Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Laila Majnu: Review

Most films live or die by their deployment of good sense and good taste. These are the two parameters most often used to judge the worth of a film, and the highest-rated directors are usually masters at one or the other. But there’s a third, altogether riskier, attribute which trumps both: depth of feeling. The only catch is, you have to go for broke or it won’t work.

Laila Majnu has little sense, some good taste and enough feeling to flood a valley. On the face of it, it’s a standard ‘girl meets boy, their families disapprove, boy loses the plot’ story. But director Sajid Ali lulls viewers with Kashmiri meadows and lakes and a heady soundtrack and then throws the emotional kitchen sink at them. The film’s often in danger of getting away from him – yet it just about works.

After they meet under the weirdest possible circumstances, Laila (Tripti Dimri) and Qais (Avinash Tiwari) – pampered children of feuding Kashmiri families – find themselves drawn to each other. You could write the first half of the film yourself: two households, both alike in dignity, ancient grudge breaks to new mutiny, etc. Yet – and one only realises this later – Ali is always pointing to another problem. It seems innocuous in the beginning when Laila is told that Qais is ‘paagal’. Which smitten lover doesn’t act a little crazy? But the film doesn’t let up with the warning, and it eventually becomes clear why.

Ali, making his feature debut, comes up with something both lush and spare. There are barely any subplots, and the narrative is so lean you can see its bones. But the overall mood is richly melodramatic, Niladri Kumar and Joi Barua’s music is intoxicating, and characters can’t help lapsing into poetry (even a question as prosaic as “You did drugs?” is answered with “Beintehaa”). After the interval, matters build to a fever pitch – in one scene, Qais literally swoons – and stay that way for the rest of the running time.

Sumit Kaul, one of the Salmaans in Haider, gets to play both villain and comic relief, and is wonderfully over-the-top. Dimri spends the first half-hour regarding the camera coquettishly, and though she eases up as the film progresses, most of the pathos is generated by Tiwari, with his hurt eyes and gaunt frame. Even as Qais loses his grip on reality and the film threatens to spin off its axis, he’s the film’s unwavering emotional centre.

Hindi cinema has no shortage of self-pitying heroes, but Qais is something different. After the one obligatory public blow-up, he doesn’t take to drink or set about trying to make his lover feel terrible. Instead, all his hurt is directed inward. Love makes him brittle, then cracks him open.

This review appeared in Mint.

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