All of the film makings is a gamble but some fights are tougher to win than others. For instance, you probably don’t want the screen to go silent unless you’re sure you have the audience in your pocket. You especially don’t want to do it in India, where theater audiences tend to regard silence not as an aesthetic choice but as a challenge.
Late in Love Aaj Kal, Imtiaz Ali kills the sound for a key scene – dialogue, score, everything. It isn’t the worst idea, but the audience I was with – college-going couples all – didn’t seem to think it was as emotional a moment as the film did. There was a giggle, then a wisecrack. The sound was back in 30 seconds but that interlude felt like a verdict of sorts.
In a crowded nightclub, Zoe (Sara Ali Khan) stares hungrily at Veer (Kartik Aaryan). In no time, they’re shrugging off clothes on his bed. But before things can go further, Veer stops. He won’t sleep with her because he likes her too much. Zoe is understandably miffed. Who catches feelings on the bike ride home?
Veer and Zoe find love to be complicated, unreasonable, infuriating, tormenting – a worldview espoused so consistently by Ali that his films have started to assume those qualities. Like all of the director’s heroes, he falls in love hard – totally, tenderly, tragically, as Michel Piccoli said to Brigitte Bardot in Contempt. But she’s been raised by her single mother to put her career ahead of everything else, and once she starts to grow genuinely fond of Veer, she gets a show-stopping case of cold feet.
Like Ali’s earlier Love Aaj Kal (2009), the present-day love story is punctuated with an earlier one, told to Zoe by Raghu (Randeep Hooda), owner of the co-working space she uses. It begins in the early 1990s, with a younger Raghu (also played by Aryan) in love with Leena (Aarushi Sharma). Like their modern counterparts, he’s diffident but determined, she’s forthright and unembarrassed—when they finally get some time alone and he can’t make the first move, she points out that if he just wanted to talk they could have done that on the phone. Ali doesn’t get as much mileage out of ’90s Udaipur as the old-time Punjab of the 2009 film, though there’s a funny, unexpected scene when Raghu asks Leena to dance at a social: he launches into convulsive movement, and, after a beat, the stern, sari-clad Leena does the same.
Raghu leaving his job and family and following Leena to Delhi is twinned with Zoe’s guilt over turning down work in Dubai to be with Veer. Both Raghu and Zoe go into a tailspin because they’re afraid they’ve “committed” too early on in life. Both Kartik Aaryans pick a fight for no reason and get clobbered (not unwelcome). If only symmetry were a substitute for insight. People used to say Ali had nothing to offer besides ruminations on love; now even those thoughts have begun to grate. Self-regarding romanticism seems like the only card he can play. The problem isn’t that Zoe and Veer aren’t deep characters (which they certainly aren’t) or that Aaryan and Khan aren’t lively performers, but that the film treats their heartaches like they’re special.
There are still takers for Ali’s admittedly unique brand of romantic anguish. They will likely be thrilled, not irritated, that Love Aaj Kal has shades of most of his earlier films: a chattering female lead like Jab We Met; the heart-versus-career dilemma of Tamasha; the escape to the mountains of Highway and Laila Majnu; the entirety of Love Aaj Kal 1.0. At one point, Veer tells present-day Raghu, “Dil Se Bol Raha hai, I feel it.” Perhaps this is what Ali imagines today’s viewer thinks of his films. Sara Ali Khan going “Againnnnnnn” is probably more accurate.