Knowing that a newly released Bollywood film resembles an established hit from another film industry often interferes with the viewing experience. Knowing that U Me aur Hum was to bear some resemblance to Cassavetes’ The Notebook (2004) prevented a focused engagement with its dramatic moments because the old bogey of prediction comes into play and doesn’t leave you alone. And predictably, the structure of “The Notebook is there in Ajay Devgan’s new film even though the angle has been changed to accommodate a different audience and to allow the director to display glimpses of originality. Not only has Devgan directed the film but he is also one of its writers and stars.
Like The Notebook, U Me aur Hum is a story of love that transcends the crippling “stand off” occasioned by the onset of dementia. Where unconditional love is given in the Hollywood version, Ajay’s love for Pia (Kajol) is tested and needs to mature in order to cope with her declining mental state. This is clearly the more interesting and complex (real) spin on the story but in Devgan’s hands it receives rather inconsistent treatment because the emphasis seems to be on glitz rather than good old-fashioned character development. Unfortunately, split-screen editing, flashbacks within retrospective story telling, urban sophistication, and Ram Gopal Varma-like forays into horror can’t generate the emotional wallop of a well developed screenplay. In fact, quite a few of the techniques used were jarring, distracting form the development of the story and lessening the impact of the fine acting by the leads.
The first half of the film is weaker than the second yet it is vital in establishing the bond between the couple and our belief in their togetherness. For a film which is essentially of the dramatic genre, the early development is rather puerile – a little like Akshay Kumar courting Vidya Balan in Heyy Babyy where flippancy is better suited. Pia falls for Ajay because he has secretly read her Book of Possibilities (diary) and has consequently morphed into the her perfect man – one who dances salsa, likes dogs, speaks soothingly to the elderly and gives her liqueur chocolates. This really isn’t grounds for a deep relationship and should only have occupied a short period of screen time instead of swamping the pre-intermission portion of the film.
Sure there are some ship-board high-jinks and some attempts at delineating the shortcomings in the relationships of Ajay’s friends played by Isha Sharvani, Sumeet Raghavan, Karran Khanna and Divya Dutta. Yes – we view the majestic liner from various angles as she ploughs through the aquamarine – a metaphor for the journey – “the greatest journey” in fact, which is “the distance between two people.”(Also the tagline of Curran’s The Painted Veil-2006) Belief in the fact that pair are in love is more a product of the couple’s apparent ease and warmth on screen rather than a result of the screenplay or dialogues which pan out as a long cliché.
Dramatic moments are shown in flashback which sustains interest but also leads to fragmentation. The viewer is confronted by an incomprehensible jump in the narrative so that the flow of the story is put on hold until the information deficit is rectified by way of a flashback. The technique is used about three times in the post intermission period which destabilizes understanding of where Pia and Ajay are in terms of their relationship.
Further distraction is created by the style used to convey Pia’s dementia. The bare white walls and canted shots of a Ram Gopal Varma horror film along with the clichéd soundscape of a haunting child’s song followed by quase-religious choral vocals and a number of dissonant noises – all contribute to the impression that Pia’s condition is being sensationalised. This heavy-handedness is possibly a response to poor characterisation but serves to alienate rather than create empathy for her plight. Certainly, there would be a surreal feel to the disturbing loss of mental faculty which Pia is experiencing. However, playing it so completely from her perspective is incongruous because she is not a fully developed character and the story is essentially being told from Ajay’s perspective.
After a particularly tense confrontation between the couple, the scene segues into a cheeky song – Saiyaan where the dysfunctional Pia turns - albeit briefly, into her sexy coquettish self. This is one of two occasions where a song disrupts dramatic flow. (The other occasion is the Phatte interlude even though both songs mentioned are enjoyable.) In a masala movie dynamic change is quite acceptable but in a romantic drama it can undo the momentum leading to the climax. When Ajay gives his defining speech about the selfish nature of his relationship with Pia it seems like “a bolt out of the blue.” In developments till this point it is difficult to discern that Ajay is battling with his conscience; struggling with what is best for Pia which is probably the result of an inadequate screenplay coupled with overzealous technical ornamentation.
If you haven’t seen The Notebook (which is not a better film) and you are one who responds to actors rising above ineffectual material and techniques, then maybe you will need some tissues. Otherwise, like me, you might need an expresso to stay awake.