I started looking for you.”
The full short poem reads as:
Imtiaz Ali gives life to the above words written by his spiritual teacher and guide in his latest film Love Aaj Kal (2020). It has been four years since Leena (Aarushi Sharma) left Raghu (Kartik Aaryan) but all of a sudden he starts calling his present girlfriend with Leena’s name. He spends the last ten minutes of his day looking at her photograph and reminiscing about her even though he has not seen her for ages. It then hits him that all this while a part of Leena was there with him and in him. In the previous Love Aaj Kal (2009), Jai (Saif Ali Khan) moves to San Francisco where he is mugged by a bunch of hoodlums. He gives them everything without any protest but refuses to part with a tiny photograph of Meera (Deepika Padukone) because that is really precious to him. He is even brutally beaten for the same but he does not relent. He then calls Veer Paaji (Rishi Kapoor) and blurts out that he has not seen Meera for over a year yet, “Yeh (Meera) door jaa rahi hai mujhse, ya paas aa rahi hai…Lekin andar tak ghus gayi hai woh.” Time and distance have not been able to separate either Raghu and Leena, or Jai and Meera because, as Rumi said, “They’re in each other all along.”
Love Aaj Kal (2020), having the same title as Ali’s previous 2009 film, tries to show the impact of the love of Kal (yesterday—1990s) on the love of Aaj (today—2020s). The film is a story of two sets of lovers living in the aforementioned time periods separated by thirty years. One of them is the story of Veer (Kartik Aaryan) and Zoe (Sara Ali Khan) based in contemporary Delhi. Zoe works at a co-working space called Mazi owned by Raj (Randeep Hooda) whom she befriends. Raj narrates his love story to Zoe when he was Raghu and fell in love with Leena in Udaipur in the nineties. The structure of Love Aaj Kal (2020) is largely the same as the previous film but Ali tries to interpret the changing face of love again in the two periods. It feels odd that the difference between the 1970s and the 2000s feels longer than the difference between the 1990s and the 2020s although both cover the same length of time. A lived-in period reduces the emotional distance, while a bygone period feels like the days of yore.
Love Aaj Kal (2020) opens with scenes where people are busy messaging each other using smartphones. The addiction to mobiles is so strong that even at a traffic signal, people are busy looking into their phones. Despite being hyperconnected, people struggle to communicate and speak their hearts out. Ankahee hi reh gayi woh baat. In Maine Pyar Kiya, which Love Aaj Kal (2020) references, Suman sent letters via pigeons to communicate with her lover. In the poster of Love Aaj Kal (2020), there is a hashtag written near Aaj while the Kal has three waving lines, recreating the ones that are put over a letter stamp bringing out the contrast in the changing face of communication. In another tribute to the era where letters and postcards were the norms, Love Aaj Kal (2020) also has Siddharth Kak in a special appearance. Those from the nineties will recall he was the host of the hugely popular Surabhi series that used to get lakhs of letters every week from the audience. It was so big that India Post introduced contest postcards after Surabhi received 14 lakh letters in a week.
Early in the film, the song Dhak Dhak says, “Koi bole love lena hai, koi bole dena hai. Definition iske laakhon, definition mein yeh na hai.” Some say love is about taking, while some say it about giving. Love has a million definitions; it cannot be defined as such. Ali’s idea of love, though, is inherently the same and is inspired by the epic stories of the past, such as Romeo-Juliet, Laila-Majnu, Sohni-Mahiwal, and Heer-Ranjha. Almost all his films have a mention of these characters and his characters play one of these ‘roles’. In Rockstar, the story of Heer and Jordan is based on Heer and Raanjha where Heer is named after Heer, Janardhan is a distorted anagram of the word Ranjha. In Tamasha, Ali depicted all these love stories in Ved’s play. In an interview with the Film Companion, he said that for him, the destination of love is essentially the same, only the path to it is different. Ekko ek kahani bas badle zamana. This is, therefore, seen even in Love Aaj Kal (2020), where Raghu and Leena were known as the Romeo and Juliet of Udaipur. Like Juliet, Leena is almost always standing on her balcony while Raghu serenades her from below.
