There is a point in Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha when Ved (Ranbir Kapoor), after his breakup with Tara (Deepika Padukone), looks in the mirror and says to himself that now there are two options for him, “Dekho boss. Ya to Majnu ban jao, kapde phaad kar chillao sadakon pe, ya stay cool. Toh pata hai kya? I’ll stay cool.” One, become a Majnu, rip your clothes off and scream. Or two, stay cool. Ved chooses the second option where he pretends that nothing happened to him but eventually failed at remaining unaffected. But what if he had chosen the first option? In Laila Majnu, director Sajid Ali and writer Imtiaz Ali recreate the epic love story of the star-crossed lovers Layla and Majnun. The lead protagonist Qais (Avinash Tiwary) chooses Ved’s first option and becomes the Majnu for his Laila (Tripti Dimri) after their love story faces opposition from their respective families.
Laila Majnu is based in contemporary Kashmir, a place which Imtiaz Ali has often said has had a big impact on him. His films Rockstar and Highway were shot in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Besides these, he has also made a short film there called Window Seat in Kashmir. It is not surprising then that he chooses to depict a doomed love story in the heavenly land of Kashmir. The story seems familiar where Laila and Qais fall in love but due to the familial opposition, they are not able to get married. Laila is forced to marry her father’s political assistant Ibban (Sumit Kaul). Staying away from Laila impacts the mental state of Qais and after some time, he becomes completely insane.
Going by his filmography, it is abundantly clear that Imtiaz Ali likes ‘stories’. His films and his characters usually have some connection to the epic stories of the past. This was most visible in Tamasha where a young Ved was obsessed with listening to stories. Ved wanted to become a storyteller when he grows up. In Tamasha‘s script, the story of Laila and Majnu plays a pivotal part, and almost none of that made it to the theatrical version. In Laila Majnu, Imtiaz Ali and Sajid Ali get an opportunity to not only show those parts but depict the entire story of Laila and Majnu. The film is portrayed in the way fairy tales are told. It opens with a series of shots that say, “Long before we were born, long after we die, the story lives on.” The film ends with the line, “And they lived happily after,” like the way the stories that we read often end. In the film, there are repeated mentions of the overpowering nature of the stories. The characters are only playing their part and even they cannot do anything to change their own story. As Qais says, “Tujhe kya lagta hai yeh hum kar rahe hain. Humari kahani likhi hui hai, aur yeh duniya kya, duniya ke log kya, hum khud bhi use nahi badal sakte.” What do you think that are we doing this? Our story is already written, and no one can change it.
Laila Majnu in Tamasha’s script
There are many similar traits in the various characters of Imtiaz Ali. They feel trapped and suffocated when they have to follow the rules of the world. Ali often compares his characters with animals, free-spirited and wild, who would rather live in a jungle than in a city. In Rockstar, while describing Jordan, Ustad Jameel Khan (Shammi Kapoor) says, “Yeh bada jaanwar hai, yeh aapke chhote pinjare mein nahi samaega.” He is a wild animal who will not stay in a cage. In Tamasha, Tara also compares Ved to an animal, “Tum toh nadi me muh dalke pani peete ho jaanwar ki tarah.” You stick your face in the river and drink water like a beast. In Laila Majnu, Qais is introduced to us in Laila’s dream as a child wearing the mask of a bear giving us the hint of the animal that he would become later. Laila and Qais usually meet in the garden near her place which he called it a jungle when they are caught by Laila’s father. Moments later, Laila’s Aunt is angry when she hears about their secret liaisons and tells her, “Aadhi raat ko jungle me? Aise toh jaanwar milte hai.” It is wild animals who meet like this at midnight in the jungle. Qais’ descent into madness is accompanied by the exposition of his inner animal. He flees to the mountains and starts living like an animal. The villagers come to get hold of him, and they bring a catching net with them as if they are planning to tame a wild bear. But Qais, like the wild animal, easily scares them away. In another depiction of animals, when Laila visits Qais after he has gone insane, he says that he finds Laila everywhere in his room that is again shown to be filled with animal imagery.
