Love: traveling between Aaj and Kal
Imtiaz Ali’s last film Jab We Met struck a chord with viewers – it racked up film awards in 2007-08 and did big box office. His latest, Love Aaj Kal, is a page from the same book, and has many of the same charms. Though most viewers will figure out the ending before the interval, the storytelling makes it enjoyable, especially if you already like the masala formula. Ali has the gift of writing and directing films that are commercial and at the same time innovative and fresh.
The title can be read as a pun on time and memory and reflects the narrative’s division into two parallel love stories from aaj (today) and kal (yesterday): Harleen Kaur and Veer Singh in India 40 years ago, and Meera Pandit and Jai Vardhan Singh in London and India, present day. In contrasting the opinion of two versions of the same person (Saif Ali Khan as Jai in 2009 and Veer in 1965), the story gives some hints about what love aaj kal (these days) is and could be.
The film’s framework is familiar, and gets a lot of depth from the layers that complement each other. Meera (Deepika Padukone) and Jai have been dating for two years in London, and though they share a relaxed and strong rapport, both are on the verge of realizing career dreams that will take them to different faraway places. With the emphasis on being “practical” about the problems of keeping the relationship going from far away, they mutually decide to break up.
We’ve seen loads of versions of this story before in Hindi films, where one or both of the pair rationalizes staying apart. The intelligent script adds enough new elements to combine both the pleasure of the familiar with elements to surprise or give insights into what makes people tick.
Padukone plays Meera well in a similar vein as her character in Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008). She’s smart, snappy, and Jai’s equal in terms of shaping her own independent life. We don’t get the chance to see what she’s wrestling with throughout their separation to the same extent as Jai, which is too bad because there are hints she’s way more emotionally intelligent and self-aware than he is. Meera’s journey could have brought the fundamental message of the film home with more depth than Jai’s.
It also would have been nice to see things from Harleen Kaur’s point of view – she’s mostly voiceless throughout, save for a dialog where she asks Veer not to follow her so openly. We hope that she agrees as he pursues her because he believes she’s his soulmate. The only time we see her thoughts is the song “Thoda Thoda Pyaar” which may or many not be an indirect message to Veer about her feelings for him. If there’s an area that the film could have been more groundbreaking in exploring, it would have been the female character in 1965. Her family may have been uninterested in her opinions about who to marry, but the audience is another story.
The film’s indifference to the female characters is most pronounced here. By bowing to commercial film conventions that dictate a young and pretty female lead, whether or not she can act or even speak (as is the case here), the plot leans towards lazy mediocrity. A masala film with a handsome lead actor who has only only two lines is virtually impossible to imagine. Shah Rukh Khan’s mute character in Koyla (1997) even gets his voice back to give a final monologue!
Saif Ali Khan’s brash nice guy is one of his stock-in-trade characters – he should copyright the mannerisms. He plays the role well, mixing Jai’s detached pragmatism in relationships with a current of sadness and pathos that gives his inner self away. Jai’s relationship with Meera is believable in its happiness, intensity, and sadness. The characters seem evenly matched in their ability to decide where they want (or think they want) to go at each juncture.
Cinematography by N Natarajan Subramaniam, who also worked on Jab We Met and Parineeta (2005) conveys the joy and openness of unconscious love and the closing in of unhappiness. Though the background palette is washed out onscreen in Veer’s world (as are most of the film’s flashbacks), it’s also enlivened by a bright Veer and Harleen, like a colorized old movie. Multicolored kites and sheets flap in the breeze of a rural Panjab. The happy scenes (including a reunited-as-friends Jai and Meera) are awash with light and open space. A few shots seem lifted from Veer-Zaara (2004), but this reference may have been intentional, to add extra story dimension by echoing that film’s similar plot of separated love across time.
Background music by Salim-Sulaiman is unobtrusive and at the same time helps carry the narrative from scene to scene. Pritam’s score (with lyrics by Irshad Kamil) fares better within the film, enhancing and commenting on the storyline, than as stand-alone songs.
The story the ending hints at is love “kal,” (as in “tomorrow”) showing us a huge and pastoral horizon. Here is the one transition that feels wildly out of place in the film, as this scene cuts to an item number (“Aahun Aahun,” a rework of Panjabi folk song “Kadhi Te Has Bol Ve”) to end the film and roll the credits.
After all the open space and wide vistas of the film proper, the indoor claustrophobia of dark walls, dense dark clouds, and cubbyhole grids seem out of tune with the rest of the visuals. Even at his lowest point, Jai alone in his apartment could see the panorama over the Bay Bridge. The relatively tiny film set is jarring after the light and wide viewpoints. Some more of the playful warm friendship between Jai and Meera would have left a sweeter taste at the end of this candyfloss story with a bit of substance at its core.