Laila Majnu movie review: Avinash Tiwary is star material, but why riddle an epic with Bollywood clichés?
In Laila Majnu, Imtiaz and Sajid Ali have resorted to the woman-as-a-tease and the male-suitor-as-a-stalker clichés that were once a fixture in Bollywood but that many contemporary filmmakers now abjure.
The ancient Middle Eastern folktale of Laila and Qais (a.k.a. Majnun/Majnu, The Obsessed One, The Crazed One) is so deeply embedded in the Indian cultural consciousness that it has been adapted by film makers in various languages right from the silent era. In this latest retelling, writer-director Sajid Ali — whose famous sibling Imtiaz has co-written the film and is its presenter — chooses contemporary Kashmir as the setting. Laila and Qais are the children of warring families. When they meet accidentally one night, the attraction between them is instant. Both youngsters have poor reputations within the community, but they are undeterred. Following in the footsteps of decades of Hindi film heroes and heroines, she feigns disinterest in him even while leading him on, and he stalks her until she declares her feelings for him.
This is the Ali brothers' take on how Laila and Qais came together. If you have read various versions of the story or seen any of the films, then you know the gist of what follows. (Spoilers ahead only for Laila-Majnu virgins) The enmity between their fathers forces the lovers to split up, and the separation drives Qais insane. (Spoiler alert ends)
The biggest plus point of Sajid Ali's Laila Majnu is its young lead pair whose acting confidence and screen presence bely their lack of experience. Besides, the chemistry between them is electric. Tripti Dimri is pretty and imbues her Laila with an edge that makes the character's constant flirtations with danger believable. Avinash Tiwary possesses the kind of charisma that makes conventional prettiness seem dull, which is why he can pull off a conversation in which the hero tells the heroine that he works hard to appear smart since he is not good looking. His role is better written, but that is not the only reason why it is impossible to look away from him when he is on screen. If you have seen him in last year's Tu Hai Mera Sunday, you know he possesses that X Factor that transcends roles and films. While I would like to see Dimri again to figure her out fully in a project that gives her character the writers' undivided attention — which is what Tiwary gets in Laila Majnu — my mind is made up about him: Tiwary is, without question, star material.
The film's other major positive is its music by Niladri Kumar and Joi Barua, and the way Sajid Ali has incorporated their songs in his narrative. I am in love with the closing number, 'O Meri Laila' - the melody, the energy, the orchestration, the singing by Atif Aslam and Jyotica Tangri, the cinematography in that passage, the choreography, and especially Tiwary's completely unselfconscious dancing.
That said, the primary excitement in watching any adaptation comes from noting the manner in which a story we already know has been reinterpreted with a fresh vision. The decision to place this Laila Majnu in J&K holds out so many possibilities, but the screenplay remains largely immune to the politically charged atmosphere and the specific social milieu of the state. The conservatism and gender segregation that stand in the way of the two lovers could have been set in any other part of India, and the wedge between their parents could have been transposed to any corner of the country with a tiny tweak here or there, so why bother in particular with Kashmir? I could not help but wonder what Vishal Bhardwaj would have done with this material.
Exasperating though this aspect is, what is truly troubling is the fact that the Alis have resorted to the woman-as-a-tease and the male-suitor-as-a-stalker clichés that were once a fixture in Bollywood but that many contemporary filmmakers now abjure. Not only does this triteness reveal a dangerous inclination for gender stereotyping, it is also, frankly, boring. I mean, seriously, how much longer must we contend with writers whose idea of romantic sparks is a girl pretending not to like a boy although she does, or a boy being obnoxious to win her affections? Do such writers think couples absolutely have to be jerks with each other on the road to falling in love?
In that sense, sadly, this Laila Majnu has in fact regressed in comparison with the 1976 Hindi film in which Ranjeeta and Rishi Kapoor played the star-crossed lovers. Those two were friends who actually had warm conversations instead of playing nasty games with each other. There was a genuine fondness between them. With these two, it feels like they are simply sexually attracted to the forbidden fruit. Considering what ass****s they both are, you have to wonder if they actually like each other, and if yes, why?
The stereotypical portrayal of the initial part of Laila and Qais' romance seems to have emerged from a strong conviction that love can and does blossom in this fashion (shades of which we saw in Imtiaz Ali's Rockstar), that confused and intentionally confusing women do need the firm guiding hand of a male lover who knows his mind and bullies/intimidates her on to the right path. In one scene, as Qais watches a brooding Laila through binoculars, he expresses confidence that she is thinking about him and adds this analysis of the workings of her mind to his companion, "Nadaan hai bechaari. Usko kya pata?" (The poor girl is ignorant. What does she know?) What indeed can a woman possibly know about her own innermost thoughts?
She is still acting pricey when he articulates the stereotype in black and white to her: "You are a girl, you will play games. I am a boy, I will bear it all. Finally, you will give in." In a society where men in real life routinely stalk women in the belief that women want a man to be "persistent" with them and that women say no when they mean yes, in a society where such stalkers have been known to throw acid on the faces of women who have rejected them, it is scary and heartbreaking that such lines have come in a film presented by one of Bollywood's leading lights who once gave us Geet from Jab We Met. Maybe Laila Majnu should have been titled 'How To Reinforce The Widely Held Notion That Young Women Are Out To Toy With The Feelings of Helpless Men.'
Misogyny and lack of originality are a lethal combination. The clichéd manner in which Laila and Qais' relationship is established makes it hard to buy into their later devotion to each other. Qais' ultimate descent into hell is marked by some excellent acting from Tiwary, but by then it is too late for the film. Personally, I found myself more intrigued by Laila's equation with her emotionally manipulative father than with her boyfriend.
Dear Sajid and Imtiaz, from the space in your minds where that came from, why could you not have thought up a more credible, imaginative adaptation of Laila Majnu? Why?
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