I love Imtiaz Ali romances, because he does something really interesting with changing what we think of as “romance”. I sometimes hate Imtiaz Ali romances because it feels like he gets caught up in what he finds interesting and loses track of the basic definition of romance. You know, that it usually involves two people, not just one.
I think I have seen every Imtiaz Ali movie. Can that be right? Oh, no, I am missing Rockstar (I know I know, you can start throwing things at me now). Going all the way back to Socha Na Tha, which I have a sentimental attachment to because I picked up a funky DVD from the funky little Indian store near my college back when I was first getting into the films.
(This DVD. The hours I spent staring at it trying to figure out her skirt!)
Besides my sentimental attachment, Socha Na Tha is just a really really good movie (as I go into at length here). But more than that, especially when put in context with Imtiaz’s other films, it is a slightly different take on romance than most films use. Something a little deeper.
The point of Socha Na Tha isn’t that this couple falls in love. It’s that this couple fixes each other, makes each other into better fuller richer people. And whether or not they end up together, they will still have that.
Of course in Socha Na Tha (and in Jab We Met which I talk about in depth here and in Love Aaj Kal) the couple DOES end up together. Which makes them better movies, not just because I like happy endings, but because it gives the characters what they deserve.
The way the love story function in Socha Na Tha, both our hero and heroine want to be in love. They want to grow up, to figure things out, to get outside of the patterns they have dropped into. And they know, on some level, that falling in love and marriage is the way to do it. And so the blunder around going down the wrong paths until they finally find the right one and come together. Falling in love makes them grow up and growing up makes them ready for marriage.
The entire structure of the film is dependent on them marrying at the end. That is the culmination, the end goal, of everything. It’s a love story not because they are in love, but because it is about what romantic love can mean in a person’s life.
At the start of the film, both our hero and heroine are in a bad place. Not the kind of “he’s a gangster who hates violence, she’s a policeman’s daughter who’s kidnapped!” bad place that other films have, but one that is so cleverly done you may not even notice it. We see in the first song how Abhay is almost frenetic in his enjoyments. Running from place to place, ducking his family, dragging his friends along behind him. He is in trouble, and on some level he knows that, which is why he is grasping at the idea of proposing to his girlfriend, thinking that will give him the security he craves.
And then there’s Ayesha. Who is too calm. In the opening we see her hiding herself, looking at a modern style top and then switching to traditional when her sister comes by, staying unnoticed and in a corner. And on some level she knows she is in trouble too, that is why she asks Abhay to help her avoid more drama at home in her engagement, because she can’t stand drama around her.
What the two of them learn over the film is that being in love, real love, not just an arranged marriage or a girlfriend you are with out of habit, can make you fearless, can make you more yourself, can make you a better version of yourself, can make you grow up without any effort, because you have no other choice.
Abhay spending time with Ayesha makes him able to finally tell his family about his girlfriend, propose, and get the engagement process started. It makes Ayesha able to lie to her family and go off for the kind of fun weekend trip that she never let herself have before. That’s without them even acknowledging their feelings, no big romance moment, just two people who somehow fit together and make the other one better.
Eventually, they spend enough time together to admit their feelings. Not because they fall more in love, but because their time with the one right person for them makes them stronger and stronger and more self-aware until they are able to admit feelings that they never would have said before. Abhay gently easily admits love to Ayesha, without the big public spectacle he felt he needed to say it to his girlfriend. And Ayesha responds, freely, without the hesitation and guilt she would have felt before.
This is one turning point. In another love story, this is where they would have eloped and fought of gundas and done all of that. But Imtiaz wanted to do something different. He wanted to ask, what if your love made you strong enough NOT to elope? And so, they don’t. Not right away.
Ayesha has finally found her voice and is able to articulate why she is doing what she is doing. Her guilt over being a poor relation (although her family has never ever indicated they see her that way), and the family stress still present from her older sister’s failed marriage, makes her unwilling to cause more distress for them. And thanks to her love, she is now strong enough to tell that to Abhay, that she is making this decision for reasons that make sense to her and he can’t change her mind.
And Abhay has found his strength to. He has finally learned to care for someone else besides himself, finally gotten past that lost feeling he had after returning to his family from studying overseas and not knowing where he fit in any more. He has given Ayesha the strength to speak for himself, and she gave him the strength to live for others. He grows up, tells his girlfriend the truth and ends their engagement, tells his family the truth and agrees to finally start working for the family firm. And it isn’t a tragedy, or punishment for falling in love, or any of that. It is growing up. Abhay has finally grown up and changed into a person who wants to work for the family firm, wants to be honest in his personal life, wants to do all those things.
So, why do they have to get together at the end? Why can’t we end with the bittersweet of Ayesha realizing she wants her family’s happiness more than her own, and Abhay learning how to be a man? That’s what makes this romance really interesting.
Ayesha and Abhay don’t stop making each other better people just because of one big moment. They need to be together so they can make each other better people for the rest of their lives. Falling in love isn’t about crossing some goal or suddenly becoming perfect. It’s about a constant partnership, working together always to make each other into the best version of yourself.
And that’s why Ayesha finally decides to elope with him. Because she sees that she needs him, that all the good things she has become and has are from what he taught her, and it is right to take a risk and end up with so much reward. And that’s why Abhay goes with her, because he needs her and can’t stay away, even while he is arguing all the reasons they shouldn’t be together. They belong together, and all the fragile progress they have made as people will fall apart if they don’t stay together.
That’s the central idea Jab We Met took and expanded. We saw them become better people in turn. Shahid needed Kareena first, and most. And even after they were separated, he still needed her. That’s why he had to imagine her with him always, because he knew he couldn’t keep his progress up without her.
And then Kareena needed Shahid and he fed that strength back to her. And she too, eventually, realized that she needed him as well, that the two loves of her life could not be compared, because one encouraged her to grow into a better stronger person and the other tried to stop her. And that strength is what lets her go after him and take what she wants, choose the right choice for her future on her own, without running and hiding from the consequences.
The problems start with Love Aaj Kal. Suddenly it is ever so slightly less about Deepika’s journey and more about Saif’s. She always knew what she wanted from life and who she was. And she finds out a lot quicker how she feels about Saif. But we still have to keep watching the movie because Saif isn’t there yet. When they get together at the end it feels less like two people joining hands to continue a journey together and more like one person reaching down and helping another to reach her level.
I really want to talk about Rockstar, but I just admitted I haven’t seen it so I can’t. Skipping that, let’s look at Highway. Really interesting film. Great central performance from Alia. But again, not quite right. For large portions it is the story of two unhappy misfits, Alia and Randeep Hooda, challenging each other and somehow finding something in each other that cures them. But in the end, it turns back into Alia’s story. This wasn’t about a love that would grow and grow over a life time in small undramatic ways, it is about a love that burst into her life, fixed her up, and sent her on her way. Not a bad story, but not what I like in my Imtiaz romances.
Tamasha was just the worst. Our heroine barely had a character at all, let alone a character arch. This wasn’t a love story of two people, this was a coming of age story of one person in which a love interest played a part. Which is an okay kind of movie to make, although I don’t think this was made very well, but it’s really not a very interesting romance. It makes the love story, which should have been the center of the film based on how it was structured, into an after thought in one man’s artistic journey. The soul was somehow missing from it.
And now Jab Harry Met Sejal! I really really hope the ending is them getting together. Because that way it is a journey of two people to finding each other, not just one changing because of another. And it sets up a journey of a life time, telling us this is what love is, being a better person every day because the person you love is in your life.