In addition, Imtiaz Ali’s animal-like characters display their true self when they stay far away from the modern world. Duniya and its ways create roadblocks that prevent them from living their life. They want to create their own world where they can live in peace. The internal struggle that his characters go through is easier to deal with when they can run away from the world. Their utopian world comprises their enlightened self, often living in the mountains. In Rockstar, Ustad Jameel Khan adds about Jordan, “Yeh apni duniya banayega.” He will make his own world. Rockstar also began with a quote of Rumi, “Pata hai, yahan se bahut door, galat aur sahi ke paar, ek maidan hai, main vahaan milunga tujhe,” which means, “Away beyond all the concepts of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field; I’ll meet you there.” When Heer and Jordan will be away from this world then only they could be together as this world has only given them despair. In the climax, Heer and Jordan put a white bed sheet over themselves, and Heer says that this is their world, away from everyone where no one can do them any harm. In Highway, Veera feels suffocated at her home where she has to do all the social niceties. She is the patakha guddi who cannot be caged at home. Ghar bhi rakh sake na koi. In the same song, she feels completely at home with nature. She gets into the branches of the trees, touches the leaves, and plays with the water. She tells Mahabir that she always loved the mountains and she can feel that they are calling her. She and Mahabir built their tiny abode in the hills, away from everyone. After Mahabir’s death, she tells her family, “Main hamesha kehti thi na, ki main bhaag jaaongi yahan se, mujhe sheher mein nahin rehna.” I used to always say that I will run away from here, I do not want to live in the city. In Tamasha, Ved goes to Corsica, far away from his world, where he meets Tara. Yahan se kai kos door, dil aur duniya ke beech. He gets to be Don there unlike back home, where he is the product manager in a firm, forced to do a job he does not really like. Later, Tara also tells him that he spoke to the mountains. Tum to pahaadon se baatein karte ho. We the same shades in Qais in Laila Majnu. Qais absolutely loves the mountains. He takes Laila to the mountains where he tells her that he was always fascinated with them. Hum sab ko dekh sakte hain, par humein koi nahi dekh sakta. Someday, he would go on the other side of the mountain as if a paradise awaits him there. When the time comes, he manages to flee to the other side. And there, he gets to talk to the mountains (like Ved) and finds a tiny hut in the hills where he stays with his Laila by his side (like Veera and Mahabir).
Log kya kahenge is heard time and again all through Laila Majnu. The fake ways of the world stopped Laila and Majnu from doing what they wanted. Duniya hai, duniyadari hoti hai. Time hai. When Qais’ father dies, his sister is more interested in the property of her father. When Ibban dies, Laila’s aunt forces her to cry so that people can see her that she is crying. Even if Laila had no feelings for her husband, she had to follow the period of iddat. Something or the other kept popping up and the wait for his Laila made Qais a Majnu. She stayed ten minutes away from his house and yet the distance felt insurmountable. Perhaps, this is why the prospect of escaping to the mountains to avoid the ways on which the duniya runs is so appealing in Ali’s films. Jordan, Veera, Ved, and Harry—all of them were looking for a home away from home. Even Geet in Jab We Met wanted to escape to the mountains.
In Tamasha, Ved, after his break-up with Tara, displayed bipolar behavior as if he was slowly being pulled into the web of madness, breaking the façade that he had built. In Laila Majnu, something similar happens to Qais, too, and he goes one step ahead of Ved to become a complete paagal consumed by his passionate love for Laila. The doctor calls it a case of clinical depression but Qais believes that he is not sick. Bas ishq hua hai, koi marz nahi. I am just in love, not sick. All through the film, people keep calling Qais a paagal. There were at least ten instances that can be easily recalled. He was the shehar ka naami paagal. Laila also jokingly calls Qais a paagal, and later, he would cross all the boundaries of sanity. Even Laila sings sarphiri si baat hai teri. Qais kept waiting for Laila all these years and says, “Yeh intezaar paagal kar dega mujhe.” This waiting will make me mad. In Arabic literature, they say that there are seven stages of love. The penultimate stage is the junoon (madness) when love becomes an obsession and the final stage is the maut (death) when the lover loses his own identity to finally have the spiritual union with his lover. For Qais, his junoon took over him and only in maut, he was completely united with his lover.
In Imtiaz Ali’s world, love is often a savior and without it, something starts happening to his characters. Heer falls sick and starts getting better only when she is in Jordan’s company in Rockstar. When she meets Jordan in Prague, she tells him that she is seeing a psychologist and he replies, “Ho gayi na paagal.” Without Tara, Ved starts losing his mind in Tamasha. Harry tells Sejal that she can save him in Jab Harry Met Sejal. Qais also becomes a shade of his former self. He even develops a scar (which he cannot explain as to how he got it), as if he is scarred by Laila’s love. When he finally sees Laila after four years, his body could not take it. He falls down just by one glimpse of hers. It is a scene that is absolutely stunning in its conception. Love is both a strength and a weakness. Bas ishq hua, koi marz nahi.
