That Imtiaz Ali’s main women characters are his ‘muse’ is obvious to everyone who engages with his films, and that he seems to be in awe of them often is also somewhat obvious. But what isn’t obvious is why, often, he refuses to engage with what it is about them that awes him? Instead of adding depth to the women in his films, he adds quirks. Highway is, of course, a brilliant exception to this where Veera (the fantastic Alia Bhatt) delivers a monologue about a troubled childhood that wrings one’s heart. That monologue carries the weight of the story, gives her role the gravitas that is missing in almost all other women in Ali’s films.
The ‘bubbly’ Geet (Kareena Kapoor in superb form and with great comic timing in Jab We Met) is a collection of quirks – talks a lot, does her own thing, wears a lot of chunky jewellery and is very much in love. It isn’t until she goes through heartbreak (after which, dramatically, she loses all of these quirks temporarily), that we see some other emotion from her. It is true that Geet and Aditya swap roles at the interval, but while Aditya gets to run a successful business, get over his mother’s love for another man, his ex-girlfriend’s marriage to someone else and suicidal tendencies, Geet gets to fall in and out of love. Be quirky or lose them quirks.
This isn’t to say of course that one doesn’t enjoy Ali’s films. One does. Almost all of them! From Socha Na Tha to Tamasha. Which is why I am often conflicted by his films. They are very ‘watchable’, and yet, one can’t shake off the feeling that his leading ladies are on ‘display’. As they say in Jab We Met, ‘they are meant to be displayed in museums’ because they are so ‘precious’, ‘different’ and ‘mysterious’. (I am not sure how we are supposed to engage with Heer of Rockstar, because one doesn’t really know where a depthless Heer ends and where Nargis Fakhri’s awkward, ineffective acting chops take off.)
Perhaps Ali feels that women ‘have it made’. Women seem to have figured something out that the men in his films are often confused and conflicted about. Perhaps the men in the worlds he creates, are struggling to make sense of the rules of the game, while women, to him, seem like masters at it. They are in touch with their emotions and able to quickly identify what they want – like Meera in Love Aaj Kal and Tara in Tamasha. Or perhaps, he is just unable to get over the ‘muse’ and ‘artist’ relationship between men and women.
One of the two leading characters in his films usually come into light, reveal themselves and then fade, making way for the other to take over. And usually, the men stay longer in the light and have richer inner lives, etc. But in his latest, Jab Harry Met Sejal, there is a marked departure. While Anushka’s Sejal is nothing but empty quirks (an accent that she forgets to put on often, and a fake declaration that she is very selfish), Shah Rukh’s Harry doesn’t even get the usual backstory or struggles, ‘like daddy won’t let me study in an arts college’ or ‘I need to fail in love to make great art’.
To Anushka’s credit, her screen presence is always fabulous in this film, and she plays the woman with a career, and a life and mind of her own, that are hallmarks of Ali’s films very well. But there’s only so much anyone can do to save a flimsy premise. So far, in Ali’s films, the women were muses and the men struggling. The ‘women’ served a ‘higher purpose’. For the men to realise their journeys and paths in life.
But this latest film showcases how hollow that premise is. Quirks are no replacements for depth in anybody. And journeys of discovery are best when everyone takes away something from them. Not with one person serving the purpose of another’s self-actualisation.
(The writer is a city-based journalist and editor)