Thursday, May 3, 2018

Jab Harry met Sejal

Helpless Shah Rukh Khan fans that we are, we'll watch him in anything—even an Imtiaz Ali movie. The title of Jab Harry Met Sejal (When Harry met Sejal, 2017) tries to evoke both When Harry Met Sally (1989) and Jab We Met (When we met, 2007), Imtiaz's first hit. And indeed JHMS draws on the central story of both films: we follow a couple who initially irritate each other, gradually become friends and ultimately realize that they are meant for each other.

Another point of similarity with the previous films is that the friendship slowly grows over the course of a road trip. In JHMS, the trip is occasioned by a search for an engagement ring lost on a European tour. While her fiancé returns to India, Sejal (Anushka Sharma) stays behind to find the ring, and demands the help of her tour guide, Harry (SRK). Sejal will return to India and her fiancé only after the ring is found; retracing the stops on the tour, Sejal and Harry's quest takes them from Amsterdam to Prague, Budapest and Lisbon. (No prizes for guessing where the ring finally turns up—we predicted it 10 minutes into the movie.) It's the thinnest possible pretext for a European travelogue.

A fiancé is waiting at the end of the journey as well in Jab We Met, which itself liberally borrowed from other "falling in love on the road" films. In JHMS there are also echoes of such films as Chalte Chalte (Journeying, 2003) and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The brave heart wins the bride, 1995), not to mention It Happened One Night (1934), Remember the Night (1940) and Sullivan's Travels (1941).

On the road, Harry and Sejal spend the night together (fully clothed) in Jab Harry Met Sejal

On the road, The Girl (Veronica Lake) and John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) spend the night together (fully clothed) in Sullivan's Travels.

I would mind Imtiaz's blatant borrowings from himself and others much less if those borrowings were clever, knowing, or added an unexpected twist or two. Instead they simply underline the film's utter predictability. Imtiaz isn't being playful; he's relying on formula.  And the elements that Imtiaz doesn't borrow from romantic comedies contemporary or classic are ones his films could desperately use: witty repartee and credible women characters.

In film after film Imtiaz's heroines have been fantasy Manic Pixie Dream Girls (see Jab We Met, Love Aaj Kal (2009), Cocktail (2012), and Tamasha (2015) for starters). Sejal is a Manic Pixie Nightmare Girl: overbearing, self-involved and self-dramatizing, alternately flirty and rejecting, she's just a (slightly) different stereotype. And Sejal is given lines that no real person would ever utter, I hope.

In another example, in a Prague club Sejal throws her drink in a thug's face. The thug and his henchman chase Sejal and Harry through the streets. As they hide from the men, Sejal has a question for Harry:

Practically speaking? By asking his actors to deliver a "joke" involving a potential rape victim's anxiety about her sexual inexperience, Imtiaz is willfully making light of the horrors of real-world violence against women.

Sure, when they're not being asked to utter offensive inanities the actors are appealing, and the locations are picturesque. But JHMS is so contrived, inept and objectionable I think it marks the point where I part ways with Imtiaz Ali, forever.

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