Print Edition - 2017-08-12  |  On Saturday

A meet-contrived-cute

  • Imtiaz Ali’s Jab Harry Met Sejal is yet another testament to Shah Rukh Khan’s recent struggles—neither able to serve up the old Romantic Hero shtick with the same level of enthusiasm and sincerity, nor to something drastically different
What sticks out all through is the shoddiness with which the characters have been sketched: Anushka Sharma’s character, for instance, is a mass of such impossible contradictions that you can never quite get on board with her

Aug 12, 2017-I wasn’t always immune to the charms of Shah Rukh Khan. Having come of age in the 90s, right when Bollywood had entered the Khan Era, if I’d been asked to pick my favourite of the lot, it would invariably be SRK. The distinction in my mind, and likely in those of others, had largely to do with the way he was able to sell sensitivity as strength, as something desirable. Compared to most of his rougher, tougher, uber-masculine contemporaries at the time, Khan was peddling a distinctively different possibility—a male figure who could still be just as intensely loyal and passionate and valiant as your typical “hero” but who was also, at the same time, very much in touch with his emotions and didn’t shy away from shedding the odd tear. And the strategy worked like gangbusters: a combination of Khan’s fairly squeaky-clean off-screen reputation and the kind of roles he took up meant that he soon came to embody the quintessential Romantic Hero of the 90s and early 00s. 

But a lot has changed since, both in terms of viewers’ perceptiveness and Khan’s performances themselves. Of late in particular, there’s been a noticeably jaded quality about the latter—barring a few exceptions, of course—whether as a result of the “superstardom” that has made it difficult for us, the audience, to accept him in the skin of different characters, or because the actor has come up against a wall where his actual acting skills are concerned, it’s hard to say. But the more time has gone by, the more Khan appears to be floundering—neither able to serve up the old soft-hearted charmer shtick with the same level of enthusiasm and sincerity, nor do something drastically different, the limitations of his versatility becoming clearer with each successive project. Case in point: the new Imtiaz Ali-directed Jab Harry Met Sejal. 

In the film, Indian tourist Sejal (Anushka Sharma) is about to head back home following a long holiday in Europe with her family, when she notices that her brand-new engagement ring is missing. Not wishing to hurt her fiancé’s feelings since it was something of a family heirloom, Sejal decides she must stay and look for it. After some bargaining (and threats), she manages to convince Harry (Khan), the very same tour guide who had shown her and her family around the sights during their stay, to accompany her back over the route and find the missing bauble. 

While the sheer improbability of succeeding in such a ridiculous plan would be obvious to anyone with an ounce of common sense—given that the tour had covered over half a dozen countries and Sejal has little idea of where she had last seen the ring—our two leads still insist on going through with it, to the point of actually combing a number of town squares and looking under restaurant tables. And, of course, this being an Imtiaz Ali film, travel equals unexpected romance equals self-discovery: even though Harry warns Sejal early on that she might want to reconsider taking up his services being that he has a weakness for women—a concern she is quick to dismiss because she fully trusts herself, and, in any case, believes she is way out of his league (“High hopes, huh?” she taunts him)—to no one’s surprise, their relationship soon deepens and complicates.

Jab Harry Met Sejal has the slick, crisp look of most of Ali’s onscreen ventures, particularly those based overseas; the cinematography by KU Mohanan effective in showcasing the cultural sights and sounds of a number of European countries, so much so, in fact, that much of the film could easily be repurposed as a tourism promotion reel for these destinations. As far as telling a story is concerned, however, Jab Harry Met Sejal proves less effective. The film feels like a mish-mash of Ali’s previous films such as Jab We Met, Cocktail and Tamasha, just wrapped up in a new, but not necessarily improved package, indicating that the writer-director may be losing steam and ideas. Not that it’s all bad: the first half flows smoothly enough—if still asking for quite a leap of faith to accept the basic premise (iethe search for the ring)—thanks to some easy, light-hearted sparring between the lead pair, and the occasional spark. But the film is soon headed downhill with a second half that just packs too much in—including absurd and completely unnecessary detours into the criminal underworld and a surfeit of forgettable songs—in a desperate attempt to retain our interest.

What also sticks out is the shoddiness with which the characters have been sketched: Harry’s troubles are touched upon only superficially, just enough to justify shots of Khan brooding against pretty backdrops, and we know little of why he left India and why he stays in Europe if he’s so bloody miserable. Sharma’s character, however, fares even worse, a mass of such impossible contradictions that you can never quite get on board with her. For instance, although Sejal claims to be from a conservative family, the very same family and fiancé appear to take no issue with her hopping across a foreign continent with a tattooed stranger with a penchant for half-unbuttoned shirts. 

And for someone who claims to be all about knowing her limits—“I can control, boss. Anytime, anywhere, anyone”, as she tells Harry when he suggests it might not be prudent for her to be travelling alone with him—she sure does seem eager to put them to the test, time and time again. Indeed, there’s a certain disturbing aggression with which she pursues not just Harry’s approval, but his physical desire—from the get go, it’s clear that she wants him to want her—often, and very selfishly, manipulating situations to that effect. There’s a scene where she is, inexplicably, sexy-dancing for him in a hotel room somewhere; in another, she offers to play Harry’s “girlfriend” for the duration of the trip, which turns out to just be an excuse to throw any semblance of caution and boundaries to the wind. If Ali meant for Sejal to be one of those adorably-whimsical pixie-girl characters, he’s miscalculated severely: she is very much a half-baked, contrived creation and impossible to empathize with. 

You can’t blame Sharma, though. The actress is practically sweating with the effort she puts in trying to bring this shell of a character to life, but there’s little to work with. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for her older co-star, who either reverts half-heartedly to the same dated set of Romantic Hero gestures and expressions that he’s trademarked and which have already become the stuff of parody, or just seems plain disinterested in the whole thing.  

Jab Harry Met Sejal has a few fun moments, but hardly enough to make it worth the price of admission. 

Published: 12-08-2017 07:50

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