Holding the mirror for Imtiaz Ali

Jab Harry Met Sejal (2017)

jab-harry-met-sally-380I am new to the films of Imtiaz Ali, but I’ve read enough about him to know that he is at the top of the list of romantic film directors in Bollywood. Rumor has it Ali’s vision of love will sweep just about anyone right off of their feet. You will become smitten with the eccentric dude who spends the first half of the film trying to convince us that he is much too hard on the inside to fall for anyone, and as his interior softens and he succumbs in spite of his best efforts, you will identify with his spiral of realization and his crisis of self. You will say, if only someone could fall for me in this way. If only I could be the source of this kind of revelation in someone as handsome as Shah Rukh/Ranbir. You will find yourself enamored by the outgoing nature of Anushka/Deepika. She will maintain and air of mystery as she dances across the European backdrop without a care. At first, you will find her annoying; she is immature, she lost her wallet/passport/credit cards/engagement ring, and she can’t find it without your help. She doesn’t know how to find herself. Maybe she can’t take care of herself? But she doesn’t care, and you find this cute. She will grow on you, the audience, as you see the protagonist grow because of her. It is interesting, because she isn’t all that complex. Not nearly as complex as the frustrated male protagonist, with his many moments of self doubt and the identity crisis that take up an entire half of the film, but still, you are drawn to her. You see how she shows the male protagonist how to become his true self, and you will find yourself asking Is there someone out there who will show me the way to become my true self? 

jab-harry-met-sejal-stillI am being a bit harsh. I actually did end up enjoying Jab Harry Met Sejal, even though it took me several days to get through (not entirely the fault of the film, but my own lack of time). After breaking at the 40 minute mark, I didn’t think that I would go back for more. I love Shah Rukh Khan and Anushka Sharma, but I didn’t like Harry or Sejal, and I didn’t really care for the story. There wasn’t enough going on to make me wonder how on earth Ali was going to get these two together before the end of the film. Sejal was entitled and shallow, and Anushka’s acting felt hollow throughout the first half (probably because the character doesn’t give her enough to work with), and Shah Rukh can only ham it up so much to convince us that Harry really is a misogynistic asshole (sure he is, but did I care? Not really). The love story felt forced. The songs, meh. But somehow, in the end, Imtiaz Ali really does use some kind of magic, because when Sejal found the ring, I was on the edge of my seat. When Harry realizes that he didn’t actually tell her that he wanted her, I was all like, omigod, I didn’t even notice that! When he shows up to her wedding, I was nervous for him. I guess that is the point, right? To be convinced that you care before the end of the journey. If so, he won. But how? 

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On the subject of mirrors…

Imtiaz Ali films appeal to the ego. Our attraction to others is often a reflection of what we believe that they see in us. In other words, they hold a mirror up to us. We want to become the version of ourselves that they admire, and so we aspire to live up to the ideals that they present. This is why people say that the ideal partner will ask them to strive to do and be their best self. Ali’s films depict this journey, appealing to our own search for validation. The protagonists make us wonder how we as partners might be able to inspire such dramatic reflection in another, and/or how we can be the recipient of such inspiration. In doing so, the audience essentially falls in love with the characters. They appeal to our want for someone to hold a mirror up to ourselves.

