Love in the time of reality
Love stories - once a preferred and crowd-pleasing genre at the movies - may have become rare in recent years. Yet, there's at least one filmmaker who remains a staunch romanticist. And that's Imtiaz Ali whose Love Aaj Kal, headlining Aryan Kartik and Sara Ali Khan, premiered on Valentine's Day last week.
The opening day's collections were encouraging, indicating that the audience still craves entertainers laced with romance and nostalgia. On the other hand, the critics were hostile, asserting that the confectioner of hyper-amorous tales was repeating himself to such an extent that watching the 142-minuter was a tortuous experience.
That it certainly was, especially the second-half which was far too predictable and sanctimonious, harping on the point that love is just not the same in today's Internet age. The underlying message was that career ambitions and self-centredness override genuine caring and sharing, which did amount to stating the obvious. Moreover, Imitiaz Ali had already stated this loud and clear in his earlier work - also titled Love Aaj Kal (2009), featuring Saif Ali Khan, Deepika Padukone and Rishi Kapoor. Whatever prevented him from coining a new title is baffling, to say the least.
For sure, his new work is disappointing. Yet, I am not sure he can be written off. An expert technician and writer, he is especially in form while extracting lifelike performances from his actors, as he has this time too with Sara Ali Khan, and Randeep Hooda in a key supporting role. Moreover, his ear for melodious music and meaningful lyrics are more than evident in as many as four tracks - Rahogi Meri, Mehrama, Hanh Main Galat and Shaayad - composed by Pritam and written by the underused Irshad Kamil.
For more proof, the director's Rockstar (2011) has stood the test of time and stands out for its outstanding music - by A.R. Rahman, in this case - as well as a volatile performance by Ranbir Kapoor which won him an armful of awards.
Ali's Highway (2014) established Alia Bhatt as an actress of substance, who took a risk in a decidedly different role demanding a performance of the highest order. In Ali's defence, it can be added that he invests an element of the abstract and Sufism to his narrative style, as he did in the underrated Tamasha (2015), which explored the theme of varied forms of story-telling, but was considered far too abstruse and complicated by the audience.
Carroming between hits and flops, as all filmmakers do, perhaps his least satisfying work has been Jab Harry Met Sejal (2017), in which neither Shah Rukh Khan nor Anushka Sharma could redeem the muddled script.
That he chose to return, nevertheless, with yet another love story after its flop, suggests that he is not likely to give up on romance, packed with resplendent locations, train journeys and heroines who are independent and outspoken.
Interestingly, he has never strayed into action thrillers or period sagas yet. The legendary King of Romance, Yash Chopra, did have to switch lanes occasionally, like he did with Deewaar (1975), Trishul (1978) and Kala Patthar (1979) to keep in sync with the angry young man persona of Amitabh Bachchan in the 1970s.
Hence, while I do admire Imtiaz Ali with all his strengths and flaws, as a filmmaker who remains doggedly committed, it's high time - he's 48 now - that he reinvented himself. His own life story, as disclosed in snatches during interviews, can make for a fascinating script. During his childhood, he had lived at his aunt's house in the industrial town of Jamshedpur. The family owned three cinema theatres that adjoined the house. And he would bunk school to sneak into the movies, making friends with an ageing projectionist who would allow him into the booth to run the reels. There are distinct shades of the Italian Oscar-winner Cinema Paradiso (1988) here.
And he could attempt a meditative marriage story, too. His marriage with Preety Ali (now a film producer) lasted 10 years. They separated in 2012 and have one daughter. If he ever disclosed some insights into the institution of marriage, I'm sure it would disclose deeper insights into the heart and mind of Imitiaz Ali.
In one of his rare interviews, he had stated frankly, "Marriage is so artificial. It comes with too may dos and don'ts that not only make you claustrophobic but also mediocre. You play roles to meet someone else's expectations. Today, I say things as they are. I'm not hypocritical." Now that sounds like a promising story premise for him to essay.
Am I being intrusive in suggesting this? Hopefully not, because here's a man who has the style and the verve to deliver cinema that is notches above the seen-and-heard-before. In other words, Love Aaj Kal, which has moments of stark reality. Just saying.