Although Hindi cinema and its audience have grown up on a staple of intense love stories, there has been a dearth of them this year. Debutant director Sajid Ali’s Laila Majnu seemed promising in its attempt to revive the genre. It also seemed promising in its treatment and approach. After all, Imtiaz Ali, who co-wrote this film, and love stories are an incredibly perfect combination.
However, Laila Majnu falls just that much short of hitting the bull’s eye. What could have been a love story to remember, ends with a feeling of ‘well tried’! Still, the film is a treat for the people who believe in love stories.
Set against the backdrop of Kashmir, the film centres on the lives of Laila Shamiri, a college student, and Kaes Bhat, a charmer and a carefree, rich brat. Laila is a blend of a princess fresh out of a fairy tale and a quintessential Imtiaz Ali heroine. A fan of Maine Pyar Kiya, she is beautiful, feisty, flirtatious and a true-blue romantic. On most nights, she dreams of her faceless prince charming. Kaes, rumoured to be an alcoholic, drug addict and womaniser, falls head-over-heels in love with Laila the moment he bumps into her.
By a stroke of serendipity, they meet at a wedding and decide to date each other until Laila’s father gets to know of their dalliance. Whether the star-crossed lovers are able to conquer the colossal obstacles in their path and live happily ever after forms the crux of the story. Classic!
The love saga of Laila and Majnu is Bollywood’s favourite tale. By changing the backdrop, it has been tried, tested and tweaked many a times. A hackneyed plot can work wonders if it is mixed with new and novel elements. The film has all the formulaic elements in place – music, melodrama and romance. Despite that, it is not old wine in a sparkling new bottle.
One of the reasons is the schism between writing and direction. What might have looked great on paper has not translated on screen with the same magic. Not enough time has been spent building the intense love story of the lead characters. No time has been spent establishing the animosity between their families, which are at loggerheads.
But the undercurrent of romance between the two lead characters has been beautifully depicted and enacted by. Even though it may not have been explained at length, there are many moments that convey the feelings that each has for the other and the pain they must endure.
However, the main problem lies in the second half of the film. While events unfold all-too-quickly in the first half, the second half is long-drawn. Crisper editing in the second half would have helped the film a lot. As with all Imtiaz Ali movies, glimpses of Kashmir have been deftly woven into the narrative. The camera does full justice to its picturesque locations. Each frame is like a stunning painting. One of the major highlights, however, is the way in which the camera frames the song, Haafiz haafiz. The mad frenzy and passionate eccentricity of Kaes Bhat has been captured spectacularly.
Poetic lines as a part of everyday conversation, often mouthed by the protagonists, make one wonder whether this is the early 2000s. The modern retelling of the classic romance is bereft of a contemporary touch. Case in point: the lovers exchange letters via pigeon post! The strongest link in Laila Majnu is its music. At a time when recreations rule the roost, here’s an album that boasts seven original songs, which also seamlessly blend in with the narrative. Songs like Aahista, Tum and Haafiz haafiz leave an impression.
On the flip side, what works against the romantic drama is its inconsistency. While some moments will get etched in your memory long after the film is over, most of them are transient. One can identify Imtiaz Ali’s classic touch in patches. The template has such a strong reference to the filmmaker that we barely catch a glimpse of Sajid Ali. We wish Laila Majnu had given us a tour into his world too.
Performance-wise, Avinash Tiwary steals the show. As a brat, he is charming. His raw energy is refreshing. On the 70-mm screen, he is a delight to watch. As a doomed lover, he proves his mettle in the second half of the film. He owns the film. Some of the most emotionally loaded scenes belong to him, and his earnest performance tugs at the heart strings. He is definitely an actor to watch out for.
Tripti Dimri’s presence is scintillating. She is effortless, spirited and strikes the right balance between playing to the gallery and going overboard. Parmeet Sethi’s portrayal of Masood Ahmed Shamiri, a helpless and vulnerable father in the latter part of the film, is splendid. Sumit Kaul, as Ibban, Laila’s alcoholic husband and local MLA, is a revelation. Shrewd, sadistic and wily, he reminds you of Jim Sarbh in Neerja. His Kashmiri dialect is perfect to the ‘T’. Abrar Qazi as Zaid is decent. Shagufta Ali, Sujata Segal and Sahiba Bali don’t get much due to their underwritten roles.