Do you know how sometimes, when you’re watching a Bollywood movie, you wonder what on earth the female actor is doing in it? It’s usually a movie where the strong male characters have interesting stories and carry the entire plot, while the female lead has no specific role but to break out in dance, look aesthetically pleasing and marry the hero at the end.
You get a similar feeling about Jab Harry Met Sejal, except you feel it about Shah Rukh Khan.
Now, of course, this is a pretty weird feeling to have about a ‘SRK movie’. Imtiaz Ali has done everything he can to stop you from feeling this. SRK’s Harry — despite having no discernible problem in life but being attracted so much to women that it scares (only) him — is supposed to be deep. You’re told again and again, mostly by Harry himself, that he’s a bad guy. He’s weary. He’s got trauma. One flashback early in the movie leads you to believe there’s some mysterious backstory from India that’s left Harry the tour guide scarred in Europe. Turns out nope, there isn’t.
Because despite all the drama that the film tries to create around Harry, he’s fine. Nothing wrong with him. No trauma. No backstory. He’s just a dude, single in his forties. And that’s okay.
Jab Harry Met Sejal almost belonged to Sejal (Anushka Sharma). The movie is about her, after all – about the ring she lost and the things that happen to her as she goes from city to European city looking for it. Sejal moves the plot along: in fact, you often get the feeling that she was supposed to be the plot. Sharma’s deliberate Gujju accent may have been a bit much sometimes, but she makes up for it with her comic timing. Sejal is a lawyer, plays a role in her family’s business, is clear and decisive about what she wants, kicks the shit out of numerous bad guys and breaks off her own marriage. Harry is mostly just…there, a consequence more than a character, along for the ride Ali is taking us all on.
This movie should have been called Jab Sejal Met Dude.
In the run-up to this movie there was some talk of Imtiaz Ali’s repetitiveness: that most of his films feature people who go off on a journey in which they find themselves, and find love. This is true of Jab Sejal Met Dude too. It is practically the only thing that happens: the pair travel to different cities in search of a lost ring, get into really mild adventures in each city, find the ring and get together. You get the feeling that travel didn’t really need to be so central to the plot but was blackmailed into it, since everything travel was supposed to invoke could have been done without having gone on a journey at all. They could have found similar adventures just chasing each other around Mumbai – getting into fights in clubs, meeting spurned ex lovers, taking train rides, fighting thugs, throwing wedding parties for friends and singing impromptu songs.
Somebody somewhere convinced Imtiaz Ali early on that a journey is an integral part of films, so he feels the need to make all his movies fit that formula. The idea of a journey in Ali’s movies always leads to one person finding themselves. And barring few exceptions, that one person is usually a boy — from Jab We Met to Tamasha to Jab Sejal Met Dude.
Even more repetitive than the theme of travel are Ali’s precious male leads and all the bhaav they get from him. You get the feeling that men in Imtiaz Ali’s movies are a lot like Gayatri Jayaraman’s ‘urban millennial poor’ — whether it’s Shahid Kapoor’s man-child who couldn’t deal with his mother’s romantic relationship in Jab We Met, or Ranbir Kapoor whose biggest problem in Tamasha was that he couldn’t figure out if he’s a fun or boring guy to hang out with, or Kapoor in Rockstar where he can’t write songs until he feels sad about something, and now SRK’s spectacularly unremarkable Harry convincing himself he’s the blandest devil incarnate. Ali’s men break into sobs over their bad dating records and boring at-home personalities, probably to add some ‘darkness’ that’s supposed to add glamour to their souls in the filmmaker’s formula. I feel like telling the men in his movies to suck it up and go do their homework when they complain about how sad they are.
It isn’t like Ali doesn’t know how to give characters real problems. Part of the reason why Alia Bhatt’s Veera in Highway gets so chilled out about being kidnapped is that she’s dealing with the trauma of being sexually abused by her uncle as a child. Deepika Padukone’s Veronica in Cocktail is so traumatised by her breakup with Saif Ali Khan that she turns to excessive drinking and gets into a terrible road accident. Will someone please ask Ali, why do women need to go through so much trauma while the men get to just worry about themselves?
I found it strange that before the release of Jab Sejal Met Dude, Anushka Sharma claimed in an interview that her character was very superficial and had no depth. The trailer made it seem like she had plenty going on for her. But now, having watched the movie, I think I understand what she meant. It isn’t that Sejal has no depth, but that her role doesn’t allow her to show it no matter how much the plot depends on her. How can Sejal unfold all of her own complexity and depth when so much space is being taken up by SRK unnecessarily crying over his tour-guide status and imagined evilness towards women?
Ali won’t give us the satisfaction of a truly evil SRK, and he won’t give us the satisfaction of a truly realised Anushka. He just wants to hit the road again with a Dude.
Co-published with Firstpost