Film Review: Jab Harry Met Sejal
If Imtiaz Ali was a superhero—and to a broad swathe of romantically inclined Indian moviegoers, he pretty much is—his kryptonite would be self-awareness. In his films, fancy is bred in the heart, not the head. For all the soul-searching undertaken by his characters, there’s little practical introspection; a gust of logic, of honest self-assessment, and the whole shaky edifice would come crashing down.
This is why I was surprised when Harry (Shah Rukh Khan) and Sejal (Anushka Sharma), after close to two onscreen hours of traipsing around Europe looking for a lost ring, appear ready to confront the ridiculousness of their actions. “What are we doing here?” asks Harry. She offers a vague reply. “Khatam karte hain iss drame ko (let’s end this drama),” he says vehemently. Promises, promises.
The ring in question is given to Sejal by her fiancé while they’re holidaying in Europe. It’s an engagement ring and a family heirloom, so when she realizes at the airport that it’s lost, she sets out to retrace her steps and find it. To carry out this monumentally optimistic plan—it turns out the ring was lost a month earlier, and could be in one of several European cities they visited—she prevails upon their tour guide, Harry, who’s just seen them off and hasn’t yet left the airport. Together, they go from Amsterdam to Prague to Budapest to Frankfurt to Prague to Lisbon to Frankfurt, as one is apt to do, I suppose, when there’s a surfeit of feeling and a shortage of sense.
Considering he’s no longer her guide, doesn’t owe her a thing, and isn’t attracted to her, why does Harry go along with Sejal’s plan? He almost leaves her to fend for herself, but when she threatens to call his employers, he hesitates. Apparently, his womanizing has gotten him in trouble in the past, and another complaint (even one that has nothing to do with improper advances, apparently) might mean his job. And so he chaperones Sejal from city to city, warning her all the while that his character is kharab and that she shouldn’t fall for him.
It should come as no surprise that she does.
Ali’s films have always taken meandering roads to their destinations, with characters (usually male ones) “discovering” themselves along the way. To an extent, this happens here as well: Harry, who’s pushed the world away, might learn to love again (“I feel like you can save me,” he tells Sejal). But unlike Highway or even Tamasha, there’s little complexity or emotional depth here, just travel and 140 minutes of foregone conclusion.
As she showed earlier this year in Phillauri, Sharma is an underrated straight-faced comic, and rather delightful here as a talkative, square woman looking for a little excitement. Khan, 22 years her senior, stays within his performative comfort zone, which is (or should be) less than comfortable for an audience that’s seen him make similar gestures of love decades ago to actors his own age. No other characters of note exist—nothing to distract from the slowly escalating game of romantic chicken.
Imtiaz seems to have settled into a comfort zone of his own. The cult of Ali the Incurable Romantic will only grow with films like these. But Ali the Director might need to branch out soon.