The high point of Imran Khan’s career came right at the beginning ‒ his debut in Jaane Tu Ya… Jaane Na in 2008, in which he played a college student confused in love.
Seven years later, Khan has barely graduated. He retains his quizzical expression, the one that crawls all the way up into his eyebrows and doesn’t change whether rain or cloud, and he hasn’t yet figured out how to calibrate the beats of the heart. In Nikhil Advani’s rom-com Katti Batti, Khan’s Madhav wants to marry self-styled free spirit Payal (Kangana Ranaut) two days after meeting her. She warns him that she is only interested in “time-pass”, and the time passes for five years.
Payal is stubborn and skittish, the kind of girlfriend that men are warned against. An early indicator of how much effort the relationship is going to take is given in the early hours of the courtship. Madhav’s motorcycle is refusing to start, but instead of walking alongside him to their destination, Payal makes him drag the bike with her sitting on it.
But it’s hard to feel too sorry for Madhav. His love for Payal is so absolute that he swallows a bottle of cleaning liquid after they are through. He mopes around, rewinds to their happy shared moments and refuses to accept the inevitable: she has moved on.
Nikhil Advani’s mish-mash of several Hollywood rom-coms, including (500) Days of Summer and Of Love and Other Drugs, saves its final insights into modern romance for the last act, which introduces a twist and replaces the shaky humour with sentimentality aimed at making the handkerchief travel out of the pocket and towards the eye sockets. Ranaut, who sports ill-fitting wigs and clothes throughout, finally settles somewhat into her character, while Khan continues his unsuccessful dig for appropriate emotional responses.
The leads are ill-matched and ill-suited for their roles. Ranaut, who has been praised beyond the skies for her recent turns in Queen and Tanu Weds Manu Returns, is miscast as a sophisticated woman who knows the ways of men and the world. Her flair for naturalistic acting and comedic timing is absent from all but a handful of scenes in Katti Batti. Khan’s inability to alter his facial expression to suit the moment has dogged him throughout his career, and except for Shakun Batra’s Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, all his befuddled loverboys are the same person.
The deeply overstretched and addled screenplay clocks 128 minutes. In terms of its depiction of the central relationship, its plasticky production design, and adult characters who are adolescent at heart, Katti Batti is firmly in the 1990s Bollywood mould. Buffoonish bosses (the honours in Katti Batti go to Bugs Bhargava), cleavage-revealing employees, offices that resemble a children’s ward in a hospital, an obsession with romance above professional duties, a fateful encounter at the airport – Katti Batti has it all. In a screenplay packed with contrivances, a pet Indian star tortoise plays a starring role: it introduces Madhav to a group of musicians who have banded together for the sole purpose of mending their broken hearts and making bad music.
The humour misses its mark and the romantic entanglement rarely locks into place. This is a rom-com low on rom as well as com.