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Not Surprisingly, Laila Has Little To Do In This Modern-Day Retelling Of Laila Majnu

  • IWB Post
  •  September 7, 2018

Watching Imtiaz Ali’s films can be an emotionally exhausting experience. Love is a powerful drug, and no one is more high on it than the characters in his films.

But, technically, Laila Majnu is Imtiaz’s brother Sajid Ali’s film. Imtiaz has written it and he is also presenting it, whatever that means. But it’s hard to distinguish between the filmmaking styles of the two brothers, because, in a way, Laila Majnu is cut from the same cloth as Rockstar or Tamasha. Also, the story of star-crossed lovers Laila and Majnu (whose actual name is Qais) is not exactly new, so it ultimately boiled down to how well the Ali brothers managed to contemporise the story.

Set in a present-day Kashmir, Laila Majnu seems to exist in a parallel universe where there is no tension or conflict in Srinagar. But the flawless natural beauty of the place, juxtaposed against the eventual downfall of Majnu, works well for the film. This is not a spoiler unless you have lived under the rock, but the main story is pretty much what you’ve been hearing for years. Laila and Majnu belong to warring families, they meet and fall in love, cannot be together, and the heartbreak ends up taking Laila’s life and sending Majnu down the path of self-destruction to the point of madness.

Now, let’s take a look at how the Ali brothers have tried to make this a 2018 story – by making Majnu a stalker and Laila a tease. So, basically, reinforcing gender stereotypes and writing problematic romances is peak 2018. Like every other Imtiaz film, the woman here exists only to further the man’s story, so Laila, played by Tripti Dimri, has no personality beyond “the girl who wants to fall in love” and later “the girl who is in love”. Does she have any interests, hobbies, ambitions? Who knows? Director Sajid certainly doesn’t. Qais, played by Avinash Tiwary, has been written with a lot more depth but he also has no passion beyond Laila.

Every boy in Srinagar is in love with Laila, who leaves around lipstick-stained paper napkins for them on the road and really enjoys being followed and harassed. Once Qais sees her, he stalks her, and she pretends to be irritated while being secretly pleased about it. He even says something to the effect of “you’re a girl, you will throw tantrums. I’m a boy, I will tolerate them. Finally, you will give in.” Even as you throw up while watching this scene, you know he’s right because Bollywood never learns.

Anyway, they fall in love, but it’s in a rather hurried manner. So when they eventually decide to throw caution to the winds for each other and go against their families and everyone they’ve ever known, it’s not entirely convincing. In the second half, when it’s clear that they shall remain star-crossed, Qais’ transformation into Majnu begins. Supported by a brilliant soundtrack, Avinash really runs with it and commits to the performance. Qais is now a man who doesn’t even need the object of his affection because just his love is enough. He’s convinced that no one can understand him and his belief that Laila is with him, around him all the time. So much so that when Laila is in front of him in flesh, he doesn’t even realise it.

This is truly Avinash’s film because it gives him so much to do. And while his performance as Majnu in the second half gets repetitive and grating after a point, he is quite winsome in the film. Tripti looks great but is let down by shoddy writing. The supporting cast had many local actors, but it seemed like the only purpose of their life was to support the main characters’ romance, which was neither realistic nor fun to watch.

I understand that this is the story the Ali brothers wanted to tell and, to that end, they do succeed. But you don’t always need a hackneyed, trite beginning to qualify your ‘deep’ conclusion. And you don’t have to butcher your female lead to make your male lead the hero, especially when your title has both their names in it.

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