This is a hard review to write, because I don’t want to spoil the movie, but then on the other hand I need to be give you a clue of what kind of a film it will be so you can make an informed decision about whether or not to watch it. I guess I will just say that I really liked the opening and the middle, but the ending did not work for me AT ALL. So if you are able to enjoy a movie in pieces, can separate out sections, you will enjoy it a lot. But if you can’t block out bits and pieces, (like me), then the bitter ugly bit is going to end up ruining the rest of it. So, BE AWARE!
This is mostly a delightful happy love story, with good performances and chemistry between the leads. Sara has a magnificent debut. She isn’t as good as she could be, but she is so much better than most actresses in their first movie that I can only imagine how high she can go in her later films. Most of all, she is indelibly herself. Her grandmother’s nose, her mother’s face, but her own confidence and spirit (okay, that’s a little her grandmother and her mothers too, but mostly her own). After all these interchangeable young actresses, it is delightful to see someone with her own personality and look, right in her very first film. She carries the movie, both her performance and the character they wrote for her, something very different. Until the end, when they beat her up and cut off her strength and shove her back in a box. But, like I said, if you can manage to forget the end, her character is distinctive and original and strong.
Sushant is Sushant, charming smile, good at ducking his head and seeming shy, really good in his one big dance scene. A lovely scene partner for Sara, but it’s really her story and her film. His character is nothing terribly original, while hers really is.
The directing is spectacular, very interesting visuals, little things like focusing on Sushant’s feet as he lopes along the path and then panning to another pair of feet before pulling up to reveal who they belong to. The location looks beautiful, the mountain paths and gorges and even the quality of the light is perfect. And it all comes together to give us this feeling of a valley connected by winding paths and loyal porters, centered on the temple.
The romance is a classic old-school romance. A love at first sight moment, and then a slow magical build as they fall more deeply in love without admitting it to each other, building to the “I am so in love I am going to DIE!” experience. And in this very short film (less than two hours) the romance is given plenty of time to breath and grow. That part of the film is pretty much perfection.
Where the film stumbles is in the bigger message. Thanks to either self-censorship or real censorship, the clear argument for a unifed secular India that the film builds is kind of cut off halfway. Weird censorship story, by the way. Part of the weirdness being that it wasn’t covered very well or very in depth so I am having a hard time following it. Starting at the end, the stupid humiliating-for-India-as-a-country law suit against it in the Bombay High Court because it encourages “Love Jihad” was defended not just by the production house, but by a representative from the Censor Board!!!! Who argued that it was the responsibility of the Censor Board to decide what should be in movies and they had passed this film and therefore this suit had no basis. I saw at least one story about another judge in another one of the suits who not only dismissed the lower-than-insect-life fake Hindu group’s lawsuit as frivolous, but quizzed them on Hindu scriptures and proved they have no right to speak for that religion. But then, on the other hand, it was in fact band in Uttarakhand.
The argument against the movie is that it promotes love and understanding. Which, as we all know, are the enemies of modern India. The “Love Jihad” they are referring to is the idea that Muslim men are seducing and tricking Hindu women away from the Hindu community. This is, of course, a fantasy. But it is used to justify the usual horrific violence you would expect. Young people being torn from each others’ arms and killed by their families. In this case, the woman being “saved” from life as a wife of a Muslim man by her father either arranging her forced marriage, or her murder. And then the man (and sometimes his family, friends, and neighbors) being killed by an angry mob. For the good of India.
(Not new news to Sara Ali Khan. These were the pamphlets and posters that surrounded her father’s second marriage)
A movie like this, in which a Muslim man and Hindu girl fall in love, is a clear enemy of Indian culture, tradition, and so on and so forth. And the filmmakers, and the censor board, KNEW they would be treading on thin ice. The message of the film is love, not just between these two characters, but between a whole community that existed for generations in harmony. Until the past 30 years (thank you BJP!) when suddenly it doesn’t. If this film were living it’s best version of itself, the love between the central couple would spread out and win over everyone. But the filmmakers couldn’t tell that story. They started to head in that direction and they had all the pieces to make it work, but they were afraid and they were practical and knew that particular story would never make money, or even be allowed to play, in New India. And so the political message, the larger story of the community, suddenly disappears without a conclusion 2/3rds through. It’s the biggest flaw of the film, leaves so many plot threads dangling and ideas not quite finished.
But the rest of it is quite good! The songs are delightful, the romance is perfect, even the action sequence at the end is clear and affecting. I would 100% recommend it. If it weren’t for that last quarter. Oh well.