While Raghu and Leena were the Romeo and Juliet, Veer and Zoe became like Majnu and Laila. Before this film, Ali co-wrote Laila Majnu and aspects from that film can be seen here. In Laila Majnu, after endlessly waiting for Laila, a frustrated Qais leaves a note for her where he writes, “Ja ab nahin aata. Ab tu hi dhoondh mujhe.” If she wants him, she has to find him. Qais went ahead on the journey by himself and starts living in the mountains. Soon, Laila realized the same and tells her sister, “Woh bas aage nikal gaya hai. Toh ab mujhe bhi aage badna hoga.” He has gone ahead; now I will have to catch up with him. And, when death comes to Laila, she is holding the same note that Majnu had given to her earlier. It was only in death that she could meet him again. In Love Aaj Kal (2020), Veer also almost became a Majnu. After their conversation where he asks Zoe to only come when she feels complete, he finds a job in the Himalayas. Aana toh puri tarah aana ya to aana hi mat. Like Majnu, he has moved ahead and gone to the mountains. Like Majnu, he has asked his Laila to come to meet him. Like Majnu, his beard starts growing. Like Majnu, he dances. Like Majnu, he was looking for something that would make 2+2 to be greater than 5. Zoe came in time to save him, else like Qais, Veer would have gone far ahead to be rescued. Love in Ali’s world is a savior. Tum mujhe bacha sakti ho, Sejal.
In Love Aaj Kal (2020), the primary reason for the conflict between the relationship of Veer and Zoe is that there are two versions of Zoe—andar vali and bahar vali—the inside one and the outside one. Veer wants Zoe to discover her inner Zoe because that is her true persona. Their relationship can only flower when this inner Zoe comes out. Early in Socha Na Tha, Viren had asked his friend about his own girlfriend Karen as to how is she from inside. “Andar se kaisi hai woh; woh jo bahar se nahi dikhta uska woh part kaisa hai,” he asks his friend who does not understand it and takes offense. Ali made an entire film Tamasha that further elaborated on this concept of inner self where Ved was stuck between dil and dunia. He was a product manager for the outside world, but a storyteller from the inside. He became a robot till his dil ki aawaz came and rescued him from falling into the throes of bipolarity. Love Aaj Kal (2020) is the story of Ved from Zoe’s perspective. Zoe is unable to balance a career and a love life. She gets so busy with her work that she does not even know if she is really happy. She has lost her own self in the process like she says to Raj, “Koi aur hi bani hui hoon. Robot banti jaa rahi hun.” She has become a robot, like Ved.
Zoe had made career plans till fifty-five and wanted her first serious relationship in the late twenties. At one point, she even compares her work to a boyfriend. In Band Baaja Baaraat, there was Shruti, a wedding planner, who lived by the principle, “Jiske saath vyaapar karo usse, kabhi na pyaar karo.” She was not fundamentally opposed to the idea of love as such, but she did not want to mix love with the career. She had asked permission from her parents that she wanted to work till twenty-five years and will then get married. Both Shruti’s and Zoe’s plans fail when love hits them but Zoe struggles more than Shruti in the aftermath. Later, Zoe and Veer agree to give their relationship a chance even though they call it a ‘mistake’. There were Bunny and Naina in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani who wanted completely different things from life. Bunny agrees to put his dreams on hold to be with Naina. But here, Zoe and Veer are not misaligned in terms of their priorities and there is a better chance of their relationship succeeding as compared to Bunny and Naina.
