Director: Imtiaz Ali
Cast: Sara Ali Khan, Kartik Aaryan, Randeep Hooda
The title comes from Imitaz's own 2009 film, which also features two love stories across two time zones. But the second film isn't a sequel or a reboot. It borrows the structure of the first to establish the same sentiment – that the rules of engagement of romance might change with the times but the essence of love, that feeling of connection that makes life worth living, remains the same. Once again, we have a modern couple, struggling with the complexities of relationships versus ambition. And once again, there is an older, wiser confidante and advisor Raj, who tries to steer the course of the stormy relationship between Zoe and Veer (in the first film, the advisor played by a genial Rishi Kapoor, was also named Veer).
The first film isn't among Imtiaz's classics but it had some terrific lines – you remember the descriptor 'aam aadmi' or 'mango people' and Jai's famous rant about love – Yeh Heer-Ranjha… janam-janam ka saath-type ke log ye sirf kahaniyon mein hote hain…do jism ek jaan-type…yeh kya hai? Ye baatein humesha humesha se logo ko confuse kar diya hain. There was also Pritam's memorable music and two charming leads – Saif Ali Khan who was at the top of his urbane, lover boy game and Deepika Padukone who hadn't yet blossomed as an actor but who had enough beauty and spark to make the chemistry work. When Meera says, 'Yeh waisi vali feeling hai,' you believe her. The film also juiced the magic of an old-world romance, in which a boy spends days gazing at the woman he loves who stands silently in a balcony like Juliet.
The first problem in this film is the time zones – the gap between 1990 and 2020 isn't vast enough. Here too, Raghu gazes at Leena who stands in her balcony. Once again, there is parental and societal opposition – their romance shakes up Udaipur. In a nicely done sequence, you see the gossip gain ground. But there is no sense of that desperate longing that Veer and Harleen had in the first film. That sepia-toned romance, which gave the film its ache, is wholly missing here.
Randeep Hooda valiantly tries to anchor the film. His skillful acting gives the film much-needed depth. His story, which is unexpected and yearning, is the best part of Love Aaj Kal
But what really hobbles Love Aaj Kal is the 2020 story. Zoe's big dilemma is that she can't choose between her event-planner career and love. She's a girl who has mapped her life out till she's 55 and her emotions for Veer disrupt these plans. But here's the thing – the film never manages to make this much-discussed career feel real. We see Zoe's fierce ambition – she unbuttons her shirt for a key business meeting so she looks more attractive. There's also a lame backstory about her passive-aggressive mother who insists that she prioritize a career over love. But the conflict is mostly in Zoe's head. She decides not to take up an attractive job offer and then proceeds to have a meltdown about her decision. Veer doesn't make demands. He's like a friendly puppy dog ready to roll over for her. In fact, he's so pliable that his creepy stalking behavior early in their relationship comes off as bumbling. Which makes me wonder if this entire 2-hour, 21-minute wrestling between love and career could have been avoided with a single conversation. It doesn't help that Zoe's anguish plays out in luxury – these two work out of a cushy co-working place. She parties in expensive nightclubs and wears stylish clothes. Her suffering is so superficial and so first-world that it's tough to summon sympathy.
Imtiaz has written Zoe as a girl who combines a brittle exterior with a fragile interior. She's complicated and muddled, in places, even unlikable. This is a tough part, both to write and to play, and neither Imtiaz nor Sara Ali Khan can make it land. The camera frames Zoe in close-ups and low-angles, which only underlines Sara's shrillness. Her struggle to master her expressions shows. Kartik Aaryan playing both Veer and Raghu does slightly better. Though Veer is a bewildering character – he's a Rumi-quoting idealist who is so awkward in the beginning that you wonder if there is a developmental issue – Raghu is better written. There is a good-natured goofiness about him at the start – his attempts to show love through Bollywood gestures and his body-hurling breakdancing is fun. Arushi Sharma who plays Leena has a lovely, dignified presence. And Randeep Hooda valiantly tries to anchor the film. Like Rishi Kapoor in the first film, Randeep is mostly just narrating his own love story. But his skillful acting gives the film much-needed depth. His story, which is unexpected and yearning, is the best part of Love Aaj Kal.
Imtiaz is Hindi cinema's high priest of romance. With this film, he tries to dive deeper and go darker. He wants to show us the loneliness of pure ambition and the emptiness of hook-up culture. In one scene, a drunk Zoe is left by a boy on an empty street in the middle of the night. That's a chilling situation for any girl but the film doesn't want to delve into how terrifying this actually could be. Everything is sanitized and pretty. So Zoe tells her boss: Kaam hi mera boyfriend hai but you never feel her struggle. Raj is a successful businessman but he never seems too busy – mostly, he's just lounging around, ready to tell stories when Zoe needs them.
In Love Aaj Kal, Imitaz once again, tries to make a case for the redemptive nature of love. The world might be brimming with ugliness – as Zoe says: Koi magic nahi hai yahaan. But what will save us, he insists, is uncompromising human connection. In one of the film's best scenes, Raj weeps at the gap between what he is and what he wanted to be. Love Aaj Kal urges us to seize the moment and the person who can help us get there.
I go into every Imtiaz movie ready to be seduced by this argument and hoping that he will transport us to that sweet spot – dil aur duniya ke beech. Sadly, Love Aaj Kal misses the mark by a mile.