Another trait of the male characters in Imtiaz Ali’s films is that feel closer to their lovers by having something associated with their lover’s name. In Jab We Met, when Aditya sings, he remembers Geet because she brings music to his life, and she becomes his song—geet. In Tamasha, When Ved is missing Tara, he looks at the stars—tara—and screams Tara. In Rockstar, when Heer goes away from Jordan’s life, he becomes a Raanjha to his Heer. The name Janardhan itself is a play of letters of the word Raanjhad. In Jab Harry Met Sejal, Harry calls out Sejal’s name to the waves, and does that Sejal wave action with his hands. He is calling out to the water where the meaning of his lover’s name is also water. In Laila Majnu, when Qais has completely become a paagal, he keeps saying Laila and La Ilaha Illa Allah—there is no other deity but the one god. There is again so much similarity between Laila’s name and the shahada—Laila and La-ilaha—that they almost merge. There is a devotional aspect shown with love here. In one of the most beautiful scenes in the film, Qais is hit by a few men as he interrupted their daily prayers. Qais questions them as to why did they beat him. If Qais was talking to his lover whom he cannot see, were not they also talking to their God whom they cannot see? For Qais, Laila has become this omnipresent deity who is everywhere. He sings, “Haafiz haafiz ho gaya haafiz, kaafir kaafir ban gaya kaafir.” He has become closer to his God (Laila for him), and at the same time, he has become a non-believer in the one whom the others believe to be God. Laila remained ingrained in his soul all the time that the presence of the physical embodiment of Laila did not matter to him anymore. Remember how Aditya felt closer to Geet in Jab We Met even when she was not there and he used to imagine her by his side? In Highway, they say, “Tu saath hai, O, din raat hai, saaya sa hai, Maahi Ve.” Even in Tamasha, the old storyteller had admonished Ved by saying, “Dil me Heer liye, aur Heer khoje viraane me.” Heer is in his heart, but he seeks her in the wilderness. It is just that Qais, given that he is the Majnu, goes a step ahead than everyone else.
We also see that the film tries to create parallels between Laila and Qais. Laila gets the first half, and Majnu gets the second half. For the initial few moments of the film, Laila sees her imaginary lover who brings the color to her life. The sky turns into a resplendence of colors at his thought in her world. We never get to see the face of this man and Laila is tormented by this. When she finally meets Qais for the first time, she tells him, “Kya har jagah bhoot ban ke mujhe follow karte rehte ho.” Why do you keep following me like a ghost? In the second half, when it is the turn of Majnu, Laila actually becomes the ghost for him. He imagines her that he is seeing her everywhere. In the end, they die and they both become spirits, dressed in pure white, and happily dancing in the gardens of Kashmir. In the same scene, their bodies do not appear in the picture that was clicked by a tourist confirming that they have indeed become spirits. In the heavenly abode of Kashmir, they are finally together now. There is another interesting parallel between Laila and Qais. In the song Hafiz Hafiz, the singer says, “Main asal mein tu hoon, teri nakal nahi.” I am really you, not a copy of yours. There is a scene that follows. When Laila’s sister offers her food, Laila throws away the plate and then screams and in the next shot, Qais is screaming while standing at a bread shop. It is edited in a way that shows continuity between the two scenes as if it is again making the point that Qais and Laila are alike.
After Laila rejects Qais’ proposal to run away with him on her wedding day, he tells her, “Ja ab nahi aata, ab tu hi dhoon mujhe.” I am going, now you will find me. He moved to London and stayed there for four years. The death of his father forces him to come back. He meets Laila again. They plan to run away but Laila’s husband agrees to divorce her. Qais is ready and packed all his stuff. But Laila wanted to wait. When she comes and tells him, he is disappointed. He stopped listening to what was happening around him. He looks at the ticking clock and I think it was at that moment, he decides to move ahead. Then, Laila’s husband dies and she has to follow the period of iddat, causing another delay. But, then, Qais just went ahead on the (metaphorical) journey by himself. 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 he had given to her earlier. As Qais moved ahead and it was only in death that they could meet again. This is again quite reminiscent of Veera in Highway when she had said, “Main ja chuki hoon. Ab main vaapas nahin aa sakti.” I have gone ahead. Now I cannot come back. She had also moved ahead and could no longer live in the city. In addition, we also see more similarities between the endings of Highway and Laila Majnu, both of which involve kids. In Highway, a young Veera and Mahabir play with dandelions and are at peace in the mountains. Likewise, in Laila Majnu, we see a young Laila playing with a young Qais in a house.
