Almost Pyaar With DJ Mohabbat is the worst Imtiaz Ali film in a while. It has actors playing characters in different timelines. It has a half-English, half-Hindi title. It has a scene with a young woman crying her eyes out. It has a lovelorn weirdo spouting Rumi-esque nonsense. Confusingly, it’s written and directed by Anurag Kashyap.
2018 seemed to be the start of a new phase for Kashyap. Mukkabaaz and Manmarziyan released that year, both tending surprisingly towards sweetness and hope, while retaining (in Mukkabaaz especially) the spikiness that had characterised his career up till then. And it was a new phase, just not in the way I would've hoped. His next film was Choked, a strangely neutered demonetization comedy. Last year there was Dobaaraa, which showed no evidence whatsoever of being a Kashyap film. And now there’s Almost Pyaar, a film that’s seemingly emerged from that awkward impulse: a middle-aged director deciding to make ‘one for the kids’. So we get a whole lot of popping and locking and Tik-Toking, all of it seeming like a put-on.
Almost lovers (India) are Amrita (Alaya F), a sheltered rich schoolgirl in Dalhousie, and Yakub (Karan Mehta), a poor boy from her neighbourhood. Almost lovers (UK) are Aisha (Alaya), also a rich girl, this time the daughter of a shady Pakistani businessman, and Harmeet (Mehta), a dal-chawal-eating DJ in London. Yakub and Amrita steal off in the early morning to attend a secret concert by DJ Mohabbat (Vicky Kaushal); her family, already edgy about her talking to a broke Muslim, treat it like a kidnapping. Aisha, 15, keeps throwing herself at the older Harmeet, who’s only interested in his music.
For a while, Kashyap keeps jumping between the two narratives without letting on if they’re connected (his last film, Dobaaraa, had juggled timelines as well). Kaushal’s love guru DJ is in both love stories—he’s equally annoying in both—which makes it seem like it’s all moving towards an explanation. Something of the sort is offered late in the film: not quite fantasy, not quite logical, an almost explanation.
This is the second Hindi film in a fortnight where one character asks another, “Are you Muslim?” I wouldn’t have bet on Pathaan answering that question better. As Amrita and Yakub go on the lam, Almost Pyaar becomes a laboured commentary on interfaith relationships, and the othering of Muslims, in India today. “We’re letting you stay here—be grateful,” Yakub’s father is threatened by Amrita’s thuggish brothers. Another character warns Amrita that Yakub will take other wives. It’s not that these aren’t common jabs, more that this is the stuff of lesser directors (also, recreating Saloni Gaur’s aapi shtick isn’t the brightest idea in a film that’s arguing against caricatures).
I really don't want to damn Alaya and Mehta's performances—I think the film puts them in the line of fire with no cover. The emotional openness that was so appealing in Alaya’s Jawaani Jaaneman turn isn’t absent here, but it’s dimmed by the writing. She’s asked to speak in three accents: a Hindi of the sort that a girl from a conservative family in a small town might speak, the exaggerated Urdu Amrita uses in her videos, and Aisha’s NRI drawl. Mehta has a braying laugh in India and a perpetual scowl in London, neither of which is flattering. He’s thrown into a prison drama suddenly—an implied rape scene comes out of nowhere, and he seems to participate in another later (there’s also a strange pattern of predatory homosexual behaviour in the film).
Almost Pyaar is billed as an Amit Trivedi ‘musical’: eight songs, a lot for a Hindi film nowadays. Trivedi is reunited with his partner on Manmarziyan, the lyricist Shellee. But while Manmarziyan was an exceptional soundtrack—catchy and sexy in equal measure—Almost Pyaar takes its youth assignment rather too literally. There’s so much English threaded into the lyrics that they start sounding parodic, more ‘Telephone Dhun’ than ‘Grey Wala Shade’. Only ‘Banjaare’, with its lilting Nikhita Gandhi vocal, approaches top-drawer Trivedi. Fittingly, one song has three successive lines ending with ‘connection', ‘condition’ and ‘emotion’—almost rhymes.
There’s one intriguing bit in the film, when a kindly elderly couple is revealed to be bigoted on multiple levels. It’s something a younger Kashyap would have doubled down on, made menacing and significant. Here, it passes by unexamined. It’s been a while since Kashyap’s seemed like himself.