Revisiting Imtiaz Ali’s first and latest films on his 50th birthday

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Imtiaz Ali’s films have always had an impact whether they have been hit or flop. Here’s a look at his first film and his latest one

Socha Na Tha (2005): Socha Na Tha offers the comfort of muted mobility. Much of the movement afforded to this slight concoction of urban chic is self-serving and finally futile. But it’s fun while it lasts. Except for the occasional vulgarity, the dialogues by Ishan Trivedi are supple and tongue-in-cheek. But like much of what goes into the plot, the words are finally more emblems of contemporary connectivity than real people caught in situations of real interaction. Whether it’s the hero breaking into a jig at a traffic jam or the heroine making a face in the mirror, you know these youngsters are getting cute for the camera.

The whole ambience exudes a kind of enthusiastic youthful energy that Farhan Akhtar conceptualised for his trend-setting urban fable “Dil Chahta Hai”. In fact the film’s theme of a don’t-care-a-damn dude’s falling in love with the match that his parents arrange for him is cart-lifted from Farhan’s film where Saif Ali Khan fell in love with Sonali Kulkarni whom he had agreed to ‘view’ on his parents’ insistence.

There’s a zing-sting to Ayesha Takia’s eyeball-rolling enactment of the humiliating way she has been paraded in the past for potential grooms. It’s one of the film’s more endearing moments of soul-tickling interaction. Not all of the episodes translate as effectively on screen as they would on paper. The urbane wit extended to a befuddled, largely aimless 20-something guy’s search for true love has its bright moments.

But these are frittered away in pursuit of a larger plot. The peppering and the window-dressing are delectable. But the real meal lacks the palatable design that we’re led to expect.

Part of the blame goes to debutant Abhay Deol for whom this ‘unusual’ debut vehicle (boy-meets-wrong-girl) has been designed.No, don’t get me wrong. This new Deol isn’t a bad actor. But Abhay lacks the urbane wit of a Saif Ali Khan. His character is a sly amalgamation of Saif and Aamir Khan in “Dil Chahta Hai”. Amused, cocky, over-confident and work-shy, Abhay Deol tries hard to project all of this. If we discount his awkward body language and the tendency to appear more like a dud than a dude, he gets more than pass marks, especially since he’s given sequence after sequence to prove himself.

Among them I’d single out the one where he barges into his future in-laws’ place to convince them that their Catholic daughter Karen (Apoorva Jha) wouldn’t be safe in a Hindu family such as his. It’s a cleverly written sequence audaciously inverting the whole communal issue into a comic interlude. But the cleverness shows. This tendency to let the writer’s skills show up in the narrative defeats much of the film’s primary purpose. By the time, Viren (Abhay) and Aditi (Ayesha) are seen sharing a hug by her furious brother, we know the film is being too clever for its own good.

Love Aaj Kal ( 2020): This will be remembered as the misfired film in which Kartik Aaryan came into his own. Striking out as an actor willing to take risks Kartik delivers a performance that immediately puts him among the frontrunners of Mayanagar.

All else is lost in Love Aaj Kal . The post-intermission section of Imtiaz Ali’s confounding “love” story opens with what looks a video of a cheesy rapper exhorting the persuasions of that bewildering emotion called love, the same one that Kartik Aaryan in a semi-sepia flashback is heard telling his friends feels like someone is strangling him in his sleep.

That’s how we often feel while watching Imtiaz Ali’s antidotal love story. Consciously or otherwise Ali denudes the feeling of love of all romance, makes it look like a train hurtling torrentially into the land of trauma. So fasten you seatbelts, for a ride into the choppy waters of a love relationship, with Kartik Aryan playing the cross-generation double lover boy with all the earnestness of Charlie Brown sneaking midnight treats for Snoopy. Kartik is endearing from first frame to last.

As for recreating 1990, Imtiaz resorts to the most convenient and lazy tool to nostalgia: film songs. Imtiaz’s 1990 opens with Dil deewana bin sajna ke from the film Maine Pyar Kiya which released in 1989. There are references to Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak which came in 1988. That’s it. Raghu (Kartik playing the young version of Randeep Hooda) pursues Leena with all the sincerity of a softspoken stalker. Leena, played by semi-newcomer Arushi Sharma plays so hard-to-get you fear Raghu may stray. And he does, in most unexpected and revolting ways. Raghu’s sudden spurt of promiscuity is so absurdly out of character, and so in-character with the conduct of the characters in Imtiaz’s film. They are constantly contradicting themselves to the point of being exasperatingly incoherent. This is specially true of Sara Ali Khan who is saddled with a role that requires her to be aggressive, angry, bitter and drunk, in that order. Unable to negotiate her character’s anguish step by step she makes a horrible mess of the emotions, looking like a clueless nervous wreck in the tight close-ups that cinematographer Amit Roy insists on saddling Sara with. Not her fault. If you choose to mistake the Taj Lands End for the Taj Mahal, this is what you get.

Somehow sex is a huge problem between Kartik’s Veer and Sara’s Zoe.He refuses to do the needful because she is, errrr, too good for pre-marital sex.

“I can have sex anyone. But I don’t want a compromised relationship with you,” Kartik protests.

No Valentine’s Day release could be more anti-Valentine’s than Love Aaj Kal , a purported love story spanning two eras and two couples in love who seem to hate the idea of idealizing love so much that they end up romancing the opposite of love. Or, could it be that these characters love themselves more than they love, love?

Constantly tripping over their own rites of romanticism, Imtiaz Ali’s characters contradict themselves more than even the politicians of their country. Zoe’s mother (played by an unusually over-the-top Simone Singh) chides her daughter for prioritizing love above career and later urges Zoe to marry her boss’s grandson because…well, ambitions dissolve when wealth welcomes.

Speaking of ambition, Sara’s Zoe shows up for a job interview unbuttoning her top to “impress” the interviewing committee. When she is questioned on her bizarre behaviour she smirks, “Well, I have this body. And I couldn’t leave it home when I came for this interview.”

Huh? Who is more drunk here? Zoe or the guy who wrote her lines?

For all its trippy contradictions, Love Aaj Kal is nor bereft of brilliance. Some episodes like the one where a stone-drunk Zoe is humiliated by her rough date, are ably written. The character of Zoe’s Haryanvi date is brilliantly played. The way he counts the pennies for every Tequila shot and insists that Zoe pay for the bucks with f..ks , is savagely sad and humorous.

I wish the rest of this unanchored sequel to the 2009 romcom was equally powerful. Most of the film is sadly, weak and under-written. Or worse, weak and hammy.

Like all of Imtiaz Ali’s cinema this one too takes the protagonists on a Bharat darshan. They finally end up reunited in Himachal, with Zoe complaining that the problem of balancing career with love remains unchanged. Too tired to sigh, I simply gave up. Into this jumble of contradictory love messages Kartik Aaryan serves as a semblance of sensibleness.

A band aid on a war wound, so to speak.

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