Love Aaj Kal is probably Imtiaz Ali’s most honest movie and hence his most vulnerable. It is naïve, but in an inquisitive way. It is so easy to dismiss the film and the characters as idiotic. The two lead characters don’t even feel like any real people we’ve met. They are foolish 20 somethings looking for eternal love. They are manifestations of the hopeless romantic (read IDIOT) deep down within Imtiaz Ali, who wants unconditional, uncompromising love forever and after. While Zoe (Sara Ali Khan) is the feisty exterior confidently facing the world, Veer (Kartik Aryan, present day) is the extremely under confident interior constantly in chaos, looking for answers which don’t exist. Together they go through intense turmoil trying to find ever-lasting, eventually settling for something transient but real.
I love the fact that Imtiaz Ali still prefers big narratives rather than small intimate ones. He is still a legitimate big screen film-maker. He structures this movie in a typical hindi pickchur way, with a big betrayal halfway. But the mechanics within are very fresh. Though the concept of two love stories influencing each other is reused from Love Aaj Kal (2009), it is much more potent here. The flashback serves as a romantic booster as well as a cautionary tale subverting our expectations dramatically. This narrative within a narrative gives a wonderful quality to the movie. It feels like watching a movie in a conversation with itself. Every argument for ‘LOVE’ has an equally strong rebuttal from ‘LIFE’. In the world of Imtiaz Ali, ‘LIFE’ is our reality, the never-ending, almost inescapable cycle of existence, while ‘LOVE’ is moksha/nirvana, the only thing that can redeem the gross human within us. Imtiaz has always been team ‘LOVE’. He has celebrated and romanticized it to crazy extremes (love can make your WBC count go up – Rockstar). He has always treated ‘LIFE’ as an irritating hurdle to be crossed (think of all his heroines and their ex-lovers), completely inconsequential in the larger scheme of things. But first time, he has given ‘LIFE’ its due. He sincerely accepts that there is nothing permanent about ‘LOVE’, and ‘LIFE’ is a reality to be dealt with, not escape. His pain and grief in accepting this is visible in the broken characters, who undergo intense turmoil within and in case of Veer (Kartik Aryan, present day), he is almost dysfunctional in the real world.
Most people think that Imtiaz Ali has overstayed his welcome. His movies keep getting more and more difficult to relate with. Breezy romances have given way to traumatic love stories. His characters are getting more and more internalized. In his last movie – Jab Harry met Sejal – he shut out the audiences completely from the inner lives of the two lead characters. Interestingly, in Love Aaj Kal (2020) he writes himself in the movie. Raghu (Randeep Hooda) is clearly a stand-in for the director himself. A man with a penchant of mythologizing true love through stories, but with no lasting relationships in real life. His breakdown towards the end while narrating the final parts of his doomed love story is Imtiaz’s most bare-naked moment on screen. When Raghu (Kartik Aryan, flashback) recounts how he kept staring at Leena’s picture for hours before going to sleep, I could imagine each and every male lead of previous Imtiaz’s films staring at the picture of their lover, in almost psychopathic fashion. In crude terms, all his male characters have been losers in love, and no points for guessing where it comes from. And this is true value of an auteur. The cringy, uncomfortable personal truths emerge out of narratives. Till date, though Imtiaz has always stayed true to himself, he never showed an awareness of his shortcomings. He in fact doubled down on romanticizing true love just to shield himself. But in Love Aaj Kal (2020), he has everything on display in spectacular fashion.
One aspect of the movie that instantly nagged me was the overbearing parent trope. Zoe’s mother emotionally blackmails her to stay away from relationships till she finds a financial footing (I know all Indian mothers do this). As a result Zoe is terrified of serious relationships. It reinforces that we are shaped not by of our experiences, but rather by domineering parents. I’m not opposed to the idea completely, but the way movie uses it as a screenplay trope was troubling me. But since then thinking about the movie as a whole, it fit nicely with the movie’s running theme of Indian social conservatism vs modern liberalism. The characters in the modern India milieu are free-birds to seek love, but still held tightly on leash by their parent’s experiences and baggage. Should the young ones be left alone to explore the world and make mistakes OR is it the responsibility of the parent to influence them based on their past experiences? The movie makes a convincing argument either way. Both Zoe and Veer carry their parent’s experiences as baggage which is so heavy, that they are incapable of a stable relationship. On the other hand, the dramatic flashback story from their other father figure, helps them gain a perspective about love and relationships. It encourages a reality-check when looking for long-lasting relationships. So I guess the movie advocates for a sort of modern conservatism, the cool father figure.
Many of you might feel that all this analysis is just a pedantic way to cover up the fact that the movie doesn’t work emotionally. I have read many complaints that the movie is just not relatable and the characters are a bunch of bumbling idiots, behaving like confused trauma patients. I understand this completely, but there are many moments throughout which hit me viscerally and aligned me emotionally to the movie. Especially the flashback. We’ve seen movies like Alaipayuthey (Saathiya in Hindi) and Sairat, where things don’t remain rosy after a hard-fought union. But here, we see Raghu deserting his first-love in cold-blood. It reminded me of times when I sat hand in hand with a person, but not feeling an iota of affection. At that moment it felt natural to move on to greener pastures, but it doesn’t feel the same in retrospect. It brings an ache of a wrong-doing. It was the moment I lost my innocence, a part of me died there, and it was painless then, in fact a relief. But as the years passed by, a guilt and a shame stayed with me associated to the memory. The movie of course turns it into a yearning for lost love, which I didn’t really mind in the context of the movie.
There are many ways to dismiss the current day characters of the movie, Veer and Zoya. They don’t feel like real people at all. Veer is pre-packaged damaged goods, too young to be looking for inner truths. Zoe’s single mindedness about career becomes laughable after a point. It feels she has already seen Marriage Story and has concluded that love, marriage and career cannot sail in the same boat. Left leaners will make them out to be privileged numbnuts. Right leaners will view them as overly mollycoddled youth unable to handle life situations. I am ready to concede all the dismissals, but still many scenes between them felt real and lived. The most memorable one was the scene when a drunk Zoe asks Veer to hold her, but he refuses because they are not ‘together’. It is heartbreaking to watch Zoe refused solace in a moment of weakness, but at the same time we see Veer too battling with himself and Zoe to earn respect. Ironically, the scene is preceded by one which has another man ditching Zoe in middle of nowhere because she wouldn’t submit herself to him. Sabko full Zoe chahiye!!
Maybe I’m overselling the movie here, and it’s possible that Imtiaz Ali doesn’t need art, but needs a therapist. But I’m so glad he has made an attempt here to face his incessant notions of ONE TRUE LOVE, head on, and in the process acknowledging impossibility of his desired utopia. The movie ends on a very humble note, not once suggesting a happy ending. For all we know, Veer and Zoe break up once again when back from Manali.