Love Aaj Kal has no role aaj-kal
I spent Valentine's Day with Karthik Aryan and Sara Ali Khan on the big screen, and I'm not sure who was worse. Love Aaj Kal is the director’s answer to a woke generation of millennials and Gen Z, who have all consistently called out his work for its terrible treatment of women. But his attempt to address this falls so very flat.
There’s nothing wrong per se with Love Aaj Kal, apart from a fatal sense of being dead on arrival. Its mediocrity would still have survived, though, if it wasn’t entirely overshadowed by terrible acting, a complete lack of relatability, and a questionable portrayal of the trope of “sexual liberation”.
I went to watch this with an Imtiaz Ali fanboy, an albeit dying breed of which there are still far too many. I saw firsthand, how badly this fanboy wanted this movie to work. His plaintive cries of “But Jab We Met was so good!” and “Imtiaz Ali is so brilliant!” were drowned out by the groans of the audience waiting for the movie to get somewhere.
For the other Imtiaz Ali fans out there - my friends, if you thought Jab Harry Met Sejal was bad, trust me, this is so much worse.
On-screen, Karthik Aryan is still, and Sara Ali Khan is exaggerated to the point of caricature. The memes were right: Sara Ali Khan’s acting humein tang kar rahein hai.
This is the director’s answer to a woke generation of millennials and Gen Z, who have all consistently called out his work for its terrible treatment of women. But his attempt to address this falls so very flat.
Switching up gender roles does not itself answer bad behaviour.
In the present timeline, Karthik Aryan plays the director’s visualisation of what a male Manic Pixie Dream Girl would look like. He’s also the one doing the emotional labour here, being patient while the girl-child “finds herself”.
In the storyline from the past, Aryan’s role is of a playboy who couldn’t live up to the simple expectations of a woman who is in love with him.
What connects both characters is how terribly stiffly they are portrayed. His movements are stiff, his dialogue delivery is stiff, even his facial expressions are bizarre. Audience members were left wondering if Aryan was trying to portray characters who fall on the autism spectrum.
If that was the case, it was badly and insensitively done.
Sara Ali Khan’s ‘Zoe’ character is, in one word, unhinged. She shows all the signs of manic depressive, bipolar behaviour, going on a selfish warpath, destroying the lives of everyone around her, simply because she cannot hold herself together for the duration of one dinner with the parents.
Had this been treated as a mental health issue, I would have felt a little better about watching a train wreck on screen. But this was just a character being “special”. Too special to sleep with, too special for a one night stand, so special that her terrible behaviour is constantly excused.
In Love Aaj Kal, is Ali being self-aware and trying to make a difference as to how stories are told in Bollywood? I think not. This comes back to the point of an implied regressive morality in the movie, which was the largest point of contention between me and the Ali fanboy I watched the movie with.
Let me explain with three examples. Spoilers ahead.
Raghu - Karthik Aryan from the past - sleeps around. He goes through a sex binge phase, and cheats on his ‘one true love’, Leena, repeatedly, vigorously, and with no thought of the longterm consequences. At no point does the movie engage in overt sex-shaming. However, in the course of hearing Raghu’s story, we come to know that he gets caught in the act of cheating. Leena instantly forgives him. Raghu is left having to come to terms with his promiscuity, and in the face of Leena’s blind trust, is left feeling ‘dirty’. Fast forward a few years, and he has lost Leena for good, as a consequence of his polygamy. Leena has found someone else, and is building her own perfect life - she is married, pregnant, and settled. She’s the good one, always faithful; he’s the bad one, left to a lifetime of regret, which he repeatedly warns Zoe against.
In the current timeline, Zoe tries falling out of love with Veer - Karthik Aryan from the present - by going on a spate of Tinder dates. She goes out dancing, clubbing, drinking, and has fun filled with empty voids. This culminates in her being pressured into sex by a stranger, who then overtly states that his time would have been better spent with a sex worker.
Third, one of Veer’s colleagues offers to be his rebound. He refuses, saying sex doesn’t work that way for him. Veer simply cannot imagine having sex with someone who isn’t the girl of his dreams. This mirrors the introductory scene, where Zoe propositions Veer for a one night stand, and he refuses, on the grounds that he’ll only settle for a committed relationship.
None of these instances are as harmful as the usual regressive tropes we see in Bollywood. This movie is no Pyaar Ka Punchnama. But it could have done better, and Imtiyaz Ali could have done better.
Finally, there’s the other central issue of a simple choice - love or career? Veer and Zoe force this question on themselves, and the entire plotline is an oversimplification of the journey of growing up into an adult who realises that you can have both.
Love Aaj Kal was - in my perspective - a bad movie. But more than that, it was a tired movie, unnecessary and unimaginative.