Jab Harry Met Sejal, Gurgaon: Why you should pick Shankar Ramen’s thriller over Imtiaz Ali’s latest

Pradeep Menon

Aug,07 2017 13:06 31 IST

At the outset, I must make clear that these are two completely different films in every way imaginable, which means that the most common option picked when faced with Gurgaon or Jab Harry Met Sejal, would be neither.

The intended audiences of Shanker Raman’s moody, deathly thriller and Imtiaz Ali’s frothy, devil-may-care romantic comedy are vastly different, but the films intersect at one common point – they both need a patient, receptive audience; one whose response to a film would not settle at a spot on the linear path between ‘best ever’ and ‘worst of all time’.

So, for those who prefer to chew on their cinema, give it a chance, be tested in their patience towards the filmmakers’ efforts, and take away something from a film to ruminate over, pleasant or not, the film to pick between the two new releases would be acclaimed cinematographer Shanker Raman’s directorial debut, the haunting, dark Gurgaon.

Jab Harry Met Sejal. Image from Facebook

Jab Harry Met Sejal. Image from Facebook

And the reason for this, is Shah Rukh Khan. Specifically, Shah Rukh Khan’s stardom.

Jab Harry Met Sejal has so much to love in it, and many of those moments have been provided by the unstoppable screen lover that so many of us have loved for over two decades. He props the film up on his charm and spontaneity, but the sad truth of the matter is that it shouldn’t have been his film to prop up.

The film, at its heart, feels like an Imtiaz Ali film about Sejal, with Harry being the catalyst. When we’re introduced to Harry in the film, as it opens with the soulful Safar, both he and the audience know he’s stuck in a rut, haunted by his past. His meeting with Sejal, in search of her lost engagement ring, sparks off the major change not in his life, but in the life of the privileged, but only farcically-happy Gujarati motormouth, Sejal.

The ring is a stand-in for her journey, with Harry guiding her through it, in some way finding redemption for himself as well. Yet, through the film, we’re only given the information that Sejal changes. What or how are left out, in favour of crackling moments between the lead pair, usually showing Harry’s state of mind instead. This is a choice made with full intention, of course, but one can’t help feeling that these choices were driven because the alternative risked alienating the loyal audiences of the superstar.

Make no mistake, Shah Rukh Khan is so earnest and energetic as Harry, and such a perfect foil for Anushka’s turn as a feisty wide-eyed chatterbox soaking in her new-found freedom with elan, that you forgive all that time they spend looking for that ring, as you attempt to find Imtiaz Ali amidst it

And find him, you do. Everything you associate with an Imtiaz Ali film is present here – the loneliness, the yearning to break free, the travel, the journeys outside and inwards, the music, and the unshakeable belief in the mysteries of love. All of this is present deep within Sejal’s character, but what you end up seeing more in the film is just glimpses of all this in Harry’s effervescence.

This is perhaps the reason why Jab Harry Met Sejal is finding it unable connect with the audience.

Imtiaz Ali and Anushka Sharma (along with Pritam, Irshad Kamil and the rest of the cast & crew) try hard and succeed infrequently, but ultimately, it’s a Shah Rukh Khan show. It’s fun while it lasts, but requires receptiveness and patience, to discover, buried under the weight of stardom, the little details and moments that make it fun.

Gurgaon, on the other hand, is a film whose strength is the fact that it features no stars.

Ragini Khanna, Pankaj Tripathi, Aamir Bashir, Akshay Oberoi and the likes are familiar faces, but they blend into the darkness of the world created by Shanker Raman and his team. It’s both dystopian and frighteningly relevant at the same time, because who’s to say we aren’t already living in dystopia?

The rules that govern us are clearly a farce, and we need to look no further than the Chandigarh stalking case currently making headlines, for proof of this. The truth is that power is all that counts, entitlement is what everyone seeks, the law of the land be damned if you have the power to snatch that entitlement. Gurgaon, the film, is as much about the real world as it is about its own gory universe.

The poster of Gurgaon.

It isn’t an easy watch, though. It is deliberately slow, focusing much more on atmosphere than we’re usually used to, in our collective big-screen experience. The worst sides of the characters are handy at an instant, with virtually no moral compass guiding the flow of the film. Characters kill with impunity, concepts such as ‘honour’ and ‘respect’ take on ugly meanings, and love is relegated to the grotesque garbage landfills that don’t even pretend to be the underbelly of the burgeoning urbanity of Gurgaon, the city.

Gorgeously shot, its visual mastery is sometimes excruciatingly in-your-face, turning you away and riveting your eyes to the screen at the same time. It isn’t an easy film to watch, but was cinema ever meant to be easy to consume? We’ve gotten used to the idea of films being just entertainment.

We need more films like Gurgaon, because we need our cinema to interact with society in more ways than just being a source of ‘time-pass’, be it through tickets or tweets.

The irony is that Gurgaon is also a reminder of how far away we are from a world where people are open about that which they disagree with. In today’s world, the best-case scenario is outrage and trolling. In Gurgaon’s world, the most likely scenario is a bullet to the head. We love the idea of escapism, but there are people in the real world who can’t escape that bullet.

Thus, for the sake of more cinema that can rise above stardom and deliver substance, if you had to pick one film to watch in cinemas between the two, I’d recommend Gurgaon.

PS: My own choice? Both. Twice each.