tamasha-BH-G131I  watched Ali’s 2015 film Tamasha, and I really enjoyed it (even though I must admit that I am growing tired of Ranbir Kapoor’s emo dude breakdowns. But then again, now that I’ve seen Shah Rukh in JHMS, I know to just blame Imtiaz Ali for that), but I did notice that the formula for both films is almost exactly the same: girl loses something valuable; boy comes to her aid, and in the process of helping her find what she has lost, boy realizes that there is something that he was missing all along; boy has an identity crisis; girl finds the lost item; boy loses girl; boy finds himself; boy finds girl; the void is filled; the end. I think I will refer to this formula as ‘the gift of the muse.’ The muse, for Ali, is essentially the manic pixie dream girl of Bollywood (oh look here, I found a definition on the Google: Manic Pixie Dream Girl – (especially in film) a type of female character depicted as vivacious and appealingly quirky, whose main purpose within the narrative is to inspire a greater appreciation for life in a male protagonist). The Bollywood version is chaste and/or sexually unavailable, “Shame is a woman’s wealth,” Ved responds when Tara rebukes his suggestion that they just go ahead and get down to the sexy business right away. It isn’t that she isn’t interested, she is just looking for more. A competition of sorts follows the decision to abstain; who will give in first? Who will break the rules? Abstinence works with the Bollywood formula by adding to the tension and taking the subject of morality out of the conversation. So, the female protagonist, often referred to as the heroine in Hindi cinema, is, as she has always been, virtuous. But still, Ali’s heroine is on par with the manic pixie dream girl. She is shallow and exists primarily to support the hero. In Tamasha we are given the opportunity to glimpse the inner world of the heroine. We see that Tara lives in an expensive looking apartment, she has a career, she dresses well, but we don’t know much about her interests or her work life. She also has no family or friends to speak of. Our emotional insight is limited to her connection to the male protagonist, and any inner turmoil revealed to the audience revolves around her desire for him. The same goes for JHMS, where Sejal’s history is explained early on in the film, she is engaged, she has a business, her family is involved in her life, yet we are never really made aware of her motivations. We don’t even know what her business is. When compared with Harry or Ved (Harry, whose entire love life is played out for us, and Ved, who we basically watch grow up from childhood), we are given very little insight into the inner worlds of the heroine. Her purpose, in the film, and it would seem in life, is to hold a mirror up for the hero. Through her, he finds himself.

An important scene in Jab Harry met Sejal breaks this all down nicely. After dragging Harry all over the place in search of her ring, Sejal finds that the ring has been in her bag all along. This happens while they are tied up in the basement of a gangster’s warehouse, and it is important to note that they are surrounded by fake rings; the gangster is a forger. When we first meet Sejal, she, in a way, takes Harry captive. She makes him responsible for her and essentially forces him to participate in her search. He protests, but still, he helps her. She, like Tara, is sexually unavailable (she is engaged to someone else), and it is through his unfulfilled sexual desire for her that he finds emotional core. He wants her. He can’t have her. Surprise: he has feelings. Sejal, on the other hand, isn’t as transparent. She is having fun with Harry, but she is aloof; it isn’t obvious that she has any feelings for Harry because she seems so obsessed with her own situation. The realization comes about when she is captured by the forger. Surrounded by fake jewels, she hunts for a towel to clean Harry’s wounds, and low and behold, she finds the actual ring. It was there all along, but she couldn’t see it. The ring in this situation does not symbolize her newfound love for Harry. Harry is not the gem among the fakes, Sejal is the genuine article. She can heal his wounds. Harry needs her, and her fiancée doesn’t. Self actualization realized through the superficial. And, only when one is forced to recognize it, held captive to it. This theme is also apparent in Tamasha, where the meaninglessness of material and professional success is pitted against the freedom from reality pact that Tara and Ved made in Corsica (no truth be told). There is something very real in the center of this charade, and it isn’t the truth, it is the void that love fills. The meaning that love gives to that which is empty, superficial. Tara, like Sejal, is the revelation and the cure. Ved is trapped in a unfulfilling reality, and it is through love that he sees the truth that enables him to escape this captivity. It is through the gift of the muse.

So even though I had a hard time relating to the characters in Jab Harry Met Sejal, I could identify with their emotional journeys. This is exactly how Ali’s films win you over: deep inside we all want to receive the gift of the muse. We want the mirror held up before us, asking us to be our best and truest self. And this is why Imtiaz Ali can use the same formula over and over again and we love it (sometimes in spite of ourselves). 

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Thoughts on Anurag Kashyap ~ halfway through Bombay Velvet

I am about halfway through Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet (2015), and wanted to talk a few things through before I finish the film.

bombay-velvet-reviewI’m going to be honest about this: I started watching the film because Ranbir Kapoor is so dreamy and found out that Kashyap directed it after consulting IMDB when I realized that the film was stylistically different from the typical Bollywood fare (this revelation struck me about twenty minutes in). Kashyap has been involved with a number of different Bollywood films, those that seem to work around the Bollywood formula and not within it, and I am not surprised whenever I find his name attached to projects that fall under the Hindie umbrella. He co-wrote the screenplay for Satya (1998) and wrote and directed the absolutely amazing Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). He even has a writing credit for Talaash (2012).

