Don’t read the SPOILER review! Not if you have a chance of seeing the movie. There are a lot of delightful twists that are all the more fun for being surprises. Instead, read the no spoiler review here. Oh, and if you want to talk about Ali Zafar as a person, you can do that on my special post on him here.
Whole Plot in two paragraphs:
Ali Zafar is the go-to enforcer for Mehmood Aslam, a friendly local gangster builder type with a dopey son. Ali dreams of someday making enough money to open a restaurant of his dreams and take care of his mother, who disapproves of his gangster ways. Meanwhile, in Poland, Maya Ali is a rich girl struggling with a crush on white dude bar singer Tom Coulston. Her father, Javed Sheikh, surprises her by arranging her marriage all of a sudden as part of a business deal. This is also a surprise to Mehmood Aslam, Javed’s best friend from back in Lahore, who thought Maya would be marrying his son. Mehmood and Javed fight, and Mehmood swears he will bring Maya back to his house. And then asks Ali to do it. Ali agrees because they promise to fund his restaurant. Ali goes to Poland and meets up with his friend Faisal Qureshi. They go to kidnap Maya, only for her to enthusiastically go along with the plan, thinking they re the people hired by her friend to help her escape. Javed’s goons keep following them, so Maya asks them to help her on her travels. Ali and Maya become closer as they travel to the lake spot where she plans to meet Tom Coulston. Finally, Ali has an internal debate between his love for her and wanting to do the right thing, and his desperate need for money. He calls her father, in order to manipulate her into suggesting that they go to Lahore together. She travels to Pakistan of her own free will, but when they get there, is suprised by Ali handing her over to Mehmood.
Ali is tormented afterwards, and finally shows up at her wedding, offering to help her escape again. She is furious, but agrees because she needs help. They escape, and shortly after Javed arrives with his goons. Ali and Maya run for the train, where Ali hands her over to Tom Coulston, who he convinced to come to Pakistan for her, and then Ali gets off the train and fights the goons to let them escape. But the goons over power him and get on the train, Ali runs and runs and catches up, fights off Javed’s men and Mehmood’s, insisting that Maya go with Tom. It’s at this point that Maya breaks free of all of them and declares she is sick of them all fighting over who she is going with, why won’t they listen to her and ask her who she wants to go with? At which point, a new player shows up, Nayyar Ejaz, Mehmood’s rival, who has been following Ali this whole time and is now taking the chance to threaten Maya in order to get his money back from Mehmood. Ali grabs for her, and is shot, Maya is knocked out of the speeding train, Ali jumps after her, they both land in the river, Ali saves her and carries her to shore, and then they finally confess their love for each other. Only for Teefa to die (seemingly). Mehmood and Javed are reunited in grief, Javed and Maya are united as well, everyone has a happy ending, even Mehmood’s son finds another bride, and then finally we get the reveal that Ali didn’t die after all, the film was just playing one more trick on the audience, he is fine and cooking for everybody and married to Maya.
At it’s basic level, this is two plots we have seen many times before. First, the guy sent to get the girl on behalf of the man she is “supposed” to marry who ends up falling in love with her and seeing her as a real person instead of just baggage like everyone else does. Highway, Jab Harry Met Sejal, Hero, Pardes, and on and on and on. And second, the guy who is so in love that he is willing to do whatever it takes to reunite her with the one she really loves, even if it isn’t him. Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Aarya 2, Kya Kehna, and so on.
(This is essentially the same as Mahima and Shahrukh singing together in “Mehbooba” from Pardes)
But it’s the execution that really makes this something special. For instance, the details of why this kidnapping is happening in the first place. This isn’t some gangster who saw her and fell in love with her from a distance, this is a long time family friend who she had been unofficially engaged to all along, the family actually knows and cares about her as a person and would never harm her. When she arrives in Pakistan, she greets them familiarly as “uncle” and “aunt”. That’s something the film makes clear right away, Mehmood and his wife adore Maya Ali and just want her to be their “daughter” so they can spoil her and make her happy. The groom is only moderately interested, yes he makes a big fuss about it, but that is only after his parents had taken the lead in promising him that this match would happen. There is no implication of lust on his part, no threat of rape or anything else against her wishes. All they want is for her to be within their household. We even see at the end that, although they had Ali bring her from Poland to Pakistan, they are not forcing the marriage on her once she is there. They are begging her on bended knees to agree to it and it only moves forward with her permission.
And that’s important for Ali’s character too. First, he is sincerely shocked at the idea when it is presented to him (unlike most other heroes on these plots who look at transporting a woman here and there as just another job with no moral outrage). And second, the way the situation is described to him, it is not exactly a “kidnapping”. She is in Poland, her father won’t let her leave, she is supposed to marry their son, they just want him to bring their daughter home. It could be a love match from this description, she could want to go to Pakistan and not be able to, he just has to bring her there as quickly as possible and then it will all work out. And the bottom line is, Ali trusts these people and, the movie shows, he is right to trust them. He knows that, no matter how sketchy it sounds, they would never harm a woman or force her to do anything against her will. It really is just transporting her from one place to another so they can talk to her.
