Sometimes arrives a movie that you watch with least of expectations and it turns out to be so good! Frankly, when I went to watch debutante director Sajid Ali's retelling of Laila Majnu, I did not have many hopes. The movie was attractive mainly for the names attached to the film - co-writer and presenter, Imtiaz Ali, and producer Ekta Kapoor. However, after the screening, I am glad to be wrong about having low expectations - Laila Majnu is a beautiful movie with incredible performances and fantastic music.
She is a vivacious collegian who is aware and a little vain of her good looks and the effect of those on men. But she seeks the true love that makes the world around her feel surreal. He is deemed as a mad guy as per local gossip, someone with a bad reputation with girls and brash about his wealth. But all he wants was her love. Sparks fly when they see each other for the first time, and he insists that their love story is written from ages. However, Fate has different plans for Laila (Tripti Dimri) and Kaes (Avinash Tiwary); plans that don't seek a happy ending to their love story.
Thanks to the similarity of Laila Majnu and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the latter which Bollywood is so obsessed with, we have seen many influences of the folklore in movies like Ek Duje Ke Liye, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Ishaqzaade etc. Laila Majnu itself has been adapted as films, one of which starred Rishi Kapoor. So there is a pertinent question as to why we need to readapt the story of mortal lovers and their undying love in the age of Tinder. Perhaps, that's exactly the reason why we need a movie like Laila Majnu in the first place - we need an old world romance that shies from giving importance to lovemaking and kissing scenes, and instead focuses on the underlying passion in eternal love.
This is a movie about stolen glances, longing looks, passion-filled embraces and has no place for lusty ambitions (even when Laila complains that she is getting 'ill-repute' despite not getting any and she wants something). Laila Majnu is a celebration of the emotions of love, and therefore, if you are into 'wham bam thank you ma'am' kind of movies, this might not be a movie for you!
When I was watching Laila Majnu, the one movie that I was reminded of was Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella. While it came out in 2016, the movie was adapted as per modern cinema-telling but didn't change the classic fairytale's plotline in any way. With Laila Majnu, brothers and writers, Imtiaz and Sajid Ali, have stuck with the original tale, while setting it in present-day Kashmir. The setting works mostly, but there are times, we feel that present time-line might not make sense to the story.
The smartest move was to name the hero as Kaes instead of Majnu, because, frankly who names their kids Majnu these days! The family rivalry is now about land-grabbing and politics. Laila is more expressive of her feelings, and not the demure kind that we usually expect in such movies. There are other things, that I do not wish to spoil here, that Ali bros don't bother to feed you, instead, let you connect the dots yourself. Also while Kashmir as the location, lends amazing grace, Laila Majnu doesn't try to address the militancy issue in the state, which for a change, is refreshing. The dialogues, while avoiding rhetorics, are effective in expressing the right feels.
Laila Majnu is divided into two narratives. The first half is told from the point of view of the sprightly Laila. The establishing of the female lead, while colourful, feels awkwardly depicted. However, the movie becomes better with the entry of Kaes and begins developing a breezy love story. Things do turn serious when the first half reaches the interval. Till here, Laila Majnu feels like a really faithful adaptation of the popular folklore.
The second half, set four years later, is told from the POV of the hero, who is now the Majnu of the story. While it lags in parts and some things don't make sense, these portions have some of the strongest scenes in the film and a bravura performance by the newcomer Tiwari.
While the second half still sticks to the folklore, the writers have done some fine-tuning in making circumstances the enemy, rather than people. People we perceive as villains to the love story change and instead, the movie explores depression and mental trauma (which, coincidentally, is also the theme of this week's other release, Gali Guleiyan) that separates the lovers. Don't know about others, but I love these changes as a viewer. The descent of Kaes into lunacy might not be easy to decipher but the clues were already given out right when the second half begins.
By the time, the Hafiz Hafiz was playing on screen, the hairs on my arms were standing thanks to the immense emotions the scenes and Tiwary's performance manage to elicit in me! That whole sequence itself deserves a complete star.
There are, however, some things that the writers don't make very clear - like the length of a mourning period that plays a crucial role in the story. Also, why in the age of WhatsApp and Facetime, the lovers couldn't keep in touch with each other through other means, even if they couldn't meet physically. The buildup of the romance, while lovely, doesn't give out the feeling of eternal love story that Kaes keep on insisting.
Also the ending, while staying true to the tragedy of the legend, doesn't explain away why Laila has to do what she does in that scene. I understand the guilt she must have felt on seeing a raving mad Kaes as a lost cause and thinking it's all her fault. In 2017, there could be a better solution out of the crisis, especially when your love story doesn't share the same concerns as the original folklore. There was also a rape comment that could have been avoided.
When the writing suffers, it is the confident direction of Sajid Ali and the performances that enhance the narrative. Sajid smartly uses the visuals and music to improve the screenplay even in the weaker portions. The beautiful locales of Kashmir make for a pretty canvas for the film, and you also have to thank the cinematography by Sayak Bhattacharya. The music (Niladri Kumar, Joi Barau) is brilliant! Every song in the film is a gem, but the powerful Hafiz Hafiz track takes the cake! Even the background score is pleasant!
Special mention must also be given to the styling (Niharika Bhasin) and production design (Rakesh Yadav) for getting the essence of Kashmir right.
Every actor in the film is good, but the star of the show is, undoubtedly, Avinash Tiwary. From his deep voice and confident mannerisms, the actor makes a mark right from his intro scene. Possessing unconventional looks (his character even pokes fun at that) and immense talent, Tiwary brings so much range in his performance that it is hard to believe that he is just starting out in Bollywood (he was also good in the underrated Tu Hai Mera Sunday; do watch!). If we connected to the tragedy of the love story, it is the madness this actor brings in the scenes in the second half. It's what I call a junooni act!
Tripti Damri is equally confident and she is a very capable performer, while also making a very beautiful Laila without going into diva mode. Her character suffers in the second half, as the focus is more on Kaes, but she leaves an impact nevertheless. She is brilliant in the scene where she inquires from a friend about her first kiss. Also when she blasts her arrogant husband in front of her family.
Sumit, who was too good in Haider, impresses as the cunning admirer of Laila. He may be the only actor in the cast who spoke in convincing Kashmiri accented Hindi consistently. Parmeet Sethi and Benjamin Gilani do their parts well.
- Avinash Tiwary
- Tripti Damri and Sumit Kaul
- Sajid Ali's confident direction
- The beautiful locales of Kashmir
- The music
- The passion of the love story is clearly felt
- The writing suffers at a few junctures
- The length could have been trimmed
- The climax feels unexplained and unconventional
- Not completely justifies the modern-day setting.
Laila Majnu is a surprisingly good movie that explores the purity of true love. It may lack the commercial massy elements, but compensates that with good story-telling, incredible performances and terrific music. Also, it gives us two wonderful actors in Avinash Tiwary and Tripti Dimri.