The most interesting part of the film was that even though Kal was based on the time where parental opposition to love was predominant, as seen in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Maine Pyar Kya which Love Aaj Kal (2020) refers in this time, it was primarily in Aaj where the role of parents plays a more pivotal role than in the Kal. Raghu and Leena did face some initial parental opposition but when they moved to Delhi, problems cropped up in their relationship when their parents were completely absent. While in Aaj, the conflict between Zoe and Veer has its roots in the thoughts and actions of their parents. Zoe’s mother, who raised her two daughters with an absent husband, has instilled in her the belief that career is more important than relationships. Seeing the difficult experience of her mother, Zoe has internalized the fear that what happened to her mother will happen to her, thus, suppressing her andar vali Zoe. On the other hand, Veer’s parents stay together but are not really together. They wear this mask for the outside world but inside their homes, they sleep in separate bedrooms. This is why for Veer, it is crucial that his relationship is with the andar vali Zoe. This is why he always insists to her, “Aana toh puri tarah aana ya to aana hi mat.” He cannot live with another façade of a relationship like his parents do. In Jab We Met, Aditya had gone through something similar where he reveals to Geet that his parents never loved each other but remained married all their life. His mother ran away with someone which he could not understand initially but only when he was in love, he understood his mother’s choices better. Therefore, he does not want someone else to live a loveless life which is why he insists that Geet should marry Anshuman. In Love Aaj Kal (2009), the generation of Kal came out better when it came to maintaining their relationships. In Love Aaj Kal (2020), the people from Kal including the parents end up alone and it is their choices that shake the people of Aaj’s belief in love.
Once they are in Delhi, the relationship between Raj and Leena takes a hit. Raj realizes that, perhaps, he rushed into a committed relationship. He starts meeting other women even though he was still with Leena. He eventually ghosts her. Raj, a popular name of the romantic hero of the nineties, goes onto doing the things antithetical to this romantic image. Raj has multiple sexual partners; every night, he was with someone or the other. What is again noteworthy is that Ali shows this aspect in the story of Kal which was a more conservative time while this lack of commitment is commonly perceived as a problem of Aaj. It is again Raj who breaks this fairytale idea of love and cements Zoe’s fear of not being able to manage a love life that she starts imagining all the worst-case scenarios in her head eventually leading to her fight with Veer.
Raj soon realizes that he still has not been able to let Leena out of him even though four years have passed. He waits another year and dashes off to Bombay where he sees a pregnant Leena. (For a minute, I thought could this be his child like it was the case in Kabir Singh but the human gestation period is at maximum forty weeks.) Leena has started a tea café, again an Ali trope. On seeing her, he communicates with her through silent gestures and then leaves without meeting her. He realized that his time is now gone. Love Aaj Kal (2020) does not reward him for his behavior because the blame for his state lies squarely on him. He has to live life with the consequences of his actions. At one stage, the film tried to justify his actions by calling them as a natural behavior. The film again went into interesting territory when it spoke about the forced societal rules of commitment but it eventually returned to the idea of one true love. Raj can have multiple liaisons with women but his heart is with Leena. What he can only do now is to recreate his past in his present. Thus, his café-cum-bar-cum-co-working-space is called Mazi meaning past. In Mazi, he puts the Mewad ice cream stands and other memorabilia that remind him of his romance with Leena. He also cannot help but see his own past in every lover boy he meets.
Initially, when Raj befriends Zoe, he talks about Veer and says, “Woh exact meri tarah hai.” Then, he corrects himself, “Woh meri tarah nahi hai, main tha uske tarah.” The premise is that he is a different man from what he was. It is why I feel the film has the same male actor playing both the roles in both Kal and Aaj, but not the same female actor because, as Raj clarified, Leena was totally not like Zoe. At later stages in the film, Kartik Aryan’s jawline starts to resemble Randeep Hooda’s underscoring that Raghu is slowly evolving into the present-day Raj. When he moved to Delhi, he became streetsmart and changed his name to Raj from Raghu. In essence, he has lost his identity. The man he became and the man he wanted to become are two different beings. Thus, the theme of duality is seen in Raj, too.
