Thursday, 10 August 2017

Sightseers: "Jab Harry Met Sejal"

In as much as your humble correspondent feels he has power to effectuate any change whatsoever in this big and blasted universe, this one may be my fault. At the end of November 2015, I wrote a mixed review in The Guardian of Imtiaz Ali's Tamasha, a tricksy, self-reflexive New Bollywood exercise in which stars Deepika Padukone and Ranbir Kapoor toured the globe playing a variety of roles, including those, it seemed, of hot young Bollywood stars touring the globe playing a variety of roles. Sustained to some degree by its gamely adventurous leads, it was a bold experiment - and could be admired as such - but a tough film to embrace or fall in love with. It's just possible that Ali read that review, and others like it, and elected to attempt something far more conventional (and commercial) with his next project. If Tamasha unfolded like Bollywood Resnais or Rivette, then Jab Harry Met Sejal - as signalled by its boilerplate title - is a film operating under the signs of Rob Reiner and Meg Ryan: one or two minor deviations aside, it's a straightforward romcom, with stars playing variants of roles they've played, and roles we've seen, countless times before.

So enter Shah Rukh Khan as Harinder "Harry" Singh, a Canadian tour guide in Holland and something of a tourist in life: boozing, womanising, introduced literally tilting at windmills, he carries round a silly-looking midlife tattoo on his scapula while giving no great thought to the people - friends, lovers, holidaymakers - he picks up and sets down at regular intervals. Romcom convention demands he be stopped in his tracks, however, by the one funseeker who refuses to go away, and who comes to teach him a thing or two about himself. This is Sejal (Anushka Sharma), self-described "modern woman", who recruits our Harry to help trace the engagement ring that rolled off her finger somewhere on her travels. A trans-European goose chase ensues; a workable but very basic set-up. We all know the drill: on one side of the screen/narrative/poster, the commitment-phobic male, prone to regarding the fairer sex like ports in a storm; on the other, a gal so open to that commitment she's actively seeking a big ol' symbol of same. It's both familiar and familiarly contrived, requiring us to swallow a lot of disbelief the moment Sejal refuses to email customer services about her missing band and instead insists on dragging Khan's proven cad along with her to find it. When Harry declares "this is too silly" around the midpoint of the pair's quest, it is a moment of movie self-awareness on a par with anything in Tamasha.

Jab Harry comes to fall back on old-fashioned star power, and in this, it proves erratic but more persuasive. Khan comes into this project off the back of a run of selfless career choices: his wry cameo in Sharma's Ae Dil Hai MushkilDear Zindagi, where his shrink helped Alia Bhatt reach her full potential; Fan, with its unflattering autocritique(s). There's rather more in it for him here, not least the opportunity to swank around with younger women on his arm, and Ali doesn't linger unduly on Harry's anger (he literally foams at the mouth threatening to spit at his boss) and creepiness (attempting to pick someone up by inserting a finger in her navel: do not try this at home, kids). At the back of the film's meanderings, just behind the dirty laundry, is a broken man's fantasy of being saved; plentiful time is offered to consider the extent to which Harry's plight mirrors that of a creative who's spent the past half-decade directing others around Europe and may now want to go home to the love of a good woman. The good news is that Sharma - grounded, even gawky - isn't quite the usual manic pixie dreamgirl deployed to rescue a hero from self-pity. Her most charming moments here come when her inner geek comes out, seemingly spontaneously: pulling gauche shapes in a nightclub, revealing a background in classical singing on a terrace overlooking Prague, offering a nerdy thumbs-up in the wake of a passionate kiss. Ali's fascination with roleplaying licenses Sejal to teach Harry how to be a better boyfriend, and entails her assuming the part of his girlfriend after he's confronted by a scornful German conquest; it also gives rise to a second half in which both parties have to stop playing and confront who they really are.

This progression does, I think, hook us: the performances are such that both lovers appear to grow and mature before the final credits, and in "Radha", their duet high on that Prague hillside, you can see Ali building on the bare-bones framework he was testing in Tamasha: now we feel not just the fun shared by actors paid to dance around Europe, but also that shared by two characters coming to realise it might be a lark to spend a little more time in one another's company. That the film still feels thin is down to the fact not much life is exhibited or recorded beyond the two leads: the Yash Raj budget has evidently been blown on flights and hotels, and the musical numbers are almost exclusively between Shah Rukh and Anushka - on that terrace, in a karaoke bar, without hundreds of thousands of costumed extras in attendance. (Sejal's fiance, notionally a major player in the love triangle, doesn't feature at all until the closing minutes, and only then via Skype.) At its best, this leaves Jab Harry a diverting waltz, a fling of a film that picks us up and carries us along for a good couple of hours: I'll confess to having had a reasonable time in the leads' company. Yet you could fit the world it describes into one of the two stars' suitcases. As spectacle, Ali's latest feels oddly restricted and altogether limited in its ambitions - forever running round in circles, bound by the dimensions of that damn ring - where Tamasha, much as I might have shrugged at it, was at least trying to open a horizon or two up.

Jab Harry Met Sejal is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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