Shah Rukh Khan’s latest rom-com is exactly why Bollywood needs more complicated female characters

Jab Harry Met Sejal misses an opportunity to address issues raised by critics and audiences around the narratives of traditional Hindi love stories

About a third of the way into Jab Harry Met Sejal, the latest Hindi film starring Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan and winsome actor Anushka Sharma, I found myself paying close attention to Khan’s forehead.

It looked rather smooth for someone who recently acknowledged himself as an aging superstar during a TED Talk, but went on to say that he hasn’t used Botox – yet. Khan’s hands were also intriguing, rough-hewn his fingernails looked to be a couple of millimetres long. I wondered if he forgot to trim them the day of the shoot.

I was watching the movie, first-day, first-show at Cineplex Cinemas Vaughan, and many, many close-ups of both Khan, 51, and Sharma, 29, helped me make these observations.

This was a much anticipated rom-com by Imtiaz Ali, a Bollywood director famous for finding-yourself-and-love-on-a-journey metaphor movies (Socha Na Tha, Jab We Met, Love Aaj Kal, Rockstar, Highway, Tamasha). On paper, the combination of Ali, Khan and Sharma made for a promising Bollywood romance – but by this point I had lost interest in the movie, which was meandering along a flimsy plot as Khan and Sharma gamboled along scenic European tourist spots.

It’s unfortunate. I was curious to see how this movie would address issues being raised by industry members, critics and audiences around the narratives of traditional Hindi love stories: lack of strong female characters, irrelevance of the concept of consent, the stalker-boyfriend trope, to name a few.

Much like Hollywood, there have also been conversations in Bollywood about the need for women behind the camera, in writers’ rooms and in management positions.

Take Sharma, for example. Known for her ability to play effervescent characters, she’s also made her mark in the Indian film industry as the producer of NH10, a gritty film that dealt with honour killings. She was also behind Phillauri, a romantic comedy spanning almost 100 years, and has two more films lined up including Kaneda, rumoured to centre around the lives of Indo-Canadians.

The trailer for Jab Harry Met Sejal suggested it might be a fresh, contemporary take on a well-worn yarn. Harry Nehra (Khan) is a tour guide in Europe, who is a little lost in life. Sejal (Sharma)  is part of his tour group, and manages to lose her engagement ring. Harry is reluctant to help Sejal retrace her steps because, as he puts it, he is a “cheap person” who cannot be trusted with women. Sejal isn’t bothered by this revelation and signs an indemnity bond – she is her family’s legal expert after all – absolving Harry of all legal charges in case of any sexual interaction. He agrees to help Sejal, and the pair sets off.

It’s been awhile since Bollywood has acknowledged the possibility of sexual attraction between a couple, and even pre-marital sex that does not result in a life of ignominy for the woman.

There are several precedents.

In Band Baaja Baaraat (2010, starring Sharma and Ranveer Singh), for example, a one-night-stand is just that. The movie instead dwells on the complications when a business partnership starts to turn into love.

Tanu Weds Manu (2011) stars the feisty Kangana Ranaut as a woman who is unwilling to follow convention but agrees to an arranged match with a doctor based in London, England.

Meanwhile, in Queen (2014) Ranaut plays Rani, a woman who’s jilted the day before her wedding and goes on her honeymoon herself. Queen was heralded as a truly female-leading Bollywood film – a rarity – in which the audience goes on a journey of self-discovery with the character from her sheltered life in New Delhi to roaming the streets of Paris and Amsterdam. In the end, she decides to stick it solo.

Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya (2014) treads the same path as Bollywood rom-coms from the past – university kids fall in love, the boy needs to convince the girl’s father of his worth – but Alia Bhatt’s portrayal of a small-town girl who goes along with her father’s plan to marry her off rings true.

The more recent Badrinath Ki Dulhania (2017) stars Bhatt in the role of Vaidehi Trivedi, a small-town girl who leaves her groom at the wedding altar to pursue her big dreams.

Then there’s Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015). Set in a small town, it’s the story of a man who is arranged to marry a chubby woman, and is unable to fall in love with her despite her attempts at intimacy. It’s unusual to see a plus-sized woman in a leading role, and Bhumi Pednekar plays her with nuance, showing us both her confidence and vulnerabilities.

Even if many of the plots end up following convention, there’s enough vim in the female characters and slight challenges to tradition to make me hopeful that these films are at least conversation starters about women’s needs and desires in society.

Sejal’s character in Jab Harry Met Sejal as a woman confident in her ability to ward off potential sexual advances might have been interesting if the movie had picked up on one throwaway line: “You are a cheap man, dirty man. But I am not a dirty woman. I am neat and clean.” (Never mind that Harry’s explanation of his “cheap behaviour” is completely problematic.)

In the end, however, it was deja-vu all over again: the same tourist-trap story seen in previous movies starring Khan such as Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), an iconic Bollywood romance.

Harry’s explanation at the end of why Sejal needs him is so convoluted that I had to really think through that particular bit of dialogue. Maybe Ali has run out of ideas: he had already looked at the idea of a vacation romance and self-discovery in Tamasha and passionate love and self-discovery in Rockstar. Usually such movies are lifted out of their tedium by the chemistry between the romantic leads. This wasn’t the case in Jab Harry Met Sejal.

More hopeful is Bareilly Ki Barfi, releasing in Toronto on August 18. The film stars Kriti Sanon, Ayushmann Khurrana and Rajkummar Rao. Set in small-town India, the trailer suggests a story about a woman looking to break out of her parochial life, a suitor helping her dreams of escaping her reality come true, and another hapless man who becomes a part of an inadvertent love triangle.

There’s enough comedy in the concept, and a cast filled with strong character actors such as Rao as the third wheel, and Pankaj Tripathi and Seema Pahwa as the girl’s parents, to get me to the theatre.

That the story appears to centre around the female lead’s quest for someone who understands her, instead of “settling down” for a good enough match, is a definite step forward from the romance angle.

As much as I love love, it’s even better when the story leaves you with something more to talk about after the credits roll. | @aparita

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