(An edited version was published in The New Indian Express)
Jab Harry Met Sejal plays like an extended version of the first half (or quarter?) of Imtiaz Ali’s previous film, Tamasha. Harry (Shah Rukh Khan as Harinder Singh Nehra) is a tour guide and Sejal (Anushka Sharma with a laborious, takes-time-to-warm-up Gujarati accent), one of his clients, as part of a group vacationing in Europe. Sejal’s engagement ring becomes a MacGuffin, something she would miss a flight for, and Harry becomes her reluctant associate in its search that they conduct all over Europe. Quite literally. Sejal & Harry’s Eurotrip would clearly be the better title but then that wouldn’t be a throwback to an earlier Ali film, remarking that Ali is at a stage where he has an enviable oeuvre that can speak for itself, has an enviable band of fans and naysayers, and still be someone who continues to refine his pet themes and characters. When Harry and Sejal are together, they fail at being themselves. They also wonder if that is their true nature giving way to a narrative that is reminiscent of Ved and Tara from Tamasha when they meet in Corsica. Whatever it does well or not well, Jab Harry Met Sejal only adds one more page to the clickbait friendly abstract that Imtiaz Ali makes the same film over and over again.
Jab Harry Met Sejal is a different sort of Shah Rukh Khan vehicle but only slightly. It has Shah Rukh Khan playing a version of every Shah Rukh Khan character – Harry – who lives his life pretending to possess characteristics that are entirely flipped from those of the Khan lover boy as we know him. He is a womanizer. He is someone who doesn’t treat his women with respect. Wit and charm don’t exist in his dictionary. Harinder the tour guide is closer to the traditional definition of masculine – good things and bad. Harry, when with Sejal, is overwhelmed with trepidation in front of goons that the only idea on his mind is to run as fast as one can. Or use his wit to get out of a tricky situation rather than get physical with anyone. Harinder the tour guide is impenetrable, someone who betrays no emotion or attachment. Harry, when with Sejal, has frequent throwbacks to his past unexplained life that he escaped – a trigger for his anxiety attacks. There is a scene where Sejal asks Harry to pretend to be her fiance to playback a series of events. He doesn’t take it seriously at first and we only see the disinterested, fatigued tour guide. When she insists, we see the Harry (Shah Rukh Khan?) who can be romantic to humans and objects alike and be just as convincing. All of this makes one wonder if it is even possible to separate Shah Rukh Khan the star or the man from the characters he plays anymore. Has he reached that point – admittedly too soon – where he is weighed down by his own body of work, not to mention his off-screen image?
The next logical question after a viewing of Jab Harry Met Sejal is obvious. Is Imtiaz Ali weighed down by his own body of work? The answer is an affirmative sigh. Ali is grappling with the same themes here. The messy (that word again) love. The love where people are not sure of themselves, let alone each other. In Tamasha, Tara is in a relationship during her Corsica vacation where she meets Ved. In Love Aaj Kal, Meera walks away from her marriage. In Jab We Met, Geet elopes but not with Aditya. Here, Sejal is engaged. Yet, during a phone conversation with her sister, who is imploring her to return, she has no qualms in admitting that she is in her honeymoon with Harry. Ali’s narratives can be breezy (with great music) in the mainstream sense but take the focus away from the couple – like it usually is – the world around them must feel like all hell has broken loose. Which is more clearly delineated in one of Ali’s stronger films – Rockstar – where Heer too is married. Jab Harry Met Sejal doesn’t create this world. There are Ali-esque moments missing to make that investment. It does seem like a minor work of Ali – even compared to Love Aaj Kal which this writer believes is underrated – but that too deserves a better drawing of characters and writing that doesn’t feel dated. Khan and Sharma are excellent and if not for them it would be far easier to dismiss this film. Maybe like one of his characters, Ali needs a Europe trip of his own that will inspire him to get back to being the writer and director who redefined the urban romance. To begin with, a trip to Madras would help a great deal. This quasi-musical narrative missed the major star of his last three films – A.R. Rahman.