There are the standard Imtiaz Ali tropes that can be seen in Love Aaj Kal (2020) and on which I had also recently written here. This time, there were a few others as well. For instance, there are certain words and phrases that Ali really likes to use. One such word is ‘mess’. In Love Aaj Kal (2009), Meera calls Jai and informs him about a colleague at work who likes her. But adds, “Actually problem yeh hai ki hum saath kaam karte hain; kuch gadbad ho gayi toh mess ho jayega.” In Tamasha, Tara breaks up with Ved when he was about to propose her and she says, “Mess ho gaya. Bahot kharaab ho gaya ye. Magar ab ho gaya.” In Love Aaj Kal (2020), at the fight scene at the dinner table, Zoe says, “Mess ho gaya.” Later, when Veer goes to clear his accounts at Mazi, he requests Raghu to not say anything to convince Zoe, otherwise, “Mess ho jayega.” Mess is also a word that is commonly used to describe the stories of Ali. Another word that Ali likes to use is the word ‘aadat‘ meaning habit. Meera and Jai decide to not meet any longer with one last hug and one last kiss because the tum vaali feeling, aadat will never go away if they are together. Harry also asks Sejal to go back because then aadat ho jayegi. Here, Zoe says to Veer, “Aadat daal lo” when they finally ‘optimize’ their relationship. Main dhal jaati hun. Teri aadaton mein. Agar tum saath ho.
What also struck me was the women characters in Ali’s films are often left in vulnerable positions. The station-master had mentioned this in Jab We Met, where he said akeli ladki khuli tijori ki tarah hoti hai when Geet missed her train. In Highway, Veera is not scared after she is kidnapped and, in fact, she becomes friends with her kidnappers. In Tamasha, Tara loses her passport and her money and is left all alone on an island in faraway Corsica where no one even understands English. In Jab Harry Met Sejal, Sejal goes on a Europe trip with a man whom she does not really know. In Love Aaj Kal (2020), a drunk Zoe is left stranded in the middle of the night in Delhi after an altercation with a guy who had been trying to hook with up her. For any other women, these would have been dangerous situations but these women manage to make these circumstances a memorable (or an unforgettable) one for themselves.
What is also discernible about Ali’s characters is that they end up spending a lot of time away from each other but they never really move on. It has been four years that Raghu left Leena but then it hits him all of a sudden. Four years was also the time Tara waited for Ved in Tamasha. Four years was also the time where Qais returns to Kashmir and Laila comes to meet him in Laila Majnu. Geet, Jai, Meera, Jordan, Heer, Harry, Sejal—all of them found love only when they were staying apart.
There are two other tiny things I really liked in Love Aaj Kal (2020). One there are many scenes in the film where the characters are seen looking outside the window. It is not surprising because Ali loves window seats and the name of his production company is also Window Seat films. Secondly, there are some beautiful shadow scenes in the film when the lovers are together. Also, someday, a post can be written on the correlation between the changing identities of the male characters with their beard. Like a French beard is a sign of fakeness (looking at you—Ved and Raghu).
In Mehrama, there is again the theme of lost identity. The poet sings, “Main kahan kho gaya. Aisa kya ho gaya.” He then also adds, “Na khabar apni rahi, na raha tera pata.” He has lost his own identity, similar to what they said in Shayad.
In Haan Main Galat, the poet sings, “Haan main galat, galat hoja tu bhi. Aaja karein galati nayi. Darr ke sahi hua kahan koi. Darte rahe pehle kayi.” This is in line with the climax of the film where Veer and Zoe talk to each other saying that they are making a mistake but then realize that they cannot live in fear all their lives. Even the world will end someday. So, they would go to the mountain and take a plunge even if it is a mistake.
In Aur Tanha, the poet says, “Nahin hai toh, nahin hai tu. Ab chhoda hai hai toh sach me chhod de mujhko.” In a moment of epiphany, Raghu starts taking Leena’s name. He realizes that Leena never left him. The lover might be separated physically but they are still together. So, the poet pleads that if she has left him, she should leave him completely. Because he feels her essence in everything, thus, he cannot get over her. Her presence even in absence makes him lonely and he cannot stop crying silently.
My favorite part of the film was the Aur Tanha sequence. KK’s magical voice accentuates that sequence into something even more stunning. When you really like something from inside, it comes naturally to you. Ali’s love for the mountains and the music comes out splendidly again in this part of the film. There is a moment where Veer is standing at the water harnessing plant and the water gushes behind him as if mirroring his inner turmoil. Ye bhi koi hona hai, jo hai ankhen bharta. I was just smiling to myself that this is why I love moments of beauty in films. I will be laughed at but I am not going to feel guilty for liking something that made me smile. As Ethan Mascerhanas said in Guzaarish, “Never regret anything that made you smile.”