2009 Week: Love Aaj Kal, The Last Mainstream “Regular” Film Imtiaz Ali Made

If I didn’t know where Imtiaz was heading, I would find this both better and worse. As in, I can watch it and see the hints of the irritating passive hero of Tamasha, but also the brilliant deep romance of Jab Harry Met Sejal. It’s an interesting one to look back on!

This is my 4th favorite Imtiaz Ali romance.  Out of 4, so least favorite I guess.  Imtiaz has also made Rockstar and Tamasha, but I don’t really think of those as romances, they are just about one man and the things that happen to him, including love.  Socha Na Tha, Jab We Met, this movie, and Jab Harry Met Sejal are true 100% romances.  There is no plot, no good and bad and happy ending, beyond “they are in love and want to be together”.  And while I like the other 3 better, I still like this one an awful lot.  It doesn’t quite have that Imtiaz Sufi touch of love as transformative mystical experience, but it is a very very good love story.

Image result for love aaj kal poster

Part of that is simply the people Imtiaz was working with.  Saif and Deepika are going to bring a dash of star power and glamour to what they are doing, along with creating chemistry with any co-star.  Pritam brought his A-game to the soundtrack.  Deepika’s costumes were bright and different enough to start some minor trends, the song sequences had a dash of excess and spectacle, there was even a small fight scene.  Saif produced this movie as well as starring in it, he wanted a hit and he took Imtiaz’s solid story idea and direction and added on enough of everything else to make it into a hit.

There’s also the stunt casting.  Rishi Kapoor plays a mentor to the young couple and, in a surprise exciting cameo that everyone kind of guessed might happen, Neetu shows up as his wife in the end.  Rishi was Saif’s uncle-in-law, Neetu hadn’t appeared onscreen in years, that alone was enough to bring people in.

I’m happy this movie exists as it is, I am happy with the bright colors and simple structure that tells you exactly what the film will be about, even the title “Love Aaj Kal” gives you a clue.  But I do wonder sometimes what it might have been if Saif-the-producer hadn’t been focused on turning it into a hit.  Would the title be less a literal description of the structure, and more a statement on the way love changes within you between today and yesterday and tomorrow?  Would the focus have been less on a couple learning wise life lessons and having adventures, and more on two people going through the kind of unexpected emotional torment that Ranbir experiences in Tamasha?  Would there have been a more obvious critique of the superficial values of the modern consumer driven world versus the spiritual worlds of the past?  It’s possible. 

There are certain moments in this movie, especially the end of Saif and Deepika’s journeys towards enlightenment and understanding, that don’t really belong.  They feel funny instead of deep, because they are funny, strange illogical things dropped into this very superficial and fun rom-com.

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To make this film commercial, they had a lot of stuff happen in it.  But because it is an Imtiaz Ali film, ultimately none of the things that “happen” matter as much as what is inside the hearts of the two central characters.  Saif and Deepika meet in a club in London and immediately hit it off.  They date, very happily, for two years.  But the whole time they know it isn’t serious, they are both finishing advanced schools (him in architecture, her in art restoration) and once they are done, the relationship will be over.  They make a sane and sensible decision to break up when she is offered a position restoring ancient art work in India and he still has to stay in London.  In their last few weeks together, they meet Rishi Kapoor, a friendly older desi who doesn’t understand how they can be so happy and in love and then plan to turn it off like a faucet because it doesn’t make practical sense.  He talks to Saif and tells his own love story, seeing a woman on the terrace of her house, waiting every day to watch her, getting a job so he is worthy of her, following her across the country, wooing her for 2 years after just a few glances and smiles.  Saif is won over to beginning to think that he might feel differently, deeper, about Deepika.  But when he says good-bye to her at the airport, he can see she is excited about this job and so doesn’t say anything.  Instead, he stays in London and starts dating someone else, a friendly white woman.  Deepika in India starts dating her supervisor at work, a serious nice guy who makes practical sense for what she wants for her life. 

