Happy 4 (or 3? Please please?) days until the Jab Harry Met Sejal release! Time to talk about another film that I think might make an interesting background watch, Patiala House! Plus, I just love Patiala House and think more people should watch it.
Anushka is not the lead character of Patiala House, that is definitely Akshay. She isn’t even the second lead, that is Rishi. But she is the catalyst, the one that changes everything for Akshay and therefore the rest of the people in his life.
I really really hope that Anushka is more than just a catalyst in Jab Harry Met Sejal. It is sold as a straight up romance, not a family drama like Patiala House was, and it can’t be a good romance if only one of the partners feels like they are changing because of the love story (as I explained in great detail in my Imtiaz Ali post on Saturday). But if she is just a catalyst, I hope she is as strong a one as she is in Patiala House.
Anushka’s character isn’t even supposed to be in Patiala House, she barely fits in this world and this society, that is the point of her, that she doesn’t fit in. And that is her strength, that she doesn’t try to fit in, instead she elbows everyone else until they make room for her. Not because she thinks she is better than them, just because she knows she can’t fit in but she also can’t let go of her home.
In the hands of a less talented actress, her character would have been a total failure. It isn’t quite filled out the way it needs to be. She is half-white and half-desi (to explain why she is but isn’t “one of us” to the rest of the community). She has been away for years (to explain why she has a unique perspective on Akshay and his family). And she is in love with Akshay, for no particular reason that we can see.
But Anushka makes it all work! She takes this random collection of backstory and pulls it into one piece. As a half-white and half-desi girl, she learned to be confident and outspoken from a young age, which made her stand out in the neighborhood, and makes her able to confidently come back home years later without apologizing for having left, and retake her place. And as someone who has been away for years, she missed Akshay’s change from proud promising young boy to shy shell of a man. She can both fit into the neighborhood where she grew up, and still not fit in because she remembers everyone as they were then. Most importantly, she sells us on her remembering Akshay as he used to be, and seeing that inside what he is now, and falling in love with what she sees inside, not what he is now.
She needs all of that, to be the strong outsider-insider who sees something special inside him, in order to pull that out of our hero. To turn him from a sad broken man into the hero she knows he can be. Him admitting his love for her is just one small part of it (that happens well before the end of the movie in a scene you could easily miss entirely). No, it’s about everything else in his life. Him finding something that gives him joy, him standing up to his family, him being accepted by his family, even accepting the NRI identity, all of that comes together thanks to Anushka pushing. And convincing us that she is truly pushing him for his own good, not just because she is in love, but because her love gives her a special ability to see what he needs.
And that brings me to Jab Harry Met Sejal! I think we all know by now just from the trailers that this is going to be about Anushka swooping in and bringing Shahrukh out of a sadness he didn’t even know he was feeling. But, how is she going to do that? Without making the audience hate her?
Well, a large part of it is Anushka, managing to play a demanding pushy woman without turning off the audience, which I think we can be sure she can do, but part of it is also going to be on Shahrukh. In Patiala House, Akshay gave one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen from him, managing to convince us that he really did need Anushka’s fire, even if he couldn’t admit it to himself. That he was lucky she kept pushing past his reserve and didn’t leave him alone.
And I have hope that Shahrukh, and Imtiaz Ali directing him, will pull off a similar feat in this movie. That he will be the sad damaged needy man without needing to say it out loud. That the audience will be able to forgive Anushka for pushing and pushing and pushing until he finally breaks free to become a new person.
I also hope that they will come up with some way of letting us see what Anushka sees in him that keeps her pushing. Akshay did it mostly through his performance, the sense of controlled fire. And we got a nice little flashback at the opening to explain the whole thing. But, what will we have here? Will Shahrukh have that same little hint of something more early on? Will we open with backstory as to why he is like this? And how will Anushka be shown to know he is trustworthy? Will she have seen something at the start of the film that makes her pick him out as her savior? Or will she somehow learn his backstory and therefore trust him?
My fear is that they don’t bother with that. That Anushka pushes and pushes and brings out a better person in Shahrukh just because he is the hero and she is the heroine. I think Anushka could sell that, make me like a character who pushes without being bossy or naggy. But I don’t know if Shahrukh can sell the terribly flawed hero character who somehow deserves a great woman and a happy ending just because he is a hero.