Yep, it’s a good movie! And Karthik and Sara both do wonderful jobs, especially Sara. Once again, Imtiaz’s vision failed to be captured by the trailers.
An Imtiaz Ali romance isn’t really a romance. It’s a story of spiritual awakening, told through a love story. Unfortunately, that is really hard to capture in a one sentence plot, or a 2 minute trailer. But when you give yourself over to the whole final film, it can be transporting. This movie wasn’t perfect straight through, but there were moments in the middle where I found myself crying at the beauty of it.
I’ll get the bad out of the way first and then the good. There are a couple of scenes that were filmed so shockingly poorly, like a character’s head getting cut out of frame, that I almost wondered if it was on purpose. But I think it was just bad quick filming for some reason. There’s also no “plot”. Like most Imtiaz films, there is no real external obstacle to anything, it’s all about the character’s internal journeys. Prepare yourself for that. And finally he uses a lot of really dreamy techniques to fill in backstory, including coming back from the interval with a random stand up comic talking about relationships, followed by a song that shows the relationship stories of tertiary characters. It’s odd, and it may not work for you. But really, that’s all the bad! It’s a very solid film, and way WAY better than the trailer appeared.
Let me start by cranking through the things in the trailer you might have found off-putting. First, Karthik IS on the spectrum. That’s why he acts like that. The movie never diagnosis or labels him, but it is clearly how his character was written. So it’s not a weird bad performance, it is a performance that is doing what the character was written to do. Wouldn’t it be nice if the trailer makers had included one of his lines of dialogue that made it clear that was what was happening, and not that Karthik had somehow lost the ability to play a character?
Second, it’s Sara’s story. 100% her story. The reason she isn’t in the flashback, is because she is playing the “male” role in the flashback. They flipped the genders between the past and present, in order to give Sara more focus and agency, she is the one hearing the story and relating to past-Karthik. She has so many moments of beautiful silent acting and she nails each one. There’s a moment in the film when she cockily tells Karthik to look at her as much as he likes and then poses for him. But under the surface of her casual cool instagram ready faces, she lets just a tinge of real emotion shine through. Just a magnificent performance, and a real gift of a character for her.
Third, there IS a reason to remake this movie. The only thing shared between the two films is that a present day person learns love/life lessons by hearing the story of a past person. But the stories, present and past, are completely original. And the meaning of using the past/present comparison is radically different and, I think, far more interesting.
The original film was about a modern couple not realizing the privileges they had by being able to love freely where and how they wished. It was a story about a modern day man who had love handed to him learning from a past romance and a man who had to struggle greatly to keep his love. Men men men men men. It was a well-made movie, so the heroine was a clearly defined character as well, but it was definitely the story of the hero and his journey.
This movie is about women. Sara is the lead, and the fascinating story Imtiaz wanted to explore is how, in the present, Sara has the same options that Randeep Hooda (STUPID FACE. Sorry Randeep, I still don’t like the way you look) had in the past. He is exploring how love has changed, for women, in the past versus the present. The first one was about men learning they had to fight for love and take responsibility and blah blah blah. This movie is about how love can destroy a woman, in many ways, along with all the other obstacles they face in life. Sara is confronted in a job interview because she undid a button, she goes on a date with a man who throws in her face how much money he spent on her drinks and that she “owes” it to him to go home with him, and most of all she has Mother Issues in a way that is distinctly Mother-Daughter, NOT Mother-Son (or Father-Son either).
(THIS is the twist! That this time, it’s the woman’s story)
If you watched Tamasha and thought “wait, where’s Deepika’s story?” or if you watched Jab Harry Met Sejal and thought “this is more Sejal’s story than Harry’s and it’s brilliant”, then this is the movie you want. Imtiaz took the life of a young upper middle-class professional woman in urban India and showed all of it, all the mess and struggle and misery, along with all the freedom and happiness.
And love. It’s also a love story. Karthik’s character is just there to support Sara, but he is a good character. And the moments of love between them are truly beautiful, Imtiaz really makes you feel their connection and want them to be together. And understand, from both sides, why that is hard.
Really, watch it! Unless you don’t like dreamy love stories with great music and fabulous performances and heartstopping sex scenes.
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Plot in 4 Paragraphs:
There is a past and present storyline, and they both have a firm interval line, so I’m gonna do 4 paragraphs for clarity.