If Qais was closer to Ved from Tamasha, I felt Laila and Sejal from Jab Harry Met Sejal could well be soul sisters. In the initial moments of the film, Laila is shown to enjoy the attention of the men who keep following her. Sejal wanted the same attention from men. Later, Laila tells her sister that she will happily marry whomever her family asks her, but she only has her aaj and wants to enjoy that today. She will not be serious with Qais. Again, this was Sejal also did. Sejal was engaged to someone else but she had no hesitation to try some different experiences with Harry. Laila keeps telling Qais that he should make her sister because kuch karta toh hai nahi. Sejal’s relationship with Harry had similar shades.
There are quite a few other little touches in the film. Laila is shown to be usually sitting on the balcony of her house while Qais looks at her from below. He sends her messages using her pigeons. After she gets married, Qais visits her again and this time, there is a glass window that separates Laila and Majnu. It is as if Laila has become trapped in a cage herself and she is not free anymore. Additionally, like in Ali’s other films, there is the use of mirror shots at different places in the film. When Qais is almost broken, he looks at himself in a broken mirror. Then, we see that Ibban dies in a car crash but somehow his death was foreshadowed when he had followed Laila and Qais earlier in his car and had an accident. He died in almost the same manner later. Also, both Qais and Ibban die from an injury right in the middle of their forehead.
There is a lot of other referential material in Laila Majnu. At one stage, Qais tells Laila, “Hum lakh chupaye paayar magar, duniya ko pata chal jayega, lekin chup chup ke milne se, milne ka maza to aayega.” These are the opening lines of the song Hum Laakh Chupaye Pyaar Magar from the film Jaan Tere Naam. Then, he adds, “Tu convince ho gayi ya kuch aur try karun.” This is almost like Geet saying to the ticket checker in Jab We Met, “Bhai sahab, aap convince ho gaye hai ya main aur bolu?” Tamasha was filled with snippets of Laila Majnu and here Ali actually gets to show them. As Ved said, “Majnu ne liye kapde phaad, maar tamasha beech bazaar.” This is also what happens to Qais the film. At another stage, Ved sings, “Husn haazir hai, mohabbat ki, sazaa paane ko,” a song from the old Laila Majnu (1976) film. Here, some men throw stones at Majnu and Laila screams at the same set of people when she finds about it. Then, like Veer and Harleen in Love Aaj Kal who meet at the Purana Qila, Laila and Qais meet in a khandar quite a few times. Laila is a fan of Maine Pyar Kiya. She keeps watching the film. Like it was in that film, there is a set of pigeons with her that are used to communicate messages between the lovers. At another point, Laila is watching the song Pee Loon from Once Upon A Time in Mumbai, which was also produced by the same set of producers as this film.
The film starts slowly but it keeps on getting better. The second half is wonderful and after long, a film felt so satisfying to me. The credit for a lot of it goes to Avinash Tiwary who has channeled the madness of Majnu splendidly. Watching him in Hafiz Hafiz is glorious. He was the standout performance in Tu Hai Mera Sunday, and here again, he has given the performance of a lifetime. Tripti Dimri as Laila is good but her role gets diminished in the second half. The music of the film is lovely, arguably one of the best of the year. There is a nice usage of Kashmiri language in some songs.
The film is directed by Sajid Ali. However, the imprints of Imtiaz Ali can be clearly seen all through the film. Imtiaz Ali and Sanjay Leela Bhansali are, perhaps, the few remaining filmmakers who believe in the kind of love that is so passionate that it can drive one to madness. Even a cynical person like me starts to believe in the power of love when watching their films. Imtiaz Ali has reinterpreted many epic stories, including that of Heer-Raanjha and Laila-Majnu, and is now planning to make a film on another one on the story of Radha-Krishna. As they said in Tamasha, stories are often the same, so ignore the what and the why, sit back, and savour them. I will be waiting to see how that one turns out.
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