(Unlike the hero in Hero, who obeys his boss’ orders to kidnap the police inspector’s daughter and threaten her life in order to get what they want from her father.)
All of this stuff is things that other movies don’t bother with! Of course you have the right to insist on a childhood engagement playing out, even if you don’t care about the girl at all, just for your family “honor”. And of course the loyal gangster hero will agree to kidnapping a woman, why wouldn’t he? What’s wrong with it? And of course once the woman is there, she will be married to the man, no need to show a conversation, a request, a convincing of her. Women don’t have to be convinced because they don’t have agency, and no one would be expected to treat them as though they do.
The heroine’s introduction is another “little bit extra thought” moment that is wonderful. It starts out like something we have seen before, sexy Western rich girl walks into a bar with her friend. But then Tom Coulson comes over and she gets all shy and starry-eyed and her friend teases her for being in love. So, okay, now she is the sweet rich girl who is an innocent at heart. But then two desis at the next table start flirting at her, and she gets angry and beats them up. So, she isn’t really anything! At least, not any particular stereotype. She is herself, western enough to be unconscious about wearing western clothing, young and naive enough to be in love and not know how to handle it, but also confident and strong enough in her opinions to defend herself when she feels insulted.
And so she doesn’t react in a usual way to the usual heroine problem, a forced marriage. She complains, and then suddenly sweetly agrees, fooling her father. Only to reveal in a phone call with her friend that she plans to run away for a week and return when it is far too late to salvage the marriage. Which is why, when Ali arrives to kidnap her, she eagerly agrees and even puts the chloroform cloth over her face herself.
(She even organizes the “Item Number”, Ali is the one who needs the sexy make over, she takes charge and directs it. Very confident heroine)
Along with creating these characters, there is also the basic matter of a film showing us images and expecting us to accept them, the casual violence against women most films include. Technically in the narrative, Ali kidnaps her and takes her from Poland to Pakistan. But there is never a moment of force in the visuals. Even the tricky part, when she has to be knocked out for them to get her out of the house, we see Ali hesitate and be unable to do it, to harm a woman even in this small way, and so she does it herself. From then on, there is no moment when he grabs her arm and drags her here or there, touches her without permission even. The message to young men watching this film is clear, any form of unwanted touching of a woman or violence towards her is completely unacceptable. Our “hero” never does it.
This film is a romance, so gender issues are a big part of it. But there is also a general attitude towards power and violence. This story could easily play out as a big evil battle between corrupt men. Javed representing the overwhelming power and selfishness of the wealthy overseas. Mehmood representing the overwhelming power and selfishness of the gangsters at home. All of them deserving of our hatred and brutal killing. But instead, it is handled with a light touch. Javed and Mehmood are just kind of funny, two middle-aged guys calling each other by their childhood nicknames, and slinging insults over Skype without really understanding how Skype works. Their power doesn’t make them worthy of respect or fear, they are nothing special in the narrative, no more evil and no more wise than anyone else. At the end, when they decide to stop feuding and become friends again, happily sitting around eating snacks together, it feels right, like where this narrative was leading all along.
It’s a funny kind of a story, because there are no real stakes to it. Javed is never going to actually force his daughter to be married, or even be that angry when she runs away so long as she comes back again. The only reason he sends his men after her is because he thinks she has been kidnapped. Maya is completely cheerful and confident about her plan to put off marriage and sure there will be no consequences. And Mehmood isn’t going to force her either, just wants to bring her to Pakistan because Javed challenged him that he couldn’t. Worst case is that Maya goes to Pakistan, stays with her “uncle” Mehmood for a few days, refuses the marriage, and then goes back home again. Or that Javed drags her home, and she refuses the marriage out right and he yells at her and then gives in and doesn’t make her get married. For Teefa, the worst case is that he betrays this fragile friendship and loses his chance with the girl he has come to care about. But even that isn’t much of a stake, it may seem like a lot to him, but we the audience can see that Maya is clearly in love with him and not White Dude, we are just waiting for all the twists to play out so they can find each other.
(Most stressful part of the movie, after he walks away from her, and then like two minutes later they are back together again)
Now that I think about it, that was the same thing I liked in Raid, my other favorite movie of the year. I guess because I am so tired of the laziness of those inflated stakes. A bad movie can keep the audience watching by stringing us along with cliffhangers and tension. A good movie doesn’t need those tricks, it keeps us watching because we are purely enjoying the experience of watching the film. And this film is very very enjoyable.