Jab Harry Met Sejal might be the most misunderstood Bollywood film of all time. Critics have called it an “epic failure,” and have panned it for being too derivative, for being too light on plot, for being all flash and no substance.
The critics could not be more wrong.
Ostensibly, Jab Harry Met Sejal tells the story of a young woman, Sejal (Anushka Sharma), who loses her engagement ring during a month-long holiday in Europe, and so enlists the help of her tour guide, Harry (Shah Rukh Khan), to retrace her steps and relocate the ring. Hijinks ensure, romance blossoms, and Bollywood takes its usual course.
I say “ostensibly,” because if this is all one manages to extract from the film – and I suspect most of the critics and a good proportion of the film’s audience thus far have extracted only that much from the movie – then one has understood almost nothing about the film. (More on that a little later.)
Here’s how I’d synopsize the plot instead:
Jab Harry Met Sejal tells the story of a man who believes he is unworthy of love, and so rejects it whenever it presents itself, and a woman whose only dream in life is to be desired with raw, real, immutable passion, but who has never met anyone who felt that way about her. They meet, and instantly fall in love at first sight – and this is an important element of the plot that none of the film critics have managed to spot, because there is no slow-motion, spell-it-out-for-you, melodramatic falling-in-love scene. It happens in the film’s first major scene of dialogue, and if you’re expecting the typical send of Bollywood sugar, you’ll miss it. But there it is.
Having instantly fallen in love with each other, Harry and Sejal proceed to engage in their own respective forms of denial. In Harry’s case, this means convincing himself that Sejal is only making his life difficult, ordering him around like a rich, spoiled tourist, foisting her agenda upon him merely because that’s the kind of person he is: unworthy of better treatment. (N.B: This is how Harry sees himself.) In Sejal’s case, she convinces herself that Harry only sees her as a “nice, sweet, sister-type,” someone he would never desire, much less love. (N.B.: This is how Sejal sees herself.)
From there, scene by scene, Harry and Sejal dare each other to think otherwise of each other. This plays itself out in subtle ways. When Harry explains to Sejal that he has a reputation for being a playboy and so she should hire someone else to take her around Europe, Sejal deliberately draws the opposite conclusion, and asks Harry if he means that he wants to fool around with her. A superficial audience will interpret this as the same kind of aggressive banter that most Bollywood films begin with, but really it’s a dare. She’s daring him to think of her as sexy.
She does it again and again throughout the film, dressing sexy and following Harry into seedy night clubs in an effort to ignite his passions. Instead, Harry reacts in a confusing way. Although his character as a cad is well-established in the film, Harry sees Sejal’s behavior and reacts protectively, insisting that she keep herself out of trouble and urging her to stay out of harm’s way. He steps in to save her whenever she needs saving, he’s always there for her.
And so the film proceeds along these lines. The events in the story keep upping the ante for the characters. Sejal becomes ever-bolder with Harry, declaring that he can call her his girlfriend, falling asleep in his arms, nursing his wounds, following him everywhere. Harry becomes ever sweeter and more protective of Sejal.
At the apex of every moment, the characters pause to reflect, revealing the great source of tension and conflict within the film. In the very moments where other Bollywood movies would have the characters acknowledge reality and consummate it with a passionate kiss, Harry and Sejal instead dare each other to say what neither of them is prepared to say. Harry won’t admit that he’s worthy of Sejal’s love; Sejal won’t admit that she’s ready to leave her fiancée for Harry. They’ll act on it, they’ll behave accordingly, but neither one of them will say it, and both of them are waiting to hear it.
Behind each character’s refusal to acknowledge the reality of the situation is an important backstory. Harry has a specific reason why he not only believes he is unworthy of love, but also seemingly unworthy of putting down roots and building a home. Sejal’s backstory is made less obvious, but there are hints of it everywhere, especially in light of the fact that her fiancée called off their wedding after learning that Sejal had lost her ring. This is no throwaway point to buy the characters some time. Even in Sejal’s “real world,” those who profess to love her are moved to passion over lost trinkets and heirlooms, not over Sejal herself. Thus, when NDTV’s Saibal Chatterjee asks, “The screenplay would have us believe that she is a confident, no-nonsense girl who knows exactly where to draw the line. Why, then, is she in constant need of endorsement, of being told that she is worth lusting for?” he’s simply overlooked the information contained in the movie’s dialogue.
The film is masterfully written and executed, and every moment within the film’s two and a half hours is dedicated to exploring the theme of Harry, who believes himself unlovable, and Sejal, who believes herself unable to inspire passion. Later in the film, we meet Gas, a purveyor of fake rings, and Natassja, a purveyor of fake lust, whose relationship reflects Harry and Sejal in reverse-image. One reviewer asks why these characters were included. Indeed, why?
To be sure, filmgoers who expect a lot of action, slow motion camera work, and plots that unfold through action sequences rather than dialogue, are sure to be disappointed by Jab Harry Met Sejal. This is a deeply introspective movie about thoughts and feelings. One has to pay attention to the dialogue. Among a filmgoing audience that so often prefers the likes of Chennai Express, Sultan, and Ek Tha Tiger, it is no surprise that a soft-hearted and introverted film like Jab Harry Met Sejal would win few converts on opening weekend.
Perhaps this is why Shah Rukh Khan was quoted as saying, “It’s a new trick. Maybe just the newness of it is going to take some time for people to understand the magic of the film.”
The new trick is depth. For the first time in a long time I’ve found a movie that is capable of expressing a pure artistic idea, minute by minute, across an entire film. Imtiaz Ali has compromised nothing in his vision with this film. Not a moment is wasted, not a line of dialogue is extraneous, every facial expression and gesture from the actors serves the underlying story of a man who finds his home again and a woman who finds her passion.
No, this is not a story about a lost ring and a trip through Europe. This is a story of two wounded people finding their soul mates in spite of themselves. I loved it. I loved every second of it.