At a London club, someone calls Saif Ali Khan ‘uncle’. There are women around and the music is loud. This is a familiar stomping ground for the character, so the insult hurts. Ticked off, he joins his detractor for an impromptu drinking contest. It ends disastrously, with Saif crashing from bartop to floor. Now he has a bust on his leg and a staff in his hand. That’s the film’s way of visually cuing us in: this ‘uncle’ is about to become a grandfather.
Jassie (Saif) is a real estate broker. He’s 40, single, and always on the prowl. He has a family, but he lives alone. Occasionally, when flirting with a girl at his best friend’s club, he drifts off to another time. “90s ki woh khusboo (the scent of the nineties)…,” he tells a perfectly contemporary-looking woman, rightly picking out her perfume while messing up her name. One evening, at the same club, Jassie runs into a 21-year-old girl. They meet again, and he brings her back to his pad. He’s inches away from kissing her — when she breaks the news.
This girl, Tia (debutante Alaya F), claims she might be his daughter. “There’s a 33.33 per cent chance,” she says — not an instantly incriminating percentage but worth checking out. Jassie, after all, is a broker; he understands relative risk or at least the risk of relatives. Reluctantly, he goes in for a DNA test. There, he’s told that not only is Tia very much his daughter but that she’s also carrying a child of her own. It’s the strangest of double whammies, a confusion aggravated by Tia’s absent mom (“she’s meditating”) and Jassie’s utter disregard for kinship. “Marriage makes a man chomu,” he frets, while pairing dinner jackets with metal tees and getting his hair dyed.
If all of this sounds trite, it’s because it is. Nitin Kakkar’s Jawaani Jaaneman is a languid stroll through old clichés, a refresher playing out like a flashback. Drifting playboys, strained relationships — you can skip half of Saif’s filmography and reach back to 1998, when Salman Khan grudgingly parented Aditya Narayan in Jab Pyaar Kisise Hota Hai. It’s no coincidence that Farida Jalal — who often played the grandmother in those movies — turns up here as well. A more recent strand, however, can be found farther west. In Harmony Korine’s Beach Bum (2019), Mathew McConaughey floated along as a carefree, middle-aged poet. Jassie too sings of flying away solo, but, being the Hindi film hero that he is, must prepare for some stiff grilling and a climactic sprint to the airport.
Turning 50 this year, Saif has been looking back for a while. There was a Dil Chahta Hai reference in Chef (2017). In Baazaar, his hair had an extra dash of grey. Still in theatres is Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior, where he teamed up with Ajay Devgn, the cracker co-star from Kachche Dhaage and Omkara. In Jawaani Jaaneman, the self-referencing is both literal and flat. We see him recreate the zippy energy of Ole Ole, but there’s no added glint of melancholy. It’s not the same as, say, Sanjay Kapoor grooving to Ankhiyaan Milaoon Kabhi in Mission Mangal, or John Travolta twisting in Pulp Fiction. It’s a recreation for recreation’s sake, and it takes a different scene — and a different actor’s song — for Saif to really whoop it up.
There’s another problem. Jassie — who insists on the even shorter ‘Jazz’ — is a stock character. There’s nothing to distinguish him from a playboy in his 30s or 20s. The film tries to flip the script by introducing his daughter’s pregnancy. But it doesn’t work. We spend so long hanging out with the character that, when the time comes, his transformation feels fake. This is partly achieved through Tia’s boyfriend — a character Jassie keeps putting down, but who is really an echo of his past. Saif rocks his signature clowning, prancing around in a bathrobe, but can’t sell the mature bits.
Not that the film cares. Jawaani Jaanewan is, like I said, a hangout film. It trims conflict for humour and chill vibes. It stars the majestic Tabu, dropping in as a stoner mom with a delectable reading of the word ‘Sambhog’. Alaya, making one of the most assured debuts in recent memory, is both confident and frail. Her character finds herself in a tough spot, but there’s no bitterness in her performance. It’s all easy, and it’s all good. Even Farida Jalal has eased up. Speaking to Tia, she tells her she can come home, but only if she feels like it. No pressure.
Film: Jawaani Jaaneman
Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Alaya F, Tabu