In defense of Jab Harry Met Sejal: Imtiaz Ali's film may lack depth, but there's a lot to love
A deep, personal conflict, hidden away under layers of daily life, stifled by the relentless passage of time, ensconced in loneliness; fate leading to a chance meeting with another soul who offers a glimpse and glimmer of escape; and a physical journey that leads to finding oneself within; this is the essence of every Imtiaz Ali film to date. The reason Why Jab Harry Met Sejal is already being called his weakest film yet, is that despite hanging on to these same tropes, it is still a film that departs from the paths that Ali usually treads on his journeys; and a journey on an untested path isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
But it is in this departure that JHMS stands apart from his previous work, and there is so much in the film that belies the somewhat hasty dismissal of JHMS as Imtiaz Ali’s weakest film so far.
For starters, it is refreshing that you can’t quite tell who the protagonist of the film is.
Is it Shah Rukh Khan’s boisterous, homesick Punjabi tour guide, shackled by the guilt of leaving his home in Punjab for greener pastures, in the dead of the night without a semblance of an explanation? Or is it Anushka Sharma’s entitled, obnoxious Gujarati bride-to-be, ostensibly looking for her lost engagement ring, but subconsciously looking for an escape from a married life that, in a conventional rich Gujarati setup, would ensure she’s no longer bound by her own moral compass, but by that of the entrenched, seemingly-unshakeable patriarchy?
You’d think that as the ranking star of the enterprise, the film would be about Shah Rukh Khan’s Harry. Indeed, Rockstar and Tamasha are so completely about Jordan and Ved respectively, that you came away reeling from discovering what those characters went through.
But Harry already knows what’s haunting him. He knows that he misses Punjab, its blooming fields, and its songs louder than tractors. All he has to do is go back home, to begin his journey to redemption. It is Sejal who undergoes the more significant change as she makes tough choices, but because the film has the two of them sharing the screen for most of the runtime, you never quite see the obvious.
And how those two share the screen! Shahrukh Khan does much of what made him the star he is, but also manages to flesh out the foul-mouthed Punjabi to great effect. Anushka Sharma turns in a career-best performance, doing most of the heavy-lifting in the acting department, letting Shah Rukh Khan coast along on sheer charm and superstardom. For the record, Anushka’s Gujarati accent isn’t perfect, and hardly consistent through her dialogue. But she manages to make it a delightful character quirk, and it never jars.
Most interestingly, though, unlike how Imtiaz Ali usually travels back and forth in the lives of the characters to reveal the source of their loneliness, in this film, we discover the characters almost in real-time. We get to see little of why they are how they are, and more of how they react to situations, which gives us only a clue of the character backstory.
In that sense, even among Imtiaz Ali’s filmography, this one is more about an actual journey than anything yet. It’s more situational, less poetic; more frothy, less esoteric. In many ways, Jab Harry Met Sejal is Imtiaz Ali-lite, propelled mostly by the unfortunate truth that if you have Shah Rukh Khan in your film, it will invariably have to be moulded for a shallower, wider audience.
This also means that you get a more sexist and regressive male character than Imtiaz Ali usually gives us. He treats women as objects for sex, but when he sees one he begins to fall for, he decides she’s not the kind who one should fool around with, but looked at from afar. Of course, Harry evolves through the film, but the net result still remains that this is a less gender-sensitive film than Imtiaz Ali’s previous work.
But make no mistake: the pain, the quest for solace, the gorgeous little moments that make journeys so much more important than destinations, they’re all there. One particular scene has Shah Rukh expressing a range of emotions in a single take; from a frenzied, teary panic attack to cheering up and appreciating the glory of the morning, traversing this emotional journey with a barrage of Punjabi, ostensibly telling himself what his mom told him to calm him when he was a child. It seems like a scene designed for a hyperactive performer like Shah Rukh Khan, and he nails it.
Anushka, on the other hand, manages to make you root for her throughout, because there’s something about a character that refuses to mince words. She, and Shah Rukh Khan’s reactions to her, are the constant source of humour in the film, and this film has more of it than any of Ali’s recent work. Perhaps that’s another reason why JHMS comes across as more flimsy and lightweight than what we’ve come to expect from Imtiaz Ali.
Despite its seeming lack of depth and the most obvious conflict resolution you could possible imagine, JHMS has much in it to appreciate and love. Everything that makes an Imtiaz Ali film the experience it usually is, is present in JHMS, crafted and designed in a way that makes it more commercial and less-demanding of the viewer. His previous films show you empathy, while Jab Harry Met Sejal gives you a chance to be empathetic.
This film will not have the same kind of cult fandom that some of his other films have gained over the years, but Jab Harry Met Sejal is likely to age better than you’d expect it to, as you discover the little deft touches of Imtiaz’s emotional and cinematic intelligence. Sejal and Harry eventually meet halfway, and the story of how they do can probably be experienced as a fan of Imtiaz Ali, if you meet him halfway as well.