Even before Imtiaz Ali’s Jab Harry Met Sejal
(JHMS) released last Friday, concerned voices had made themselves heard. “Why couldn’t they at least come up with an original title?” said a fellow Shah Rukh Khan
fan to me. Indeed, the title was similar not only to the genre-defining 1989 romantic comedy classic When Harry Met Sally
but also to Ali’s wildly successful Jab We Met
(2007). In the run-up to the release, almost everything — the trailer, the songs — seemed to disappoint fans eagerly waiting for the old Ali or SRK-Anushka Sharma
magic. Finally, on the big screen, all the fears seemed to have come true.
Within hours of the release, critics panned it almost unanimously. Rajiv Masand for News 18 wrote that SRK and Anushka deserved a better film, Anupama Chopra bemoaned the loss of the filmmaker Ali, who gave us Rockstar (2011) and Highway (2014) and could once combine stars and demands of mainstream cinema with raw narratives. Others were less kind: HuffPost said the film was everything wrong with Bollywood, and in a visceral review, The Wire described it as a 144-minute tribute to Shah Rukh Khan’s ego. In fact, the responses have been so devastating that the director and the leading man have been compelled to defend their project with such clichés as this film was not an intellectual exercise but aimed to appeal to masses.
But a look at the box office figures prove how this ambition, too, has been thwarted. In its first weekend, considered the most important in determining the success or failure of a film, JHMS managed to rake in only a dismal Rs 45.75 crore. This is a personal low for Khan in five years, and it prompted a Mint analysis piece: “flop show signals star power alone can’t guarantee success”. It quoted Atul Mohan, editor of trade magazine Complete Cinema, saying: “After a breezy first half that establishes the characters, people were expecting a lot more twists and turns in the second half but nothing happens. The film is hardly even a visual delight, you’re just moving from one country to another, all of which look the same.” But that’s the rub, isn’t it? What is supposed to happen in Europe in the middle of a continuing social and economic crisis?
Bollywood’s love affair with foreign locales, especially Europe, began with Raj Kapoor’s Sangam (1964). Shot in Paris, Vienna and Switzerland, the magnum opus had audiences queuing up to watch only the beautiful foreign locales, at times even beyond their imagination. That opened the flood gates: Soon there was Love in Tokyo (1966), An Evening in Paris (1967), Purab Aur Paschim (1970) and Prem Pujari (1970). And then came Yash Chopra and his eternal love for Switzerland — reciprocated and felicitated in equal measure by the nation that made him Ambassador of Interlaken, named a train and a lake after him, according to Gayatri Rangachari Shah in “The Man Who Sparked Bollywood’s Love of Foreign Locales” (NYT, October 23, 2012) Starting with Faasle (1985) to the iconic Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge (1995), which he produced, Europe often served as a picturesque dreamland.
In JHMS, this beauty is starkly missing. As Atul Mohan points out, the film — which avoids Bollywood
favourites such as London, Paris, or Switzerland — takes us through Prague, Budapest, Amsterdam, and Lisbon. It doesn’t have establishing shots to show you the place (I am thinking of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam
’s montage of tourist destinations in Rome to the tune of “Saanyiaji...”), but instead traces their train or plane journeys on maps, obviously indulging in an alternative cartography, challenging our expectations from a typical Euro-tour film.
The film begins pointedly after the tour has ended; after the tour guide has dropped the tourists off at the airport for their journey home. There are no visits to Charles Bridge or St Vitus Cathedral or the Buda Castle. Instead, Harry and Sejal roam around shady night clubs, obscure cafes, and a strip joint. The people they encounter are neo-Nazi gangs, strippers, Bangladeshi immigrants. There has been some criticism because of the presence of a gang of Bangladeshi criminals, led by Gas (played by Chandan Roy Sanyal). But I felt the Bangladeshis — goofy, scared — were a contrast to the real menace of the Nazis.
Tourism in Europe has been bleak of late. According to World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) data, about 620 million tourists visited Europe in 2016 — about 3.9 per cent more than in 2015. The growth, however, was less than in 2015, when was 4.4 per cent. Western Europe, with multiple terror attacks in Brussels, Paris, Nice, and Berlin had negative growth (-0.4 per cent). A failed coup in Turkey added to the unwelcome atmosphere, prompting tourists to seek safer destination, or at least safe corners of the Continent, such as Spain.
Europe, too, has grown unhappy with tourists. Anti-tourism marches have spread across several cities, taking a grip on the Continent, like heat wave “Lucifer”, according to The Guardian. The focal point of this is Spain, which recorded 76 million tourists last year. There have also been protests in Venice, Milan and in Croatia. This is a Europe reeling from years of economic crisis, political turmoil, unwelcome influx of migrants, and uncertainty looming large with Brexit round the corner. It is almost impossible to take in the sights in such a terrain. Instead, Harry and Sejal listlessly travel from one city to another, none of which is distinguishable from each other, in a futile search. (Spoiler: The engagement ring which Sejal purportedly lost, sparking the cross-Continent journey is always in her bag.)
This is a far cry from the beautiful Corsica of Tamasha (2015). Yes, nothing happens here, because everything is futile, uncertain.