A film like Love Aaj Kal carries a huge burden of expectations on its shoulders and is a tough one to review. Do you treat it as a stand alone product? Do you compare it to Jab We Met? Do you compare it to other contemporary romcoms? Or do you have to go back to the roots of the modern romcom genre, just like the director? Imtiaz Ali is well known for making stories steeped in love. His first two outings had spunky females, confused males and a local feel to the stories. His trajectory has been upward moving both in star value and gloss and glitter, thus he moved from Ayesha Takia and Abhay Deol in SNT, to Kareena and Shahid Kapoor in JWM and the big song dance numbers showed up in the latter. So what does Imtiaz dish up in Love Aaj Kal? It is not sufficient to have a confused male, or a depressed one, and both slowly realizing the value of love. Now we have an urban, nay intercontinental, love story where no one is confused – other than the viewer that is. Is it about love? Are these people in love? Does boyfriend and girlfriend imply love today or merely snogging and shagging? I think these are valid questions the director raises about the nature of relationships today. But coming on the heels of JWM, where Geet imagined the forever kind of love with Anshuman in Bhatinda and Simla, you wonder if this is an indictment of western culture as Jai and Meera meet in London and the story flits from country to country.
Jai (Saif Ali Khan) meets Meera (Deepika Padukone) in a lift and then in a night club over a few drinks and of course there is immediate attraction and near immediate gratification of the non-chaste kind. Soon they are girlfriend/boyfriend and we are told she is an art-restorer and his only ambition is to work for Golden Gate Company in San Francisco and build bridges like the Golden Gate. Cheesy as this may sound, it is not a patch on what happens when he does achieve his ambition!!! Meera gets a job restoring old buildings in India and Jai is still in London – rather than deal with a long-distance relationship, they decide to have a break-up party and call it quits. That is when Jai meets the aging sardar Veer (Rishi Kapoor) who tells him he is making a big mistake because in his days (KAL) love meant commitment and forever and never letting go! The film now begins to crisscross between Aaj and Kal. The past theme is in full out Yashraj homage mode. In fact Imtiaz could submit these clips and immediately get a gig there. As Veer sees the young and shy Harleen (Giselle) and pursues her vigorously, we see many colored chiffon dupattas flying in the wind. Veer follows her to Calcutta not unlike Raj following Simran, he meets her surreptitiously, gets into the household under false pretenses, is beaten up at the train station!
We see Harleen bidding goodbye to Veer in a VeerZaara setting in the Old Fort. In a departure from the DDLJ graph (and VeerZaara) the Kal track is following, Veer asks for the mother’s blessing and runs away with Harleen!! So Imtiaz follows all the traditional trappings of the golden YashRaj romances, but in a departure from both VeerZaara and DDLJ, the boy actually sacrifices family for love and thus love triumphs! This Kal sequence is the high point of the film, and Rishi narrating, even Saif in his improbable but still endearing Sardar persona, and the young and shy Harleen make this into a memorable experience.
The Aaj track is supposedly more contemporary, and even after the breakup Jai and Meera constantly e-mail and text each other, about their various routines, and their entanglements. Jai cuts loose in London, meets a blonde Frenchwoman who falls for him in a big way – but she is shown to be pretty dumb, so that is a stereotype taken care of and an explanation given for why a great looking young blonde woman would fall for our 38 year old hero!! Meera meanwhile is inviting the boss for dinner and soon they too are a couple. There is one moment of excellent acting by Saif in the sequence where Meera tells him she is dating the boss and he tells her to wait on the line and goes through a gamut of expressions – from shock to dismay to acceptance. Then Jai brings the girlfriend to Delhi and put her on a tour bus (dumb blonde anyone?) while he gallivants about town with Meera – as the couple that are comfortable with each other from years of habit. Then he leaves and the blonde shows a spark of spirit and dumps him for his lack of commitment. Meera commits to marrying the boss, marries him, and in a confrontation Jai tells her he would have married her – but of course he is drunk then, another acting high point for Saif there. It takes Meera all of one day to realize the marriage is wrong as she has feeling for Jai and it the most ridiculously written scene, she dumps the husband! At this point the film evokes a response in the theater and it is loud laughter all around us! She runs away to Jai but is told midway that he finally has his dream job and is moving to San Francisco! Meera runs back, Jay flies off. Up to this point the Aaj sequence is about confused people, who are emotionally hard to understand. But still there are many endearing moments – like when Deepika is telling Saif about his flaws, because now that they have broken up she can!
