Early in Jab Harry Met Sejal, Sejal tells Harry that there is no problem with them traveling across Europe together because, she says, 'I can control boss. Anytime, anywhere, anyone.' Anyone obviously doesn't include Shah Rukh Khan, one of Hindi cinema's most enduring romantic heroes, delivering an honest, instinctive performance.
He is Harry, a grizzled, wounded tour guide in Europe. A man who drowns his loneliness and failed ambitions in alcohol and casual sex. A man who describes himself as cheap because he can't keep his hands off his female clients. Harry is a cynical creep with a lame, underwritten back story but Shah Rukh makes us care about him. He exposes his vulnerability and even, cries unabashedly. Of course, Sejal falls in love with him. We all do.
I wish Harry had been in a different film. I wish he had fallen in love with Geet from Jab We Met or Tara from Tamasha or Alizeh from Ae Dil Hai Mushkil – women with fire and wit and personality. Because Sejal is a damp, inconsistent squib. Anushka, styled nicely by Aki Narula, tries to give heft to this woman but honestly, until the last scene, I had no idea who Sejal is or what she wanted.
She is naïve, silly and so ignorant that she asks Harry if Amsterdam is in France. She insists that Harry find her sexually attractive but also says that she is not the type of woman who runs away with her tour guide. I wanted to ask what type of woman runs away with a tour guide? In a film as ostensibly cool as this, are we still peddling archaic stereotypes?
But the biggest offender here is writer-director Imtiaz Ali. Imtiaz excels in combining stars and the requisite mainstream glamour with narratives that feel raw and messy. He gives us fantasies that are at once, aspirational and insightful. In his best films, we feel like we are watching a prettified version of reality.
But here he doesn't bother to write a story. The search for Sejal's engagement ring is just an excuse to put two characters on a journey through picturesque European countries – we get narrow cobbled streets, old world cafes, boat rides, trams. All set against Pritam's lively music.
But the plot makes little sense – at one point, Harry and Sejal are actually looking for the ring in a large town square and in another scene, she is peering into a hedge. We are told that Sejal's family is in the diamond business. It is suggested that the family is conservative because her fiancé proposes to her in a room filled with aunts and uncles. But no one is concerned that she's traipsing around Europe with a man.
The journey – literal and metaphorical – is Imtiaz's favourite trope. His characters discover who they really are as they travel. Jab Harry Met Sejal repeats this formula without tweaking it. The first half coasts along on charm, small moments and laughter but the film derails in the second. The plot careens without any larger design. In one scene, Sejal is trying to seduce Harry by cavorting around the room. In another, a gangster named Gas shows up. And then, suddenly we are in Frankfurt at a friend's wedding.
All through this, Harry and Sejal sleep in the same room but not together. Their relationship remains as sex-less as that of Raj and Simran's in DDLJ. Is this believable, even for a second? Of course, not.
The problem is that Imtiaz is unable to mould the larger-than-life romantic persona of Shah Rukh into his own more bruised brand of romance. Twenty-two years later, Shah Rukh is still Raj – tender, sensitive and resolutely chaste – at least with the woman he loves.
Imtiaz and Shah Rukh coming together should have created a romantic classic. Instead Imtiaz has made his weakest film to date. Jab Harry Met Sejal doesn't touch your insides. It's not truthful enough to move you.
Which just broke my heart. Because I really wanted to love this film.