The release of Shah Rukh Khan’s second filmi offering of 2017, Jab Harry Met Sejal, was hotly awaited this summer. After a mixed couple of years, with a critically acclaimed performance in Dear Zindagi (2017) tempered by flops including Fan (2016), Dilwale (2016), and Raees (2017), there was significant social media hype and anticipation built up around Jab Harry Met Sejal’s August release. The stakes were high for director and producer Imtiaz Ali, too, as his first film following a string of hits including Jab We Met (2007), Love Aaj Kaal (2009), and Tamasha (2015).
For the box office and film critics, reality did not live up to expectation. On Day 5 post-release reports claim the film’s earnings are in “free fall” (despite relative success for Bollywood’s 2017 box office earnings). Critics have largely slammed the film as “banal”, “hackneyed”, and “exasperating” which may have contributed to the slowing audience figures.
I went to the cinema with low expectations and was pleasantly surprised. Anushka was fantastic as the privileged, middle-class, naïve Sejal. SRK was actually rather sexy, really indulging in highly sexed, bordering on sleazy behavior, though cringeworthy in parts as the 50-something bad boy. While Pritam delivered the music to the high standard we’re used to, fluctuating between sweetness and misery, the plot was wafer thin and a rehash of Ali’s former romantic return to roots films full of the predictable obstacles to overcome. Despite some beautiful scenes of raw emotion between SRK and Anushka, not even the beautiful trans-European filming locations could distract from the lack of a substantial plot.
Harry Singh Nehra (Khan) is introduced as a lonely soul hiding from his demons as a tour guide in Europe. His lost soul image is cultivated through his bad boy looks, unkempt beard, and unbuttoned shirt revealing chest tattoos. Sejal Zaveri (Sharma) is very much his opposite: irritatingly naïve, privileged, and demanding. The fragile plot centers on Sejal’s lost engagement ring and the fact she has dumped her fiancée and their respective families at the airport and pleads with Harry to help her retrace their steps through their four-week tour of Europe.
Unhappy Harry is having none of it. “I have a bad character,” he tries to warn her off re-employing him. “All girls are not safe with me… I have a weakness”. His lack of self-control and womanizing ways become a recurrent theme in the narrative after smirking Sejal, convinced of her ability to resist Harry, draws up a contract absolving him of any legal ramifications. Harry is not presented in a good light at all. He is condescending, rude, and arrogant towards women. His narcissism is quite impressive, believing a rich, beautiful young woman from a diamond family would ditch her equally rich, beautiful fiancée for a haggard, mid-50’s tour guide. Ordinarily, the idea would seem repellent, yet SRK is convincing enough to entice anyone, even breaking his no kiss rule for the second time (the first being Jab Tak Hai Jaan in 2012).
SRK’s new rock and roll images suit him. Sleazy Harry has enjoyed a series of flings with a variety of European women. We see him getting kicked out of a woman’s apartment, arguing on the streets of Amsterdam with a white European woman, and seductively sliding his finger inside another white woman’s belly button, clearly simulating sex in a scene that can only be described as filthy. His weakness for women clearly doesn’t extend to Sejal – a “sweet sister type” – who seems regularly affronted by his lack of sleaziness towards her and repeatedly flirts with him by simulating lap dancing moves and comparing herself to his European sexual interests.
Sex is a central theme and the chemistry gradually escalates through the first half of the film through gentle touches, spooning while asleep, and hugging. During the second half of the film the chemistry climaxes in sex. “Sometimes I think you can save me,” he broods. Unfortunately, not even Ali’s writing and SRK’s talent can save this film.
The familiar trope of a wounded bad boy in need of saving is expressed throughout. “We are tour guides,” Harry laments. “Everyone goes home in the end”. His predictable and cliched fear of rejection is manifest in his attempt to push Sejal away: “Our time is up. Let’s stop play acting… I know what I cannot have”. He realizes, perhaps, that his sexy exterior isn’t enough to mask his age, lack of income, and fractured personal life.
Ali’s writing only scratches the surface and hints at a potentially darker, more passionate characterisation of Harry. There are a couple of flashes of raw emotion, with two scenes standing out, including the poignant Portuguese bar scene where Sejal cries into her glass of wine, and the subsequent beach scene where he moves from shouting the name of a past love interest, Kalwant Kaur, to an imaginary future without Sejal.
Non-Indians don’t come across too well, either. They are portrayed as hedonistic and sexualised members of the underworld. During one of Sejal’s many attempts to sexualise herself for Harry she receives unwelcome attention from a sleazy Czech man. “I like Paki girls,” he states, cementing him as a racist in the collective Indian imagination. The main European woman, Natasja, who is believed to have the ring, works in a strip club and is positioned as a potential thief and a criminal associate. Gas, Ghyassuddin Mohammed Qureshi, is a Bangladeshi thief and gang ringleader who kidnaps the pair. The only exception to this Othering seems to be Indo-German actress Evelyn Sharma’s role as the subdued and traditional Indian bride.
No transnational Bollywood film is replete without the juxtaposition of home versus foreign. The narrative fluctuates between past and present, clearly separating Harry’s two lives. Earlier on in the film, the home is a site of loss. Distorted and close-up gray shots render the Punjabi village of Harry’s youth cold and empty. Stuck between past and present, Harry learns to embrace his present and future and returns to his homeland at the end of the film, with Sejal beside him, to fuller, colored long shots of familiar Punjabi agricultural tropes. “At last, the bird has flown home,” the lyrics tell us, as Harry’s sleazy unbuttoned shirts are replaced with a more appropriate kurta.
Overall, it’s worth a watch. If only to see SRK poke around inside a woman’s bellybutton.
Correction: Shah Rukh Khan has appeared in only two films in 2017 and not three as mentioned previously. The error is regretted and corrected.