Then comes the final third of the film and it is ill-conceived, poorly written, and laughably badly acted in parts. Saif works for Golden Gate co., and the name invokes a seller of baked goods in Fisherman’s Wharf. Instead, he wears a hard hat and wanders around the already built Golden Gate bridge. Did Imtiaz not know that the Bay Bridge was and still is under construction, and would make a decent alternative? He runs to catch cable cars and people applaud him, he collects his Nutrasweet packets and plays video games. And then things get depressing for him, even though yet more blondes (and brunettes too) are giving him the come hither. He is in clinical depression, and then is mugged in downtown San Francisco – an unheard of event, and for some reason beaten to a pulp as the muggers want the picture of Deepika he is carrying. Then he goes home and smashes his video game console and trashes his apartment to tell us that he has reached the end of his rope. Then he goes back to India and finds Deepika and gets smacked about a bit and then it is happy endings. UGH.
How could Imtiaz give us LAK after SNT and JWM? It is confused and wannabe and annoying compared to his other two films which are earthy and real. My review does not mention the music. Because every song is situationally misfit and shoehorned into the film and is full of Caucasian extras in skinny clothes. There is even a guy in Buckingham Palace guard uniform (copying Its Rocking! setting). Chor Bazari is salvaged by a magical Deepika in talli mode. The final credits roll to Ahun Ahun, which is almost like a bad dancing competition – perhaps intentionally.
The dialogs range from peppy and catchy and real, like the interchanges post-breakup, to extremely poor – main tumhe baadme sorry bole doongi (as you are dumping your husband of a day)!!!! The screenplay mixes the Kal and Aaj parts in a neat way to keep the story interesting. This also saves the film from being branded inspired by Three Times (the Palm D’Or nominated film by Hsiao-hsien Hou), although the Aaj part uses some elements of the first piece in Three Times, including text contact, and the following and eventually finding a person you love. The Kal parts worked wonderfully for this viewer and kept me engaged in the film.
The acting was superior by Rishi Kapoor, though in a role he plays for the Nth time, thus inducing ennui. Neetu Singh was a joy to see in a brief moment – what a charmer even today! Deepika Padukone was stunningly beautiful throughout, be it in overalls, modern clothing or full wedding finery. She is growing as an actress with each film and here she gave a decent overall performance. There are still some issues with diction and accent, and I wonder why they do not give her a name in the film that makes the diction more believable. She was at her best in the frivolous moments, and with that smile, much can be forgiven. Giselle Monteiro plays Harleen Singh and she does a great job of looking the part – which is more than half the battle. Making her shy gave her an enigmatic and interesting persona – she would always turn her back to Veer when she talked to him, making for a most charming interaction. She really had not much else to do, and time will tell if she will make a mark in cinema.
That brings me to the hero of the show – Saif Ali Khan. Saif was in almost every frame of the film and while somewhat aged in the Aaj Casanova role, he seemed OK for the young Veer role. To me he seemed labored and straining to play the cool guy and his best moments were the ones where his vulnerabilities peeked through. I think Saif has not matured any beyond his landmark role in Omkara, and thus he always seems to fall short in later films. In fact his broody and serious act in TPTM was infinitely preferrable to his role in LAK for me.
Imtiaz Ali disappointed me with LAK, I was expecting a better film than JWM, now that he had more money at his command. Instead his film was stripped of any local appeal, and full of glitter and gloss and misplaced song and dance numbers. I am sure that LAK will be successful, but I hope that Imtiaz will go back to the basics for his next venture.
How do I rate LAK compared to other contemporary romcoms? It was more engaging than JTYJN, and leaps and bounds ahead of films like the recent KI. Just goes to show that if people expect a lot from you, then they are not happy with a halfway decent product.