The credits say “Laila Majnu” is directed by Sajid Ali, but the latest Bollywood iteration of an age-old love story cannot escape the trademark stamp of his brother and co-writer Imtiaz Ali. An adaptation that attempts to turn the story of star-crossed lovers on its head, the modern day “Laila Majnu” has several recurring themes. We also get dialogue similar to some of Imtiaz’s earlier films, a tortured hero and a female lead whose perspective is hardly deemed important.
Sajid Ali’s style seems part independent and part inspired by his brother. Perhaps this explains the schizophrenic nature of this film. The tone varies wildly where the first half seems amateurish, much like the protagonists, and the second-half brings gravitas to the proceedings.
Ali’s story is based in Kashmir, where Laila (Tripti Dimri) is the pampered daughter of a politician whose beauty attracts many admirers. She enjoys the attention while dreaming of the perfect man who will sweep her off her feet. Kaes (Avinash Tiwary) is also a spoilt brat, living off his rich father. He falls head over heels for Laila, convinced that theirs is a love that transcends social barriers and the enmity between their illustrious families.
But Laila’s father doesn’t share Kaes’ views, dismissing their romance and marrying her off to his protégé Ibban (Sumit Kaul). Kaes leaves Kashmir heartbroken, only to return four years later. But something has changed. Kaes is not the same cocky youth he used to be. From here on, “Laila Majnu” acquires an almost unreal feel to it.
Laila is within reach but still not his, and as the realization hits, Kaes slowly unravels. A man who was already on edge topples over, spiraling into delusion. Ali captures this unraveling in detail, showing us Kaes as he laughs maniacally, dances like a man possessed and babbles like a lunatic.
In Imtiaz Ali’s films like “Rockstar”, “Jab Harry Met Sejal” and “Tamasha”, the focus is always on the man and how he reacts to unrequited love. The tortured, angst-ridden hero is a running theme in all his films, and in “Laila Majnu”, we see another version of him. To Avinash Tiwary’s credit, he sinks his teeth into the role and has an arresting screen presence that makes it difficult to take your eyes off him.
Dimri, on the other hand, is there for cosmetic effect. She serves merely as the trigger for Kaes’s self-destruction, which is for the best because she doesn’t exactly match up to Tiwary in terms of acting chops. The uneven acting is in keeping with the rest of the film, which oscillates wildly between occasional bouts of lucidity and absurdity.