In the past, Karthik is a med student who sees Arushi Sharma when she drinks water on the balcony outside her dance class and falls in love. He follows her around town, and at the boy-girl social for their schools, he dances with her. Finally he asks his friends to bring her to the “ruins” outside town where couples meet, starts to tell her how he feels, and she kisses him. Just then a cop comes by and yells at them, Karthik is insulted and slaps the cop, and is arrested. Somehow the whole town knows he was arrested with Arushi and her family is furious. They meet one more time and Karthik asks her to elope, but her mother catches them together. Arushi is sent away to Delhi by her family, but Karthik walks out of med school and hops a train to follow her. In Delhi, he finds a job as a restaurant manager and they meet every day between her hostel hours and his work. But then in a moment of weakness, he sleeps with a co-worker. Arushi doesn’t find out, and he starts sleeping with many other women. Eventually the guilt gets to him, and he wishes Arushi would just find out and break up with him. But she has such faith in him that nothing he does will stop her. Until finally she comes to him and says she is going to Bombay. INTERVAL
In the present, Sara is a young woman living with her permissive mother and trying to get a career as an event planner going. Karthik is a young software programmer on the Aspergers spectrum. Sara sees him at a club and falls in…something at first sight. She crosses the room to grab him and kiss him, and he takes her back to his place. But stops as they are about to have sex because he thinks this could be more than just a hook-up. He puts it badly because of his Aspergers, Sara is upset and confused and storms out. Karthik tracks her through social media and figures out that she works out of Randeep Hooda’s cafe and goes to rent workspace there too. Sara confronts him, he offers to go away if she says so, and she stops short of that. He offers her rides on his motorcycle when she needs to go places and she finds herself seeking him out over and over again. She is also listening to Randeep Hooda tell the story of his past perfect love and it is softening her to Karthik. Eventually, they have sex, and in the middle Sara starts to sob because she realizes her whole life is about to change and she is scared. The next day she is offered her dream job in Dubai and deletes the email because she can’t leave Karthik. Her mother is furious with her, reminds her that she (the mother) was trapped in a love marriage and never had a career or independence and hates her life, Sara shouldn’t give in to love and should be career focused. Sara then learns from Randeep that his first love didn’t work out and, with it all in her head, goes to meet Karthik’s parents and has a breakdown at the dinner table, telling Karthik he is in her way and asking him to go away. INTERVAL
In the past, Arushi goes to Bombay and Karthik hides to watch her train leave, too ashamed to even talk to her. He spends years working crazy hours and moving up in the world and having a string of sexual encounters with the many available women in Delhi. And then one night he finds himself calling the woman he is with by Arushi’s name. It keeps happening, and he finds himself looking at the old photo he still keeps in his wallet over and over again. He is longing for her, and then an old friend tells him she is running a cafe in Bombay. He takes off immediately and goes directly to her. Only to see through a window that she is pregnant. He smiles at her, and waves, and leaves without saying anything. It was years ago, and he is still broken by it. In the present, he sobs telling the story, admitting that it isn’t Arushi he misses so much as the person he was when he was with her, the real self that he has lost somewhere along the way. He looks for that self in every young couple he sees (thus explaining why he was Karthik in the flashback, Randeep’s mind’s eye placed present Karthik as himself in that story, and in the final section some slight CGI makes Karthik look more like Randeep, and his behavior is less Karthik-like too).
In the present, Sara’s career takes off right after the break up. She moves out of the cafe space and into an office, and then gets a permanent corporate contract. She tries to get over Karthik with a series of boring dates with people she doesn’t care about. And then one night she goes out with an old boyfriend, he buys her shots until she is drunk and a little sick, then in the car refuses to take her back to her place, she either has to get out on the side of the road or go home with him. Sara gets out, sick, and calls Karthik. He comes immediately, holds her hair while she throws up, gives her water, takes care of her and takes her home. She begs him to just stay and hold her, he refuses and tells her that he doesn’t want her just in this moment of weakness, he wants her to decide she really wants him, no compromise. The next morning, he tells her that he has finally found a project that excites him, he is going away for 2 years to the Himalayas to work on a water planning project. They say good-bye. Sara continues to be sadder and sadder, and work harder and harder. And then one morning her mother wakes her up, excited, the head of her company came by the house and proposed marriage for Sara to his son. Sara is stunned, her mother always told her not to get married, and now she wants to marry her off? Sara rushes to Randeep at the cafe to try to figure out what to do next, and Randeep tells her the sad end of his story, the love he lost and has never recovered from, and Sara rushes off to find Karthik. She travels through the mountains hunting him, and finally finds him, waiting for her.
