I know I’ve been cranking through a ton of non-Hindi reviews lately, and I feel kind of bad, because not everyone has seen those movies. Plus, it’s Kareena’s birthday! So, what better day to talk about my favorite Kareena movie?
Jab We Met is one of those movies, like Rang De Basanti and Chak De India and Don, that is so good and so interesting, I would rather do several posts on smaller aspects of it, than one post on everything. So, for Kareena’s birthday, why is her character “Geet” so remarkable in this film?
Jab We Met belongs to that specific category of rom-coms where you get to meet the hero and heroine as separate, flawed, people. And then watch as they grow and improve each other over time. I’ve already done a whole post on that, but Jab We Met has it’s own little twist to this idea, in that the hero and heroine improve in turn, not at the same time. Oh, and this whole post assumes you have already seen the movie, so SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
Kareena in particular has a fascinating journey from flawed to perfect to flawed to perfect over the course of the film. Not that she changes in her essence, but the way we see her changes. Or rather, the way Shahid sees her, since in many ways, the audience is only viewing her through his eyes.
Kareena is introduced as a “Basanti” character. That was the reference I remember from a lot of the reviews at the time, that she was a “modern Basanti”. She talks A LOT. But all that talk is just a natural outgrowth of her self-confidence, and lack of awareness/care about what other people think of her. Unlike the typical female character, who must always consider how what she does affects her father, her brother, her future husband, her community as a whole, etc. etc. etc., the Basanti characters just plow ahead with their own view of the world and vision for their life, with no concern for anything in their path.
In Sholay, Veeru finds this confidence immediately appealing, while Jai finds it immediately unappealing (the brilliant contrast of Veeru cleaning his ears while Jai stuffs his with cotton). But over the course of the film, Jai comes to appreciate Basanti’s strength and fearlessness, even if he never necessarily comes to like her (or does her? There’s an interesting discussion question for the comments!). But in Jab We Met, Shahid (and the audience) go on a journey from hating Kareena’s over-confidence, to tolerating it, to finding it amusing, to loving it.
The temptation, as an actress, would be for Kareena to soften her initial scenes to make the character more likeable and make the audience fall for her sooner, or to put in more of that over-confidence in the later scenes, when she has the freedom of knowing the script won’t blame her for anything. But instead, she manages to mix together some uncertainty and fragility with the confidence, without softening either, through out the film.
In her early scenes, she is loud and bossy and uncaring, refusing to leave Shahid alone or stop talking. She saves him from (possibly) jumping off the train to kill himself, and gives him an interest in life by complaining and forcing him to take responsibility for getting them both back to the station to catch the next train. But all of this is unconscious, I never got the sense that she is supposed to be a “magical wise woman” who could sense Shahid’s distress and how to cure it. She is blind to his distress, in fact, and that is what makes her actions valuable, they shake him out of his own self-pity.
But where the performance becomes truly impressive is after she has successfully “cured” Shahid. The early bit, that’s impressive too, playing a super confident and talkative college student without ever feeling older or younger than her years. But where I really started to sit up and talk notice of the character is the sequence after Shahid has left her when she realizes she is alone at the train station in the middle of the night. It’s a great “check your gut” moment, that I recognized immediately as a woman who often travels alone. Not fear, but awareness of possible danger. When she speaks to the station master, she isn’t begging for assistance, or paralyzed by panic. But she is aware she is in a bad situation and struggling a little to keep up that facade of confidence she knows she needs to have in place at this moment. And when she leaves and ends up running after Shahid for help, it still doesn’t feel like blind panic, but also not like blind confidence. No matter how much she may boss people around, she knows when a man is “safe” and when he isn’t, and when a situation is “safe” and when it isn’t. She can be hurt.
This is when the audience, and Shahid, start to appreciate her. She is so fearless and unconcerned with consequences, not because she doesn’t think bad things happen, but because she isn’t afraid to move through those bad things and get to the other side. That’s the confidence and happiness Shahid learns from her in the next sequences, to face the situation head on and make the best of it, and really, assume the best will happen no matter what.
But once they reach her family’s home, that’s when there are a few more slight cracks in the character. That confidence and bluff that seemed so healthy on the road, seems a bit odd when used against her large family that loves her. Why not just tell them the truth? What is she afraid of?
