Love Aaj Kal 2020 is on Netflix and if you don’t like it, it means you are secretly a male chauvinist. No, not really, that’s a terrible game to play with movies. But I do think a lot of the response to the film is because of anti-female prejudice.
Okay, third try on this post, it’s gonna work this time! The air in Chicago right now is very pre-storm feeling and it’s making my head feel gunked up as well, so I am having a very difficult time deciding where to start this thing. Okay, stretch my back, shake out my wrists, here we go again!
How do we know if an Imtiaz Ali film has a male or female protagonist? I’m gonna give two simple rules. First, who do we start and end the film with? Second, who does the audience journey with in a post-separation journey of discovery?
Let’s crank through Imtiaz’s filmography. Socha Na Tha, we start by meeting Abhay and his family, we end with Abhay and Ayesha both reuniting with their families. Post separation, we see Abhay buckle down in his job and Ayesha prepare for her engagement.
Jab We Met, we start with Shahid and his problems. We end with Shahid and Kareena. Post-separation, we watch Shahid remembering Kareena and growing to be a better person.
Love Aaj Kal, we start with Saif and we end with Saif. Post-seperation, we focus on Saif talking to Rishi.
Rockstar, we start with Ranbir and we end with Ranbir and in the middle it is all Ranbir
Tamasha, we start with Ranbir as a child, then Deepika as an adult. We end with Ranbir. There are two separations and after the first one we see Deepika, the second longer (in terms of screentime) Ranbir.
Highway, we start with Alia and end with Alia and post-separation it is only Alia.
Jab Harry Met Sejal, we start with Shahrukh and end with Shahrukh and Anushka resolving Shahrukh’s issues, and post-separation it is primarily Shahrukh.
Love Aaj Kal 2020, we start with Sara and end with Sara and post-separation it is mostly Sara.
Looking at this, the first thing that jumps out at me is “AHA!!! That’s why Tamasha felt so odd!” For the whole first half, Deepika is the protagonist. It is her eyes that the audience sees through, meets Ranbir, misses him, meets him again, struggles with who he is, and so on. And then she disappears, dropped out of the narrative in the second half. It works as wish-fulfillment if you want to be like Ranbir, you get to see yourself through Deepika’s eyes. And then see your own personal journey to Greatness where your true love will be waiting for you (always waiting) as a reward. However, for those who do not identify totally easily with Ranbir, it is a confusing movie experience to be jolted from one protagonist to another. Rockstar is kind of less disturbing since it is consistent, always and forever only one protagonist.
Most of Imtiaz’s films, the normal mainstream hits, are “normal”. It’s a two person love story, notice either the ending or the post-interval separation or both covers both characters, but the male character has a slight lead that makes him the “protagonist”. If nothing else, the movie always starts with the man.
As movie viewers and also People in the World, we have all been trained to “think like a man”. What does the Man want, what pressures does the Man feel, what has been the Man’s life experience? Shahrukh shows up onscreen in Jab Harry Met Sejal, poof, we are ready to sympathize with him. He is lonely, he works too hard, he isn’t able to make an emotional connection, these are the problems that everyone (male or female) subconsciously learns from childhood. It’s easy to sympathize with the male character, and it’s easy to watch a movie where all that is required to understand it is that sympathy.
Let’s look at Socha Na Tha again. Say you don’t notice Ayesha’s whole storyline at all, say you miss the bit about her being an orphan and struggling to always be good and so on and so forth. The movie still holds together, you can watch and enjoy and understand it merely by understanding Abhay’s storyline with Ayesha as his love interest and nothing else.
Now, back to Jab Harry Met Sejal. If you see Shahrukh as lonely, works too hard, can’t make emotional connections, the movie only half works. You have to also see Anushka as sheltered, insecure, abandoned by her family, filled with doubt and trying to compensate by appearing confident. Without understanding and relating to Anushka, the movie becomes the story of this awful awful woman punishing this noble man who comes to love her for no reason.
Imtiaz’s most commercially successful films, Socha Na Tha and Jab We Met and Love Aaj Kal, had female characters there for you to take or leave. If you identified with the male character only, the film functioned. If you identified with the female as well, the film was even better. It was a bonus, not a requirement.
