Director: Imtiaz Ali
Cast: Sara Ali Khan, Kartik Aaryan, Randeep Hooda
There is no dignified way to put it. If Highway was his Satya, Love Aaj Kal (2.0? 2020? Again?) is Imtiaz Ali Ki Aag. It took the commercial success of Jab We Met for moviegoers to recognize that Socha Na Tha was in fact a charming debut, but it might take the unprecedented silliness of Love Aaj Kal to recognize that maybe Jab Harry Met Sejal was not the worst film of the director's career. For those who complain that the women of Ali's love stories don't have enough agency, or that they're merely devices to rescue the man, Love Aaj Kal is cold-blooded revenge: It drunkenly sways to the whims of a kooky heroine, and it's not a pretty sight. Let's just say that Zoe (Sara Ali Khan) is what you get if the Joker wiped off his face paint to reveal that he's actually a millennial girl torn between love and career. She is an agent of chaos, and by far one of the most sociopathic romantic leads I've seen on screen – a little like the Ranbir Kapoor man-child hero but…oh, so that's what it feels like.
Love Aaj Kal might be designed as a wake-up call to this generation, but it sounds like the snooze-mode alarm that just keeps ringing till you smash the phone into pieces
What is this film about? Out-of-syllabus question. The easy explanation is that it's an update of the old-is-gold-but-new-sucks template of its predecessor, Love Aaj Kal (2009) – rusty rotary dial telephones are purer than shiny smartphones but not as pure as you think, and all that. The 2020 narrative has Zoe and Veer (Kartik Aaryan) acting like they've escaped to Delhi from a straight-to-digital Gaspar Noe movie. They speak the kind of hep gibberish that older uncles and aunties routinely equate with sub-25 stoners ("kaisa item hai tu?," "Kill the bitch in me," "Fuck this world!"); they're eccentric, modern, very modern, super-modern, walking-talking gym posters and world-class self sabotagers. At one point, Zoe justifies the strategy of undoing her top button before an interview by delivering a monologue about how she is proud of her body and flaunting (more of) it makes her feel confident and, hence, ready to dazzle. So far, so Befikre. In Love Aaj Kal (2009), an old Sikh man (Rishi Kapoor) narrates to Jai (Saif Ali Khan) his period tale of small-town love. This time, a bar owner (Randeep Hooda) narrates to Zoe the sepia-tinted story of his teenage romance. The 1990 narrative has Leena (a dignified Aarushi Sharma) and Raghu (Aaryan, filling in as young Hooda) courting each other in quaint Udaipur. There's a delightful scene where, at the school prom, Leena and Raghu burn up the dance-floor with an awkward breakdance routine that doubles up as their falling-in-love moment. It comes early on in the film and you wonder: Will all the nicer moments only be limited to the arc of the director's own generation? Will the Aaj be a pale, puerile shadow of the Kal? Spoiler alert: Yes, and yes.
But this explanation is too simple. Surely, there has to be a deeper point to this film. Surely, there must be some scope for intellectualization? I wait and watch. Leena and Raghu do a Dhadak and escape to the big city, while present-day Veer and Zoe create their own conflicts. Suddenly, the flashback gets darker, and darker, and then it hits me. Like many of his films, this one, too, is a reaction to his own legacy. Tamasha, with all its lofty metaphors of storytelling, was Imtiaz Ali's way of addressing his critics who accused him of telling the same story over and over again. Love Aaj Kal, with its dismantling of lofty stories, is his way of addressing the fans who have long deified him. At some warped level, he attempts to do what Martin Scorsese did with The Irishman or Before Midnight did with the Before trilogy – a reality check that shatters the myth of his own making.
The parallels exist if you look for them: Ali himself is Hooda, a smart middle-aged narrator of what initially seems like a tortured tale of star-crossed soulmates. Veer is the hopeless idealist who has watched far too many Imtiaz Ali films. For instance, when they first hook up, Veer refuses to have sex with Zoe because he is convinced she is "the one," and that they need to optimize this chance meeting. He even quotes Rumi, before mentioning that he memorized it from truck-rear bumpers and Whatsapp forwards. Zoe is the impressionable wide-eyed fan, being all derivative and unoriginal and desperate to get inspired by Hooda's story. She has no mind of her own. "You expected a happily ever after, didn't you? But life always happens," he sermonizes, bursting her bubble and triggering a montage of screechy meltdowns. To be fair, I'd imagine that's how I would behave if he told me that Tamasha was a blatant lie. A particular breakup sequence at Veer's parent's house is so overwrought that Agar Tum Saath Ho feels like a distant dream. (For some reason, Sara Ali Khan overacts even when she dances, and Kartik Aaryan overplays the notion of restraint till there's no more left of him).
Evidently, Ali's confessional cinema looks nowhere as honest as his global counterparts': It feels more like a mockery of the heart than a punch to the gut. The storyteller is no saint, he suggests, and proceeds to deconstruct those rose-tinted glasses. Yet, the visual language remains fictional: The characters are still very much pretentious people written on paper. Everything is verbalized (Examples: "I am a cautionary tale!" "You have started to annoy me," "I want our story to play out naturally"), and there is zero scope for subtext. In short, the sight of Zoe and Veer going on to make a hot mess of what should have been a perfectly stable relationship is well in sync with what Ali recently stated in an interview: I pity the generation that looks at me as a love guru. Love Aaj Kal might be designed as a wake-up call to this generation, but it sounds like the snooze-mode alarm that just keeps ringing till you smash the phone into pieces. It is fashioned as a reminder of the individualism of love – and the need to protect it from the toxic claws of pop culture. If only the film, too, practiced what it so patronizingly preaches.