Laila Majnu Review: How the Interminable Wait for Love Descends into Madness


Laila Majnu Review: How the Interminable Wait for Love Descends into Madness

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Debutant filmmaker Sajid Ali’s Laila Majnu, a modern retelling of the Persian classic, can easily end up being 2018’s most conflicting piece of cinema: For most of its 139-minute runtime, it begs to be dismissed until it suddenly churns out one of the most affecting moments seen in a film this year.

The film boasts of the standard Imtiaz Ali (producer and co-writer of the screenplay) tropes: A manic-pixie dream girl, whose free-spiritedness is misrepresented. If in Jab Harry Met Sejal, it manifested in Sejal wanting to achieve an aspirational level of fuckability, then in Laila Majnu, it’s insinuated that Laila (Tripti Dimri) invites stalkers and derives a secret pleasure from being stalked. It has wistful love ballads that tenderly dissect the agony of love and mines much of its drama from its Instagrammable setting. And it has a lead, Qais (a stellar Avinash Tiwary) who is at peace only when he is running away.

It’s unfortunate that the younger Ali isn’t quite as competent in milking these inherited ingredients in the family recipe of doomed lovers: Laila Majnu has an excruciating first hour that only tests your patience. It’s brimming with caricaturish villains, uneven accents, juvenile parenting, and an unconvincing romance that involves a meet-cute with urine (I wish I were making this up).

But an interval later, Laila Majnu turns the audience’s low expectations on its head. And in its last 30 minutes, unveils the film’s secret weapon: a visceral portrait of insanity. It’s only here that the film actually lives up to its ambitious promise of retelling the legend of Layla and Majnun.

It’s natural for an Imtiaz Ali film to have these romantic flourishes, especially in exploiting the dichotomy of idyllic Kashmir.

It starts with the most romanticised aspect of modern romance: the ambiguity of waiting. So many films treat this chapter with a peculiar reverence, as if waiting it out for feelings to be reciprocated, to be reunited with the love of our lives, or for things to get better, is every lover’s duty. Dil Chahta Hai, Love Aaj Kal, and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil have used this period as a device for the film’s lead to arrive at their big realisation. But it’s in Laila Majnu that we see the disorienting mental damage that accompanies the interminable wait.

The film’s second half begins with a leap four years in the future. Laila is married to an alcoholic MLA in Kashmir after refusing to run away with Qais. And a family tragedy forces Qais to return to his hometown for the first time since her wedding. Ironically, the very circumstances that pushes the lovers toward each other once again is also what prevents them from reuniting — although, they are in love, they have to wait until they can be in love.

While Laila sees this waiting period as a small sacrifice, Qais is programmed to look at it as his fate. After all, it’s the only life he has come to know – in a poignant scene he articulates his resentment at the enforced separation between the two, even though she lives 10 minutes away. Naturally, it doesn’t take long for Qais to unravel; he runs away to the mountains which affords him freedom from the perpetual wait but holds him hostage at the same time. Just like the double-edged sword that is his love for Laila.

It’s natural for an Imtiaz Ali film to have these romantic flourishes, especially in exploiting the dichotomy of idyllic Kashmir. On one hand, tourists come there to find themselves, and on the other, its serenity drives its residents insane.

Qais soon loses himself, literally and metaphorically, building up a world and lover in his head that is waiting for him, setting the scene for his descent into utter derangement. Rarely has an actor (Tiwary was terrific in last year’s Tu Hai Mera Sunday as well) offered such a striking mental picture solely through his body language. It almost makes you wish that the film was titled Majnu (you know it’s a true Imtiaz Ali production when the female lead has nothing to do in the second half).

For it’s these sequences that throb with the raw energy eerily reminiscent of Imtiaz Ali’s distinct directorial voice in Tamasha and Highway. It’s what engages, affects, and welcomes the audience into a world where madness is an inevitability of romance. Not its exception. Even when it’s a story that’s been told countless times.