Shahid himself has been fooled by this point, to blindly follow where she leads, going along with her philosophy that it will all work out. And that is the philosophy he learns from her, which heels his psychic wounds and lets him move on in his own life. Seemingly, this is the happy ending! And it’s an interesting happy ending, that love is there not just if you “win” the girl, but even if you “lose” her. It kind of sounds a little like what Karan is promising in some of his interviews about Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, that unrequited love still has value and can make you happier and stronger.
Only, it’s not totally satisfying, because Kareena managed to make her character so complex, that a simple ending of “and she lived happily ever after, just as planned!” doesn’t seem quite right. There were those moments of vulnerability, the oddness of her not being able to stand up to her family, little cracks that needed to be resolved.
You could say Kareena is just there to “save” Shahid, but in the end, the culmination is Shahid “saving” her. In fact, arguably, you could watch this movie saying it is about Shahid growing into the person he needs to be in order to help her at the right moment.
It is in this last section that Kareena really gets her pay off as an actress. She spent two hours being, in Nathan Rabin’s phrase about Western film heroines, a “manic pixie dream girl”. She dropped these little breadcrumbs of depth and weakness under the facade. And now it all comes to fruition, as we see the painful song sequence of her having her heart broken again and again and again and again, until there is nothing left inside any more.
But it doesn’t come out of nowhere! Way back at the train station, we saw how she puts on a happy and confident cover to hide when she is afraid or senses danger. And we saw how easily she would assume that Shahid will fall in with all her plans, just because they are her plans, what a hard time she has acknowledging any possible disagreement or dispute. Basically, how she is the queen of denial.
But even in the midst of her denial, she still had that add unwillingness to talk with her family about her lover, preferring to elope and return, already married. That should have told the audience, and Shahid, that something else was going on. That she had a doubt she didn’t dare acknowledge. Because all her lovely plans and dreams would fall apart if she looked at it too closely. Which is what happens, she ends up trapped in a life she can’t bring herself to believe she is in, unable to return home and admit her mistake, but also unable to force her dreams into reality by getting her lover to marry her.
Normally in films, it’s super awkward and weird when two guys talk about a girl, whether it is father-fiance or brother-brother or what. But I really like the scene here between Shahid and Kareena’s stupid ex-boyfriend. Because it let’s us see how complex her character is in the very different perspectives the two men have on her. Shahid sees her as this wonderful precious thing, and is visibly taken aback at the idea that someone would reject her so heartlessly. While the stupid ex is looking for, and expecting, sympathy. Because obviously she is impossible to deal with, delusional, and only exists to be a problem in his life.
That’s the lesson the last little bit of the film drives home again and again, that Kareena is a person who can be hurt and deserves to be happy. She isn’t just there for our convenience, and she doesn’t have to change her thoughts and feelings just for us. That’s, ultimately, why Shahid is better for her. Because he knows how to value her. One of my favorite moments is late in the film, Kareena is talking with her mother, and her mother asks if Shahid “takes care of her”. And Kareena takes a moment and looks across the room at him, and then replies “he takes better care of me than you.” It sounds horribly regressive, the whole thing, but it’s not saying “a woman needs to be taken care of”, it’s saying that Kareena deserves to be taken care of, even though she may be difficult and embarrassing, she deserves someone who loves her not just in spite of that, but because of that, and can see through to the breakable person on the inside.
And it’s not just Shahid that can see that. Again late in the film, they arrive back at her family home and there are celebrations going on all around. The stupid ex asks what happened, why all the celebration, and Shahid gently responds “their daughter has come home.” He doesn’t get it, the stupid ex, that her family loves her so much that her mere arrival is an occasion.
In a traditional film, Kareena would be tied to stupid ex no matter what, because a woman loves only once, a heart given can never be returned, she’s made her bed now let her lie in it, blah blah blah. But this movie is better than that, and her character gets to choose, between the foolish dream of her teen years, and the awake and aware relationship of her present. And, because Kareena has done such a fabulous job building this character, her volte-face doesn’t feel sudden or faithless or demean any of her emotions that lead up to this, it feels like a natural outgrowth of all the pain and joy and decisions that we saw along the way.