When I say that Kashyap works around Bollywood, what I mean is that he uses the Bollywood formula as an extension of his films, and does not adjust the narrative of his films to conform to the expectations of the typical Bollywood audience. This, I have heard, is risky in an industry where song and dance numbers are integral to the Bollywood identity and are in and of themselves an art form that is both part of and separate from the films. Musical sequences are released before films in advertising campaigns, and are consumed by audiences that may or may not ever see the film. In this way, they are critiqued as part of and apart from the film, and maintain an identity that is tied to, yet separate from the films for which they are made. I have noticed that musical numbers have taken a more realistic feel in some recent films. For example, a song begins as background noise in a restaurant; a stage performer begins her song, the dialogue between the characters comes to a close as the chorus picks up and the volume of the song increases. Cue the romantic splash sequence. Song over. Back to ‘reality’. Sometimes they dance at the bar while the song is playing and sometimes they dance in the streets to the same song, but the song is a part of the actual experience of the characters, and is not from a separate reality. Kashyap tends to use music in this way. In Gangs, songs are heard at funerals where they are performed by a live singer, and also score the film beginning as ringtones or as background television noise where gradually the volume increases, and the audience watches events unfold to the beat. In Bombay Velvet, songs are performed by jazz singer Rosie (Anushka Sharma), and when Rosie stops singing, the music stops. For Kashyap, music is not an escape from reality or the motivation for a fantasy sequence, it is incorporated into the reality of the film. Which says something in an industry where suspension of disbelief is often essential. In this regard, it is obvious that Kashyap takes inspiration from Western cinema.

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In Gangs, Bollywood as an element of Indian culture comes up throughout the film. Faizal’s wife’s eyes glaze over as she becomes lost in television melodrama. Amitabh Bachchan films are often referenced by admiring tough guys, but a footman also admits to seeing Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Big-Hearted Will Win the Bride) in a theatre. A family gathering around the television for Kyunki… Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi… is interrupted by gunfire. It all comes together when Ramadhir Sing says, “Every fucker’s got his own movie playing inside his head. Every fucker is trying to become the hero of his imaginary film. As long as there are fucking movies in this country people will continue to be fooled.” Kashyap sees that film is often an escape from a harsh reality, and thus he attempts to ground his own films with the very grime that people are looking to escape. Bombay Velevet is so stylized, but when  Johnny gets his face pounded in, the blood and filth don’t disappear when he walks away from the cage. This is exactly what enables us to see right through the jazz esthetic, the flapper dresses, the art deco facade that might trick us into believing that the film will provide an escape from our humanity. It won’t. He won’t allow it.

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Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012)

ImageIn Jab Tak Hai Jaan director Yash Chopra takes us back to London for his directorial finale. The story begins in a flashback, with Akira Rai (Anushka Sharma) reading the journal of military officer Samar Anand (Shah Rukh Khan) which describes how he fell in love with Meera (Katrina Kaif) in London some ten years before. Samar and Meera begin their relationship when she asks him to teach her a Punjabi song for her father’s birthday and he, in turn, asks her to teach him good gentleman’s English. After a night of wild dancing, he tells her that he loves her, and with a kiss a seed is planted and Meera is faced with a dilemma: she is engaged. She asks Samar to pray with her and ask Jesus to help her remain strong so that she doesn’t “cross the line” and go against her father’s wish for her to marry her friend Roger. A timely visit with Meera’s estranged mother follows, and we learn how she was able to find true love only after following her heart and leaving her family behind. Meera decides that she too should do the same and admits her feelings to Samar. In true Bollywood style, song and dance highlights their romance while the pair paint the town red. The affair comes to a close when Samar is hit by a car while excitedly riding his motorcycle and shouting ‘I love you’ to Meera as she heads to explain her decision to father. She watches as paramedics struggle to save him, and offers to sacrifice her love for Samar in exchange for his life with a prayer. Having lost his love and his passion for life, Samar returns to India determined to prove to both god and Meera that he is in control of his destiny, and becomes known as ‘the man who cannot die’ while defusing bombs for the Indian Army. A documentary on the famous bomb diffuser for Discovery Channel and his friendship with its director, Akira Rai, brings him back to London where he is hit by yet another car, and the subsequent memory loss from the accident brings Meera back into his life to help with his recovery. There is, of course, a love triangle, more drama, and some personal revelations which bring the film to its conclusion.  