That was long, but it’s all really important! Let me start with the idea of the past-present connection. Randeep starts his story by saying that Karthik reminds him of himself, and there is one distinctive moment in the past that is the same, the heroine approaching the hero and saying that she knows he has been following her, what does he think of himself? But she isn’t asking him to stop either.
As the story unfolds, however, it is clear that it is SARA who is filling the beats of Randeep in the story. She is the conflicted one, the faithless one, the one who is torn between his/her personal growth and a love story left behind. It is Karthik and Arushi who are ever faithful, ever patient, and eventually go away because they are driven away. This is a fascinating flip on audience expectations, that Sara can have the same ambition and sex drive and issues with commitment as a man, and that Randeep can have the same lingering misery of lost love as Sara.
It’s really Sara’s movie. The past story is important, for Sara to have that vision of dreamy perfect love to drive her towards Karthik, and for her to learn the messy reality and be driven away again. It’s also just an interesting story. We have so many dreamy love stories of a guy following a girl in a small town, leaving everything to be with her, etc. etc. But this film takes it a step further, asks what happens once they leave the small town and grow apart. And then even further, asks if such an important relationship ever really fades away. Fascinating ideas, but they only matter because of the effect they have on Sara’s story, and on women’s stories in general.
Sara’s character unfolds slowly for the audience. We start seeing her confront Karthik and tell him off, but end by carefully avoiding telling him to leave, and then turning and letting a smile slip out as she walks towards the camera. And then we cut back to their first meeting, in the club, when the soundtrack cuts to a beating heart as she sees him, it’s not just a bar hook-up, there is something powerful for her even just seeing him across the room. It’s still powerful when he stops her and she stumbles out, it’s not just an awkward moment, it’s something deeply upsetting for her. But only after she has started to soften and Karthik is driving her all over Delhi on his bike, do we meet her mother, the real key to her character.
The Mother-Daughter issues in this film are lovely. Sara’s mother is, frankly, HORRID. In a very specific mother kind of way. She is miserable about the state of her life and sees her children as part of what has trapped her, while also seeing them as a second chance to live her life over again. She fell in love in college and eloped, her husband got an overseas job, she was stuck back in Delhi with two little babies, she is still stuck back in Delhi left to ask her husband for money for anything. And so she puts this on her youngest daughter, that her daughter has to be a success, that her life will be destroyed if she gives in to love, that love is death to any woman. And yes, this is part of the unfairness of being a woman. After giving her commitment virginity (see this post for more!) to her husband, she was stuck. No more school, no more jobs, just trapped at home with kids. Couldn’t even divorce him and be free, stuck tied to a man who she didn’t want.
But on the other hand, it’s also Sara’s mother just being a TERRIBLE MOTHER. We see in a post-interval flashback all the yelling and bitter lectures Sara has heard her whole life, the way her mother used her as an emotional dumping ground and left her afraid of happiness, or to trust any man. Not to mention the fact that the film is careful to make clear that her mother is miserable because she has made herself miserable. The youthful love marriage and then being trapped with an absentee husband and two kids, yes, that wasn’t her fault. But they live a very comfortable life now and all her mother seems to do is sit home and stew in her regrets and obsess over her daughters. She could get a divorce and a settlement and live free but slightly less luxurious. She could get a freakin’ JOB and stop putting all this pressure on her daughters to have the career she couldn’t. Imtiaz is a careful director, he wanted us to see their nice house, the spoiled rich woman beauty of Sara’s mother, the way she seems to always be sitting in a chair in their front room and never going anywhere else. Right from the start, we feel the disconnect between what she is telling Sara (“I wish I had my independence, you protect yours”) and how she is acting. And so we are less surprised than Sara when her mother reverses herself utterly and encourages Sara to marry for money. She isn’t interested in her daughter’s happiness, she isn’t really concerned with “freedom”, she just wants anything that breaks the pattern of her own life and career success of a fabulous marriage will both make her feel good about herself.
