Laila Majnu movie review: At long last, a true romance

“Don’t act too smart with me,” warns the girl, staring down the boy stalking her around the streets of Srinagar. To this, the boy has a peculiar objection: “But I have to work hard at being smart. Shakal achchi nahin hai na (Because I’m not good looking, you see).” He then rattles off his smartness regimen, from dressing sharply to “maintaining a stubble” but already both the girl and the audience have been caught off guard because, well, the boy may not be the most conventionally dashing leading man — but he has the elegance to point it out before we can. Talk about disarming charm.

Laila Majnu has a fair bit of this. Directed by Sajid Ali from a script by his illustrious brother Imtiaz Ali, here is a romantic drama that has the capacity to surprise. This is no small feat considering we have known of the age-old Persian legend about the star-crossed lovers for longer than we can remember, and it has been interpreted by artists as far removed as Rishi Kapoor, Orhan Pamuk and Eric Clapton. It is about young lovers torn apart by their families and the world, till they lose their minds and their lives.

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In this adaptation, Laila knows when the boys are looking at her. This they do a lot, but — similar to the boy’s studied smartness — this is more because of the coquettishness with which she carries herself than due to any unreal beauty. The daughter of a Kashmiri politician, she’s pampered and invincible till one fateful night, when she locks eyes with a boy who has just urinated on her sister’s head. (Like I said, this is a film full of the unexpected.)

True to the story, he is the enemy. Or at least, the son of her father’s enemy, which damns the young lovers. They know this but are thrilled by the forbidden. Helplessly, they are drawn to each other, giddily spending all day talking on the phone or mooning around the same Srinagar cafe as if there is only one decent cafe in Srinagar.

“Let’s make the best of the situation before I finally go insane,” Clapton had written in his Layla, and the brothers Ali do indeed make the best of this mythic tale, mostly by keeping it modest. There is a rawness to the production and a straightforward authenticity to the writing and acting, making the film feel less polished than it does hand-embroidered. In the vein of the “Muslim Socials” we once saw so regularly in Hindi cinema, I’d like to call Laila Majnu a Muslin social. It is a lovingly crafted film clear about its intent that mercifully stays away from any unnecessary comic relief. This is not only a drama but a grand tragedy, and the makers give it the respect it deserves.

Tripti Dimri, who plays Laila, is a winsome girl who looks both suitably smitten and suitably struck down by circumstances, and hers is a performance laudably free of overwrought histrionics. Avinash Tiwari plays her lover Qais Butt, and this young man is a strikingly self-aware actor. He was excellent as a hoarder in Tu Hai Mera Sunday, and here he uses his great voice to solid effect as the charmer early on, then switches gears impressively as his character embraces the impossibility of the situation and begins to reel under the mania of his love. The crazed lover is one of Imtiaz Ali’s recurring themes as a storyteller — he even told the Laila-Majnu story within a sequence of Tamasha — but here, writing a direct adaptation, freed of the need to rationalise the romance, it works better.

The legend of Laila and Majnu involves virginal lovers unable to consummate their love, and this is touched on lightly here. The girl complains that people are making up scandalous gossip without the two even getting to do anything. Later, the boy, conjuring up an ideal picture of their life, describes an idyllic setting in the mountains where they can live in peace — he uses the word ‘sukoon,’ pronouncing it ‘skoon’ — and, to tease her, he says they’d live like a brother and sister.

The music complements the film well, and one song, Sarphiri, feels so much like an old Mani Ratnam track that it could have been sung by Chitra back in the 1990s (it is actually Shreya Ghoshal). Kashmir makes for an obviously breathtaking backdrop but, for the most part, this film uses it matter-of-factly, not showing it off except for all windows invariably opening out onto paradise. Later, as things get increasingly unreal for the lovers, the beauty begins to overpower. The final act overdoes this, and ends up being repetitive. Therefore the film starts to feel too long, even though Tiwari only gets better as it goes on.

Laila Majnu is a thoughtfully written film, where the escalation of feelings appears as natural as it can, and characters stay credible even as the intensity becomes unbearable. At different times, first the boy, and later the girl’s father, in entirely varied contexts, say nearly the same thing: “If people are saying something, it must be true.” That may as well be said of stories we pass on across generations.

This, therefore, is a film about the beholders. About how some are more blessed than others. Here are highly flawed and even doomed characters, yet they partake of something special, enviable and real. Who among us dares judge a true romantic? Love is love.

Source - Hindustan Times 

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