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CINEMASCOPE: THE JOURNEY CONTINUES

Updated August 13, 2017

A few years ago, during a very long and interesting conversation for this paper, I asked Imtiaz Ali (the director of Jab Harry Met Sejal) why most (if not all) of his films are about journeys — in both a literal and figurative sense. Half of his reply was a director’s typical insight one reads in interviews about character(s) discovering themselves on these trips. But then also: “A lot of my friends tease me that I plant journeys in my stories because I just like to travel.”

I thought it rude to point out that his frequent flier miles may eventually tap that idea dry. With Jab Harry Met Sejal (JHMS), another of Imtiaz’s journey-films, I stand corrected.

Meeting Harry (Shah Rukh Khan) in the opening credits, we get an unblemished impression of who he is — a charismatic European tour guide who wears a false-face on duty, the dependable good-natured guy who you can send your daughter with without the slightest hitch.

Jab Harry Met Sejal is sappy and emotionally satisfying all at the same time

But then again, you’d be a fool if you did. Off duty, Harry is depressed. A lost soul who misses his homeland. He compensates his emotional loss with physical satisfaction, indulging in affairs with women he is travelling with.

Harry labels himself a ‘ganda aadmi’ — a lecherous man who can’t keep his hands off women after work hours. With formal complaints already cementing his notoriety, one more strike on his record would mean a permanent one-way ticket to his village in Punjab — a place he has no intention of returning to.

Harry’s nightmare manifests itself with Sejal (Anushka Sharma), a smart, impetuous, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer Gujarati girl whose family has just finished a month-long European vacation with him.

Sejal, who was proposed to on the trip, lost her engagement ring someplace and latches on to Harry, backtracking stop-by-stop across Europe until they find it.

The film sounds like a road-trip romantic comedy you’ve seen before. That familiarity is a humble deception — such as Socha Na Tha, Jab We Met and Highway, the last two being classic examples of what not to expect from ideas that look familiar on the surface.

JHMS, being in the same vein, is deeper than what it leads you to believe. About 15 minutes into the story, we know Harry’s dilemmas of deportation and lecherousness — or even his fake charisma for that matter — are mere façades; the kind one whips up to distinguish oneself from everyday people.

His true self comes out in fleeting moments of uncontrollable angst, when he starts blathering in Punjabi. His outbursts, however, are on automatic. In seconds, he realises where he is — and who he ought to be — and reverts to his amiable tour-guide persona. You see salesmen like these in real life too, who regress from pissed-off states to genial normalcy in seconds. The role paints over SRK’s trademark mannerisms, fine-tuning them into realistic idiosyncrasies.

Unlike Harry, Sejal is easier to empathise with. Actually, she may probably be someone in your family — the bubbly, academically smart girl who can rapid fire songs and dance all night long with friends and family. As with most sprightly girls, her flirty nature is usually unintentional. When premeditated, it leaves a “sister-type” impression (as Harry puts it) — a feeling one couldn’t fathom in romantic relationships.

By intermission, we know Harry and Sejal are meant to be together — and for that matter a clear inkling of where her engagement ring may be. There is no big reveal or real conflict, except of the characters coming to terms with themselves. The Euro-trip angle merely functions as window-dressing.

One spots Imtiaz’s mindset (detailed in the beginning of the review) from a mile away.

JHMS, however, is a Bollywood film — and with that comes certain pitfalls. By the climax, when Harry takes a plane back to India to stop her wedding, one almost bangs his head on the wall at the predictability.

At these instances Imtiaz’s screenplay feigns to be unsurprising, hitting what you assume to be worn-out story-points.

The director, however, is no fool — even when he’s fooling around with the prospect of clichés. Imtiaz culminates his journeys — again, in both figurative and literal aspects. JHMS’s final 10 minutes (like Jab We Met and Highway) offsets typical Bollywood flair with an astute filmmaker’s atypical point of view on storytelling.

A word of caution: these moments are sappy and emotionally satisfying at the same time. You may end up liking the film more than necessary because of them.

Published in Dawn, ICON, August 13th, 2017