15 Years of Socha Na Tha: A Reminder of What an Imtiaz Ali Romance Used To Be

Bollywood

15 Years of Socha Na Tha: A Reminder of What an Imtiaz Ali Romance Used To Be

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

The easiest way to describe Socha Na Tha, Imtiaz Ali’s debut film might be describing it as “Jab We Met in progress”. Like Ali’s biggest success, Socha Na Tha revolves around two strangers embarking on an impromptu journey and opening themselves to discovery. There are other similarities: an accidental love story sprouting outside the confines of what initially seemed like the film’s central romance, a brief love triangle, the comic machinations of large Indian families, an unhealthy amount of subterfuge, and wedding preparations. In the film’s closing song sequence in fact, Ayesha Takia dons a corseted white shirt paired with a long skirt that closely resembles the outfit Kareena Kapoor wore in Jab We Met’s “Yeh Ishq Hai.”

Yet it’s also a reductive comparison – Jab We Met might be the enduring love story but Socha Na Tha is unquestionably the better film. When it was released 15 years ago, it was a misfit in Bollywood’s rosters of big-budget, studio-led releases like Bunty Aur Babli, Parineeta, and Black. Socha Na Tha came out at a time when the appetite of the Hindi film audience was yet to grow. Back then, the craft of a filmmaker or his risk-taking acumen didn’t drive audiences to the theatres in hordes like it does today; instead what piqued their interest was the cult of the A-list stars. Socha Na Tha had none. The film, which marked the beginning of the inimitable decade-old collaboration between Ali and lyricist Irshad Kamil, featured relative newcomers: At that time, Takia was barely one film old and Abhay Deol was a debutante. Its lacklustre fate at the box office then, came as no surprise, although it is no measure of the cachet that the film continues enjoying even today.

Written by Ali, Socha Na Tha revolved around Viren (Deol), an affable son of an industrialist, and Aditi (Takia), a meek orphan who lives with her uncle. Viren and Aditi find their way to each other when their families broker an arranged marriage proposal, unaware that Viren already is in a serious relationship. When they meet, Viren finds himself confiding about his relationship to a rank stranger and Aditi returns the favour by launching into a rewarding monologue about the double standards of arranged marriage. There’s also a delightful comparison to prospective grooms expecting women to treat marriage as a “job” and not a relationship – if the film were to release today, it would come across as a dig at the disastrous preoccupation with the love vs career conflict in last month’s Love Aaj Kal.

Even though Viren refuses the marriage, he strikes up a friendship with Aditi and the effortless ease with which their conversations flow is due in part to the fact that it comes without any accountability. We’re never going to see each other again, Viren keeps reminding Aditi throughout the film, indicating that there is very little reason in merely performing pleasantries. But in deciding to not hide things from each other, Aditi and Viren also start baring themselves, drawn to each other in a way that soon upends the trajectory of their lives. Ali builds Socha Na Tha on the irony of falling in love with someone cherry picked by your family, which is doubled by the fact that it is the same person you willingly rejected. Does love make any room for free will, Ali asks on more than one occasion, which in itself is a far cry from the cloying romanticism that derails most of his stories today.

More than changing each other, Viren and Aditi are compelled to see themselves for the very first time.

At its heart, the film is predictable to a fault, its premise becoming an open secret for anyone even remotely familiar with the director’s trademark narrative motifs. Yet, there’s something undeniably unassuming about Socha Na Tha that’s impossible to shake off: Its sweetness is devoid of any pretension or baggage, a throbbing flaw in the director’s recent outings. This was a filmmaker who was interested in saying something, not repeating it – Socha Na Tha is an “Imtiaz Ali love story” that existed at a time when an “Imtiaz Ali love story” wasn’t reduced to a trope.

Even as a standard love story of missed connections, Socha Na Tha benefited from the originality of Ali’s ideas on how millennial indecision both aids and prevents them from falling in love. The director’s decade-long filmography is proof that he has perpetually been fascinated about the unpredictability of the human connection as well as its consistency – often throwing two people in close proximity and deriving intimacy from it. No other film, barring Highway to an extent, has documented the sort of telling and intriguing transformation that ensues in a relationship in a way that was managed by Socha Na Tha.

More than changing each other, Viren and Aditi are compelled to see themselves for the very first time. On one hand, Viren – rendered by Deol with a sincerity that separated a 20-something’s confusion from the neediness of a manchild – comes to realise that love has no place for dilettantes. Then on the other hand, Aditi, whom Takia tempers with surprising mellowness, uses love as a crutch to accept and live the life she wants for herself instead of merely dreaming of it.

Back then, the craft of a filmmaker or his risk-taking acumen didn’t drive audiences to the theatres in hordes like it does today.

I suppose what explains the undeniable charm of Socha Na Tha, given that Ali’s filmography boasts of far flashier and crowd-pleasing romances, is that it is not in love with the idea of love. Instead, Ali tackles love head on: dissecting it and questioning it. In the film’s closing sequence for instance, Ali ambitiously argues that love might just be timing – and not a person. 

But it’s really how the film begins that best reveals Ali’s accomplishment: Socha Na Tha opens with a sparkling sequence that shows Viren and Aditi being in the same bowling alley, inches from each other and still being clueless about each other’s existence. Ali plays up the scene for effect, zooming in thrice to show just how far they are from each other while being so close. For a filmmaker who has dedicated his entire career to traversing the distance between finding one’s way to the person they’re meant to be with and actually being with them, only Socha Na Tha comes close to evoking just how easy it is to also miss the right turns to each other.

Today, over a decade later, when the director’s feverish reputation as an institution is starting to become more and more difficult to justify, Socha Na Tha is a reminder of what an Imtiaz Ali romance used to be. One that posits that even when it takes all kinds of coincidences to fall in love, love itself can’t be a coincidence.

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