Sara’s despicable mother messed her up, but the world today for a working woman in India also messed her up. She is ambitious and she loves her work and she is really really good at it. The reality is that a woman who loves her work will have a hard time when she falls in love. In the past, this wasn’t even a question. Arushi in the past just waited for Karthik/Randeep to propose and marry her. That was her life. She was in Delhi, then Bombay, but there was never a possibility that her life plans were anything beyond marriage. But in the present, Sara is presented again and again with the “accepted wisdom” that love will ruin her life and she should be practical, and career-focused. Even her friend encourages her to take the rich engagement, because love fades but security is forever. Once again, the film is saying that the woman of India today is living life like the man of the past. In the bad ways as well as the good, Sara no longer has the luxury of just giving everything up for love, she is expected to think for herself and look at the big picture and make wise decisions.
One of my favorite scenes is early on when Sara is interviewing for a big contract and undoes a button on her blouse before going into the conference room. The interviewer asks her about it, pointing out that the cameras outside the door caught it. Sara hesitates, and then says “so what?” She feels better about herself when she looks good, it wasn’t for them, it was for herself. That is the fight Sara has to have over and over again in the world. Her dressing sexy is for herself. Her going out to clubs and having fun is because she wants to. It has nothing to do with the men of the world around her. But the interviewer judges her, and her date has expectations of her. No wonder she is so skittish with Karthik, takes his initial pulling back from sex as an insult, is cautious in starting a relationship and, worst of all, assumes that if they are going to be together he will expect her to sacrifice everything without even talking with him. This is the reality of the world for a young woman like her, men keep wanting her to be something different from what she is and who she wants to be.
Lets look at Karthik for a second and why he ISN’T like those other men. He’s on the spectrum, but it’s really a very tiny part of his character. It lets his character say exactly what he is thinking and be completely honest, but it doesn’t change his feelings or motivations or any of that. He isn’t like those other men mostly because he loves Sara, and so he doesn’t judge anything she does. But he also gets a tiny bit of backstory. While Sara grew up with separated parents and a bitter mother, Karthik grew up with parents who were together in public and separate in private, who had agreed to a compromise marriage. He doesn’t want that. He falls in love with Sara right away, but he doesn’t want her to change or give up anything because he has seen what happens when a couple doesn’t really want to be together. And maybe because he is on the spectrum, or maybe just because of who he is, he is not interested in any other women or any other romance. The implication is that Sara is the first woman he has ever been interested in. After they break up, a co-worker comes on to him and he explains that he just doesn’t want anyone besides Sara. The film removes that area of tension, on purpose. Karthik really is there for Sara, whenever she wants. All Sara has to do is decide that she is ready to want him. The conflict is Sara’s and hers alone.
I think this is a really brilliant movie about all the reasons women run from love, especially in the modern world. But I can also see the basic underlying issue that might make it not work for some viewers, the same issue there is in most Imtiaz films. He has a very particular perspective on romantic love.
In an Imtiaz film, romantic love is a form of Sufi transformation. He isn’t saying that “every couple who falls in love is like this”, or that “every transformative experience is through love”. Just that for these particular characters, romantic love is not just love but is something that shifts in their souls in one moment of time.
Like every Imtiaz romance, the soul shifts and the mind catches up later. Sara sees Karthik across a club and the world drops away. He rejects her, and she is destroyed. He reappears in her life and she warns him off (because it is common sense) but stops short of telling him to leave and can’t stop smiling because he is there. Karthik gets in a fight after seeing her with another man, frustration and misery coming out in random anger. But the important thing is that the next morning Sara sees him arrive at work with a bandage on his forehead and sprints across the room to grab his face, check the injury, get reassurance it isn’t serious. Sara is a practical modern young woman, obviously she isn’t going to start a relationship with this stranger. But all those practical surface level thoughts disappear as soon as she sees he is injured. When they finally have sex and Sara stops in the middle, sobbing hysterically, we understand what she means when she says it is the end of everything. Giving in to him, being with him that way, will destroy who she was in the past and turn her into someone different. That is the kind of connection they have.
Sara being torn about leaving Karthik behind isn’t just a silly love story, it is a question of acknowledging herself as a person with a soul, with a deeper need than pure practical career ambitions. Karthik is her everything, with him she is changed into something new, without him she becomes nothing (which is what the love song says). That’s the story Imtiaz likes telling in his films, how people need to answer the calling of their souls when they hear it.
I could go on and on with the smart things in this film (the way Sara nails her interview because Karthik texts her in the middle, the way Salman Khan posters are used to show past-Karthik’s increasing sleaziness, the way sex is a silly meaningless temptation in the past and in the present becomes something deeply meaningful), but just trust me, if you can make that initial leap of believing in a love at first sight that is soul changing, you will like this movie.