His most critically acclaimed films reject identification with the female lead. If you watch Tamasha for Deepika, or Rockstar for Nargis, you will be deeply deeply frustrated. It’s not even a bonus, it’s a negative, the movie only works if you are able to set these women aside and focus entirely on the male lead and his problems.
And then we have Highway and Love Aaj Kal 2020, the two movies where it is the woman who is the protagonist, the woman’s story we must relate to, and the man’s which is secondary.
Imtiaz is a product of the same patriarchal society as the rest of us, even in the films with female protagonists he included a male co-lead with almost as strong a character as them. It’s harder to ignore men then women, even in fiction. And yet the films are definitively female stories, and the reaction to the films shows that.
If you are going to get people to react seriously and respectfully towards a film it is hard for them to understand, you need to make them believe it is Important. Highway did that, it’s a story about a woman that revolves around Woman’s Issues. Very important, very serious, we must all treat it with respect and “try to put ourselves in her shoes” (that’s an infuriating phrase, isn’t it? Like the people who actually are in her shoes don’t exist, we must all try to imagine what it would be like to be a female victim of rape because all the Real people haven’t experienced that). Love Aaj Kal 2020 isn’t about Woman’s Issues with Capital Letters. It is just about a woman and her issues. Which brings up the rallying cry of “why should I care”. Well, why should you ever care? You care because it is art, because it is a story, because you have empathy. Maybe the movie still doesn’t work for you, that’s okay. But this “why should I care” question is not something that anyone was asking about Rockstar or Tamasha. Why is it brought up now, when that same story is told with a woman at the center instead of a man?
Let’s go back to Highway for a moment. This is inarguably Imtiaz’s darkest film. Our protagonist SPOILERS is a very young wealthy young woman about to be married off who is accidentally kidnapped as part of a car jacking. Her kidnappers plan to either ransom her or sell her to human traffickers. Over the course of traveling with them, she forms a Stockholm syndrome attachment to the lead kidnapper. She confesses to him that she was raped multiple times as a young child by a family friend, and her parents refused to believe her. The kidnapper softens to her and tries to send her home again but she refuses. The two of them travel together to the mountains where the police find them and kill the kidnapper in front of her. She returns home long enough to confront her family, then goes back to the mountains to lead a simple life working in a canning factory SPOILERS OVER. For our protagonist to go through the same emotional agony, sobbing, awakening, monologuing, and so on that all Imtiaz protagonists go through, she had to survive ALLLLLLLL of that. And then the audience would buy it. For Saif in Love Aaj Kal to have an emotional breakdown, he just had to miss his ex-girlfriend.
I don’t think Highway is necessarily a better movie than Imtiaz’s other films, and I think his male protagonists on a film by film basis were perfectly justified in their emotional journeys. I just want to point out the double standard, that for a female lead film about an internal journey to be successful, the lead character has to go through massive pain and suffering. An actress has to survive that level of character drama before her performance is noticed, while an actor is given credit for carrying a movie when he has only a slight edge in terms of character story.
Which brings me to Love Aaj Kal 2020. Sara Ali Khan in this does not have the big showy monologues or terribly depressing backstory of Alia in Highway. Her character is damaged like Ranbir in Tamasha was damaged, or Shahrukh in Jab Harry Met Sejal. It’s real, it’s painful, but it is hard to pin down. Because we have all been trained by patriarchal society, we don’t see it. How does a woman feel pain? Why does a woman feel pain? We aren’t trained to consider it. It’s not comfortable or natural to relate to this kind of protagonist.
There’s no easy solution for this problem, training people to relate to women as easily as men, but Imtiaz is making a start. He went from having full female characters there if you look for them, to putting them front and center and impossible to ignore even when it damaged the profitability of his films. Maybe if he spends the next 20 years making these movies, and enough people see them, a woman will come onscreen and we will go “oh, exhausted with emotional labor, always slightly afraid of being hurt, struggling with body image” just as easily as we identify male pain.