There’s the thinnest of lines between self-tribute and self-parody. Director Imtiaz Ali has finally crossed it with the new Love Aaj Kal.
For years, the filmmaker has knocked us over the head with themes of self-actualization and true love — how the two interlink in the context of a modern relationship. He doles out a similar existential waffle in this one but forgets to add his signature chocolate sauce and cream. The result, I’m afraid, is neither sweet nor savoury, and can cause a severe toothache.
The film borrows the template of his 2009 romantic hit. Not the biggest of landmarks, the original Love Aaj Kal had its moments. It flip-flopped between timelines to tell a simple, coherent, engaging story.
The narrative — about professional high-flyers weighed down by personal wreck — was turbulent but not overwrought, tenderly drawn by the sprightly duo of Saif Ali Khan and Deepika Padukone.
The new film, which stars Kartik Aaryan and Sara Ali Khan in the lead, is a garbled mess, spinning circles around dead-end themes and landing ever so often with a thud.
The case against Jab Harry Met Sejal, Imtiaz’s last effort, was that it was too thin on plot. He responds here with a frustrating maze of a movie, a whirring cassette tape stuck on a long and endless loop.
Zoe (Sara) is an ambitious young woman in Delhi. She’s impossibly fussy about her career, having mapped out specific milestones and events for her life.
Naturally, she regards love as a distraction, opting instead for casual hookups now and then. It’s on one of these jaunts that she meets Veer (Kartik) — the latest in the Imtiaz Ali catalog of men on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
A real piece of work, Veer sneaks Zoe back to his place but does not venture beyond first base. When she walks out in a huff, he doesn’t desist but shows up at her workplace the next day.
All right, all right... here’s the deal. Zoe is a nervy go-getter; Veer is looking for his One True Love. Neither would settle for a compromise.
The film, of course, tips the scale against Zoe, forcing her to pick between career and love. It’s an infuriating false dichotomy always reserved for female characters (Veer, by contrast, is an eccentric software whiz, fluffing job offers at will). Annoyed with her quandary, Zoe forges a friendship with Raghu (Randeep Hooda), the owner of the café she works out of.
In fragmented scraps, Raghu starts narrating his story — from a time when he still looked like Kartik Aaryan, and fell incredibly hard for a girl named Leena (debutante Arushi Sharma).
In interviews, Imtiaz has defended this retread as a sort of catching up with times. Which is strange, since nothing about the film struck me as freshly contemporary. The opening sequence is a mash-up of modernity cues: graffiti, pride parade, social media posts.
Yet, once the main ride gets going, the hipness falls apart. Zoe’s overzealousness is pinned on her single mother (she has an elder sister at home, a wordless character thrown in as a personal warning sign). In one scene, Zoe, post-breakup, has a drunken breakdown. It’s a direct nod to Cocktail (2012), but with none of the emotional ruin of Deepika’s character. The idea, simply, is to reintroduce Veer as a savior.
The men quote Rumi and generally talk a lot. Yet, it’s the flashes of violence that reveal more about their characters. Both Veer and Raghu react violently in similar situations.
The trigger, in each case, is a sort of indignant masculine rage, the kind that drives Hindi film heroes to smack uniformed cops in the face. It’s another sign that for all his modern posturings, Imtiaz is a deeply conservative director, as given to filmy compulsion and tropes as anybody else. Time and again, there’s a hint of a progressive breakthrough. And at each turn, the film takes a sharp right.
Love Aaj Kal does not speak to the present. It does not speak to the past. It speaks precisely to one person: the beleaguered Tamasha fan who might just show up for a refill. It’s the unholiest of cash-grabs — and an all-time low for its writer-director. The film’s brightest scene has Zoe speaking to her boss, explaining why she has made her work her boyfriend: “It pays my bills. It’s always available. It guides me in life.” That’s some serious commitment to craft, in a film that clearly has none.