still chooses to let it happen so that she can respond with a witty “don’t hold your breath” in a sequel that will presumably be named I Love You 2. Never mind that it’s also what I might say if someone tells me they’re planning to watch this film.
But I digress. Nikhil Mahajan’s I Love You is the sort of thriller that doesn’t know where to go after its potent one-line setup. It features a slasher who’s a direct product of vintage-Bollywood stalker stories. He is a modern psychopath – the tech guy who has a knack for hidden cameras, hacking, spying and social-media stalking – with an old-school heart. His name, Rakesh Oberoi, is very 1990s, and he’s determined to summon the ‘one-sided love’ that Shah Rukh Khan made famous in that decade. The colleague he’s obsessed with is an independent and successful woman named Satya, perhaps an ode to Ram Gopal Varma’s brand of cinema of which so many SRK fans (like myself) were secretly envious. In his cabin, he plays earworms from One 2 Ka 4 (2001) and Duplicate (1998), has a goldfish called Anjali, and sports ‘Palat’ and ‘Protagonist’ t-shirts. He reforms the Darr (1993) device of Rahul talking to giant photos of Kiran by projecting spy-cam footage of Satya onto his wall and pretending to be in a live-in relationship with her. (Kiran Kumar’s cameo is a nice nod to Anjaam (1994) and an Adnan Sami song adds to the retro flavour). He’s basically a Vicky Malhotra posing as an Ajay Sharma.
At one point, well into the night of terror, the millennial creep who seems to be oblivious to Cancel Culture forces Satya to sing Darr’s ‘Tu Mere Saamne’ with him in an impromptu Karaoke session. His little radio also has time for a few other classics: ‘Tu Hi Re’ (from Bombay, 1995), ‘Rooth Na Jaana’ (from 1942: A Love Story, 1994) and ‘Jumma Chumma De De’ (from Hum, 1991). Which is to say: Rakesh Oberoi is Kabir Singh with better manners and taste. The location gives a new meaning to the term ‘corporate slave’ as well, with Oberoi trapping Satya in an office building on a Diwali (holiday) weekend. While the presence of cellphones and technology has made it harder to script plausible horror and murder mysteries, the stalker movie is the one genre that’s gained from this influx of modernity. So the premise is not without its merits.
The problem with I Love You – unlike, say, Fan (2016) or even Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein (2022) – is that the anti-hero remains a gimmick in what becomes a painfully predictable slasher flick. There are no big twists, no psychological depth, and the last-gasp feminism feels forced. It’s barely a commentary on misguided movie masculinity, forget the parasocial love triangle between fans, films and life. A lot of time is devoted to Rakesh chasing and hurting Satya through the night, which is an irony given how the film starts out as a critique of the skewed pop culture that inspired him. At best, it fluffs the opportunity to do a You, the self-satirical Netflix show about a woke and well-read stalker who thinks he’s better than the other incels of his generation. Rakesh keeps insisting he’s not crazy, but the film-making doesn’t buy into his delusions. The spell dissipates when we see him talking to a dead security guard, and especially when he breaks the fourth wall to address us for no particular reason. That the film opens with Satya doing the same (after her underwater sequence) is perhaps a riff on how modern-day female protagonists have more agency than old damsel-in-distress stereotypes. The track of her hapless fiance (Akshay Oberoi) reiterates this theme, except the result isn’t as clever or edgy as it should be. The cinematography tries its best to make the film look visually interesting – where the neon-lights flashing across walls of glass bleed into the office rooms – but the style is ultimately as vacant as the spaces. It’s still strange to see a corporate building completely devoid of people in the middle of Mumbai, no matter how late it is.
Rakul Preet Singh is oddly repetitive as Satya. When she changes tone and decides to manipulate her captor, it feels like the character is playing a human being and not vice versa. I quite like Pavail Gulati, and as much as I enjoyed watching him go all Cape Fear (1991) on us, he deserves better than a movie that plays it so straight. He reminds me of Rajkummar Rao and Naveen Kasturia, a mix that puts him in the position to play disarming portraits of moral ambiguity. He even manages to pull off a tired “maybe he’s tied up” pun early on in the film when Satya wonders where her boyfriend is. It’s not his fault that the writing fails to look past the commercial tropes of darkness it set out to subvert. It’s not his fault the film flatters to deceive, or that it makes me feel as creepy as his character when I think of the title to the tune of ‘I Love You’ from Mr. India (1987). So what if it isn’t a 1990s hit? In the hands of Rakesh Oberoi, those iconic red glasses would become red flags.