Saif’s new girlfriend wants to visit India so they plan a trip.  Saif lets Deepika know he is there and they have one wonderful day together.  His girlfriend breaks up with him, and tells him he is still in love with Deepika.  But when he goes to talk to Deepika, she asks him to never talk to her again.  She can’t be serious about this new boyfriend with Saif still around.  Saif sadly leaves her.  Deepika gets engaged.  Saif comes to her wedding in England and gives her his blessing.  The next day, Deepika tells her new husband she can’t do this, she is still in love with Saif, she will always be in love with Saif, and no one else will ever be right.  She calls him, only for Saif to excitedly tell her that he has his dream job in America, it all worked out for the best just like she said it would, she is married and he is leaving the country for his perfect job.  Saif goes to San Francisco and at first is ecstatic, everything is perfect.  But over time, his happiness and excitement goes away, nothing seems to bring him joy or matter.  One night he is mugged and won’t let the mugger take his wallet because it has a picture of Deepika in it.  He is beaten but holds on to her photo.  Finally, he has learned that his love for her is all that matters, love is all that matters, you cannot live or want to live without love.  He rushes to India to Deepika and confesses his love, learns she ended her marriage because she loved him but was waiting for him to make the same discovery.  And then they call Rishi to tell him they are engaged, and Rishi’s wife Neetu (the young woman from his flashback) is there to hear the news as well.

On the one hand, this plot is very commercial.  The flashback and simple message of “we used to be more romantic back then, now it is all dating and clubs!”, plus the white girlfriend and the engagement drama, it’s like in any other film.  The scene that immediately stands out as a little bit different is the one where Saif refuses to give up the photo of Deepika.  It’s funny really, after having this whole movie of superficial jokes and stuff, to have this high drama out of nowhere.  But looking back on it now, I think that is the one scene that actually gets at what they were trying to say with this film.  Yes, it makes no sense, Saif can just get another photo after all, but that’s the point.  The whole movie is about these two modern people thinking love should make sense, thinking people should make sense.  And they just don’t.  In that moment, Saif was finally woken up to acting with his heart instead of his head, completely lost to logical thinking.  And once he listened to his heart, really listened, he knew that the reason he was so happy, had been unhappy for years no matter where he was or what he was doing, was because he wasn’t with Deepika.

It’s the same with Deepika.  She thought it was a matter of cutting Saif out of her life, first breaking up, then moving around the world and only talking on the phone, and finally not even allowing phone contact.  Once he was gone, her feelings would die too.  She could move on with the man who made sense for her, the one who logic said should make her happy.  It’s a very conscious statement on what Indian film and culture has always said.  If you find her a proper husband and get her married, she will forget her true love.  Even Deepika believed that lie and acted on it.  But the morning after her wedding, there are no more excuses.  She is married, it’s done, and she is still miserable and in love with Saif.  Again, this is the scene that works worst in the commercial edit.  She just stops and tells her new husband she can’t do this.  After all the angst and songs and spectacle, it’s just a conversation?  It feels like a whimper instead of a bang.

But the “bang” (for lack of a better word) happened inside.  For both of them.  There was no great moment of romance, no one thing that made it all clear.  It was just a slow accumulation of years apart as their feelings stubbornly refused to die, refused to give in to logic and sense. This is an idea Imtiaz returns to over and over again in his romances, that the head is trying to justify what the heart feels, and there is no way to justify it. 

This movie puts it in terms of yesterday versus today, and that works.  In the past, the young people fell in love and would do anything for love, while their elders put up obstacles and tried to convince them otherwise.  Today, it is the young people themselves putting up their own obstacles.  Saif and Deepika didn’t need a parent to forbid them from seeing each other, to urge them to find happiness elsewhere, they did it to themselves. 

Somehow in the never-ending debate in Indian culture between love marriages and arranged, we have landed at a point where even “love” marriages are expected to bring with them the advantages of an arranged match, compatible life styles and ambitions and backgrounds.  The young people who choose love over all are seen as regressive, illogical, versus the ones who choose love as it is convenient.

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