In his seventh film, Imtiaz Ali puts a literal spin on his running theme of travel and self-discovery. He makes his leading man a travel guide and his leading lady a tourist, thus giving them ample justification for traipsing through Europe. A picturesque backdrop provides the ideal setting for them fall in love.
But remember, this is a film by Imtiaz Ali – love cannot be simple and uncomplicated. So, we meet Harry (Shah Rukh Khan) after a trip chaperoning a horde of Indian tourists in Europe. He is looking forward to some down time, but fate has other plans for him. Sejal (Anushka Sharma), one of the tourists, dashes out of the airport and announces that she has lost her engagement ring and cannot go back to India without it.
As a pair, they couldn’t be more different. Harry is temperamental and “cheap”, having slept with lots of lady clients and was once almost fired because of his promiscuity. Sejal, in her own words, is a “decent” girl who is happy taking holidays with her family, but who still yearns to be “sexy” rather than “cute”. But as they retrace their steps across the continent and squat on all fours to look for that elusive ring, they somehow form a connection.
Ali doesn’t get into the how and why of it. In his world, Harry and Sejal can fall in love, but never cross the line that leads to lust. They cuddle but never copulate because, as Harry tells her, “You are not one of those”. Instead, they get into trouble with gangsters in Prague, get kidnapped in Budapest, and give out the notion that Europe is not safe for women travelers unless they are accompanied by formidable-looking men who will protect them.
There’s even a Punjabi wedding thrown in, tons of songs and cutesy moments between the two. Sejal relieves Harry from his life as a nomad and the loneliness that comes with it, while the latter rescues her from the humdrum life that awaits her back home – all of which we’ve seen multiple times in many films. The main problem with “Jab Harry Met Sejal” is that Ali seems to have run out of ideas to say these old things in new ways.
Dressing up his characters differently or giving them accents doesn’t hide the fact that Harry and Sejal come across as one-dimesional, singularly uninteresting people who barely have a backstory or motivation. Harry’s troubled past at his village in Punjab is alluded to, but never really resolved. This is a script that doesn’t bother to be different, and it is a huge pity.
Ali is the filmmaker who introduced something different into Bollywood romance with his first few films, and Khan is king of the genre. Together, they could have created magic. Indeed, Khan is in his element, giving those lopsided grins, going from charming to intense (except for a few minutes of ugly crying) and metaphorically opening his arms wide to signal to us that he is back where he truly belongs after failing to set the box office alight with his last few films. But he is let down by a script that meanders and never really finds its way out of the woods.
As Sejal, Sharma is a revelation, displaying a comic timing and penchant for deadpan dialogue delivery we haven’t seen her do before. The biggest letdown is Ali, who doesn’t even seem to be trying anymore. This is a film that feels like it was directed on auto-pilot and then left to its own devices.