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Imtiaz Ali’s fans won’t give up

Imtiaz Ali’s fans like to believe that his arms are elbow deep in the messy innards of love. Instead, all we get are the same tired clichés

A still from the new ‘Love Aaj Kal’.
A still from the new ‘Love Aaj Kal’.

If the Indian internet were as gentle as director Imtiaz Ali’s fans, the air would be pink, the sky would be purple and we would all live in a fairy tale, with no nagging mother figure to bring us back to reality.

When Ali posted “Remembering the journey" last week on Instagram to mark six years of his film Highway, just days after critics had panned his latest film Love Aaj Kal, his fans responded with gentle encouragement and exaggerated praise for the 2014 film. Even those who brought up his new release only hinted at the fact that it was—like the one before it—a creative disaster. “Sir you should take sometime (sic) for a fresh story…"

Why do fans feel so invested in Ali’s ideas of love? I know I did for many years. Maybe it’s his curly hair, reclusive demeanour and the illusion that he has unique insight into the way we love. Ali’s fans like to believe that his arms are elbow deep in the messy innards of love and, any minute now, he is going to hold up some terrific new insight on love, belonging and connectedness. Instead, all we get are the same tired clichés.

I have decided I won’t watch any more iterations of Ali’s extremely unconvincing love story. Is he even making stories about love? He’s certainly not interested in understanding what draws two people to each other or why they fall in love.

In the first Love Aaj Kal, he sandwiched almost the entire film between its beginning and end. The lead pair meet, start dating and break up in the first 20 minutes and the lead actor realizes only in the last 20 minutes or so that he is in love. His characters are most in love when they don’t interact with each other.

In 2015’s Tamasha, Tara loves and loses Ved in the first half-hour of the film. The next time they meet is four years later and she is still hopelessly in love with him. Is it even love? Maybe Tamasha’s love story is unconvincing because it’s just tagged on to the main act—a lost boy’s search for his own story.

The role of the woman here is restricted to believing in the hero so he can begin to believe in himself. Yes, Ali was sexist long before we saw it clearly in his latest film. In a recent article on news website Huffington Post about the myth of the director’s “strong" women characters, the writer argues that Ali “finds it hard to give women any agency outside being the love interest of a confused man with a ‘good heart’". What is love without equality?

Ali has never unlocked the mystery of why two people stay in love. And he doesn’t care what happens to them after they finally agree they are made for each other and commit to each other.

“Being in love is like being strangled, not like QSQT," a lead character says in Ali’s latest film, referencing one of 1988’s biggest hits Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, which ran for more than 50 weeks in theatres.

Sure, it can be painful, we all agree, but stray lines like this can’t hold the weight of a reputation. For someone who is viewed as a love guru and whose movies emphasize love’s oldest mistruth—there is one perfect person for everyone—his views on marriage, just to take one example, are extremely banal. “Marriage is so artificial; it comes with so many dos and don’ts that not only make you claustrophobic but also mediocre. It reduces you to a c****** version of yourself….," he once said in an interview.

I am no advocate of contractual love (marriage is an unnatural institution, I love telling the husband) but surely Ali needs to do better in the digital age when evolved takes on love and commitment are available everywhere you look? He’s competing with psychologists such as Esther Perel, philosopher-curators like Brain Pickings, two married couples that redefine a committed partnership in the Oscar-winning Korean film Parasite, black jumpsuit wearing wild child millennials like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and even the rustic one-liners on our trucks (dum hai to pass kar, warna bardasht kar). So why do fans let Ali get away with saying so little?

I can no longer remember why we put Ali on cinema’s love pedestal. I prefer Geetu Mohandas’ show-not-tell approach to understanding the miracle of finding love, and the tragedy of losing it. In her Malayalam film Moothon, Lakshadweep fisherman Akbar wrestles with his ideas of masculinity as he falls for Aamir, the sensitive mute visitor who is comfortable with his sexuality and who confidently recognizes love when he experiences it.

Unlike Tamasha, where the limestone and turquoise of Corsica adds nothing to the lead pair’s romance, Mohandas uses Lakshadweep to blow gently on an already fiery love story. The first time Akbar lets go when they are both standing in the sea, half submerged, is a moment that will be forever remembered in the history of Indian cinema. I saw no such moments in Love Aaj Kal (old and new version).

Remember that line from Tamasha? “I am like everyone else…mediocre," Ved tells Tara. If Ali were to voice this thought, his fans can be counted on to respond reassuringly like Tara: “No that’s exactly it, you are not. I know."

Me, I am looking for love lessons elsewhere.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

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