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 The love story is unlike any other Bollywood films I have seen, as the hero’s adversary isn’t a strict father or a villain, but God, or rather, his lover’s relationship with God (more specifically, Jesus). In fact, the film almost entirely lacks the presence of any family at all, with the sole exception being Meera’s father, portrayed by Anupam Kher (a personal favorite of mine). I think that because of this, certain things are allowed to take place in Jab Tak Hai Jaan that wouldn’t necessarily work in other Hindi films. The romance, for one, is very western, and there is no hinting around premarital sex, as Samar and Meera are shown rolling around in bed together, eating and dancing in their underwear, and having romantic liaisons on a rooftop. I have to admit that I was completely caught off guard by these Imagescenes, as I have been immersed in Bollywood cinema as of late and have become more conscious of sex on screen that I might ordinarily take for granted. However, this is done very well in Jab Tak Hai Jaan, and I find that the presence of actual kissing brings their chemistry to life. When Samar kisses Meera in the station you can see him blushing as he backs away, nervous, yet self-satisfied. I felt nervous. Excited. If emotions are the driving force of Hindi film, then Jab Tak Hai Jaan has hit the nail on its head. 

 As is the case with just about all Bollywood films, there are several aspects of Jab Tak Hai Jaan that aren’t meant to be taken literally (see Bollywood for the Not Yet Initiated). The scene where a blonde European actress depicts Meera during her childhood as she prays to Jesus that she not be married to a dark skinned Indian man, for example, is not meant to suggest that Meera was actually white when she was a child, but is a comedic display of her Britishness. The other misrepresentations of British culture should also be taken with a grain of salt -a fishmonger might not necessarily be the best person to buy foie gras from, but perhaps this is meant to paint Samar as a jock of all trades- because these scenes don’t impact the progression of the plot, nor do they affect the emotional exchange between the film and its audience (which I believe is at the heart of Hindi cinema). We should suspend our disbelief and accept them not on the basis of a misrepresentation of ‘reality,’ but as a subtle metaphor that doesn’t have a significant impact on the film on the whole.

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SRK does an excellent job of separating Samar in London from Samar the military officer while putting across that we are still seeing the same character throughout, even if they come off differently down to their very physicality. Samar is full of life in London, and his excitement comes across with his passion to succeed (working multiple jobs to build his life) and his love for Meera. Whereas In the military, Samar’s passion turns in to utter determination, and his hardened exterior reflects the emotional baggage he carries. SRK’s performance is more subdued than some of his other roles where he can come off as self-aware and camera-aware and turns the charm all of the way up (consider his performances in Chennai Express for contrast). Katrina Kaif is great as Meera, a wealthy NRI who grew up in London, and she seems to fit in with the landscape in a way that Samar does not, which makes sense given that Kaif herself was partly raised in London by a British mother and an Indian father. Meera walks and talks like a cosmopolitan, and is emotionally restrained but is able to let go and open up in just the right way when she does. The pair make a convincing couple, which makes it all the more difficult to watch Meera ask Samar to leave London: his

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 anger and her anxiety come across superbly, and his feelings here set the stage for Samar’s military persona, making it apparent that he has absolutely nothing to lose. As for Akira Rai, I didn’t find that the role complimented Anushka Sharma’s ability as an actress, though I do feel that she did the best she could do with what she was given. It isn’t that Akira is all that bad, and even though her free spirit and passion for life is meant to conjure memories of Samar in London, I found that her character lacked dimension, and because of this, I couldn’t sympathize with her. This being said, I felt that the film was well cast, all around. 

The departure from the Bollywood formula may have impacted the reception of Jab Tak Hai Jaan, with its inclusion of premarital sex (and not to forget Shah Rukh Khan’s first onscreen kiss), but the film did make my heart skip a beat, and, as I have mentioned before, the ability to connect with the audience on an emotional level is the very essence of Bollywood. I believed in their love and I believed in their frustrations, and because of this, I feel that Jab Tak Hai Jaan is a solid culmination to Yash Chopra’s body of work: a love story that goes straight to the heart.