By Poulomi Das Feb. 14, 2020
The torturous 141 minutes of Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal, starring a grating Sara Ali Khan and a scared Kartik Aaryan, plays out like a multiple choice question paper: Love or sex? Career or relationship? Uber driver or bike? Stalking or women's safety?
Imtiaz Ali has been so routinely accused of making the same film over and over again that for Love Aaj Kal, his eighth feature, the director decided to retaliate by not having a script in the first place. It’s why the film opens with a montage that makes a big deal about stalking: According to Ali, it doesn’t matter if it’s 1990 or 2020, women love – and in fact, encourage – being followed by the men who like them. If there was ever any doubt that the director might not actually possess any real insight about how millennials fall in love today, Love Aaj Kal puts all those doubts to rest.
The film’s premise is an inferior, charmless rendering of the original Love Aaj Kal: Set 30 years apart, two love stories in the sequel intersect and by extension, inform each other. In the past, Udaipur school students, Raghu (Kartik Aaryan) and Leena (a fine Aarushi Sharma) chart a neighbourhood romance in stolen glances, a story that is recounted in 2020 by Randeep Hooda, an annoyingly chirpy cafe owner who pretends like he’s Delhi own Rumi. In the present, Veer (Aaryan) and Zoe (Sara Ali Khan) fall in love because Ubers in Delhi never reach on time and Veer has a bike. “Fall in love with someone who can be your personal Uber” is exactly the kind of love advice you can expect from a director used to making tourism ads instead of films.
Just like Aditya Chopra’s Befikre, the only purpose of Love Aaj Kal is to give Ali an excuse to youngsplain millennials to millennials. Given that Zoe’s wardrobe only has crop tops and her everyday vocabulary boasts of a splattering of the three magic words – “whatever”, “yaar” and “ghanta” – Ali ensures that her status as a whiny millennial is undisputed. Zoe and Veer talk to each other not in words, but in profound pretence. A sample: “I need to kill the bitch in me!”. There is also some talk of “andar wali Zoe” and “bahar wali Zoe” which point to a split personality disorder that mandates a therapy session more urgently than a romance. But because this is an Imtiaz Ali film, both Zoe and Veer self-medicate their issues by good old pining.
Instead of traditional offices, Love Aaj Kal has co-working spaces and seasonal careers (event manager, entrepreneur, software programmer, water harnesser) that make a celebration out of privilege instead of professionalism. Work-ethic has gone extinct: characters actually work in Love Aaj Kal as much as they use their own brain to take decisions that could potentially affect their lives, which is to say, not at all. Just in case you forget that this is a movie about young people, Zoe and Veer keep giving frequent reminders by self-sabotaging with a reckless abandon that only makes sense if you’re booking a trip to Corsica on a whim.
For a film that aims to throw a light on the modernity of romance, Imtiaz Ali’s ideas on relationships are unbearably orthodox.
Moreover, in a completely low-stakes movie about two lovers who make up banal excuses to be apart from each other, Love Aaj Kal’s main conflict revolves around Veer refusing to sleep with Zoe because she is “too special for sex”; Zoe returns the favour by choosing her career over him. In Ali’s universe, it’s impossible for a woman to have a career and still be in love the same way a man can’t have sex with a girl unless he makes her fall in love with her first. So the torturous 141 minutes of Love Aaj Kal simply plays out like a multiple choice question paper: Love or sex? Career or relationship? Uber driver or bike? Stalking or women’s safety? You get the drift.
For much of the film, Zoe and Veer keep playing Romantic Pacman with each other until one of them buys a flight ticket to Manali and everything conveniently resolves itself. Is this movie then, about falling in love with frequent flyers? Or is the whole point of Love Aaj Kal to ensure that Arijit Singh has a career singing love-ballads the same way Mohit Chauhan used to have that same gig once? There’s really no way to know. But I can tell you this, if there’s something more hollow than an Imtiaz Ali romance, it is without question Imtiaz Ali’s brand of feminism.
Unlike his previous films, Love Aaj Kal gives Zoe, its female lead, a semblance of agency which as it turns out is an even worse reality than an Imtiaz Ali heroine just being a doormat for the hero. Here, Zoe is almost sociopathic – her standard greeting is a yelling; she forgets about her career whenever it is convenient and then blames Veer for offering her a stable relationship which she calls a “compromise”. Ali reduces the complexities of female ambition to five needless rants that start and end with Zoe screaming, “Main career bana na chahti hoon”. Even more groanworthy is a sequence that has Zoe getting caught unbuttoning her top before a work meeting, which she claims was done to boost her own confidence. Love Aaj Kal might think he is subverting slut-shaming although, this scene really goes on to show just how little male filmmakers understand women.
“Fall in love with someone who can be your personal Uber” is the love advice you can expect from a director used to making tourism ads.
To be fair, I’m still not entirely sure whether Zoe is the worst character written or if she is actually played by the worst actor possible, given that Love Aaj Kal’s insipidness is singlehandedly worsened by Sara Ali Khan’s grating over-emoting. The actress has the subtlety of Ranveer Singh’s wardrobe and the emotional depth of an Ekta Kapoor vamp. Aaryan fares slightly better in the flashback track (a dance sequence is probably the only rewarding part of the film) where the actor is less self-conscious than usual although, that has a lot to do with the fact that Khan goes out of her way to give a traumatising performance.
Yet for a film that wants to throw a light on the peculiarities of modern dating, Ali’s ideas on relationships are unbearably orthodox. There’s an almost prudish gaze at casual sex, par for the course for the generation he claims to represent, and the idea of the “one” is still romanticised to the hilt. Both Zoe and Leena are devoted to a fault and tend to their men at a moment’s notice. If Leena claims that she can never doubt Raghu because he left his home for her, then Zoe suddenly turns into a concerned nurse the moment she spots Veer with a bruise on his head.
Ali isn’t the first director who mistakes surface-level feistiness as female independence but there’s something about how he chooses to depict the transformation of romance that reeks of tired cliches. Naturally, Leena and Raghu are shown to be shy about getting physical while courting each other in 1990 but Zoe and Veer makeout on their first meeting in 2020. Using the readiness toward physical intimacy to argue a shift in the generational outlook toward romance is as effective as random surveys that claim that they can fix your love life. With ample throwbacks to his own filmography and a dictionary of dating that thinks it has all the answers while saying nothing at all, Love Aaj Kal resembles Imtiaz Ali’s directorial voice at the moment: a relic of the past that holds no clue about the future.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.