“There are two tragedies in life,” George Bernard Shaw observed in his 1903 play Man and Superman. “One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.”
In Sajid Ali’s directorial debut Laila Majnu, Shaw’s wisdom is intertwines with a far older source of star-crossed love to occasionally stunning effect. The 140-minute movie, written by Sajid Ali and his brother, the director and perennial romantic Imtiaz Ali, sticks to the broad contours of the original Persian romance even as it makes key departures.
The best rewrites concern Kais, nicknamed Majnu, or the mad one, after he begins to self-destruct after his separation from Laila. Kais falls so hard for the idea of being steeped in a love that transcends time and space that he has no further use for the actual person who has inspired his lunacy. As Kais is transformed into Majnu, the flesh-and-blood Laila disappears into a soft-focus dream, nudging Kais towards a quasi-religious ecstasy in the manner described by the centuries-old tale.
The new setting for the story is present-day Kashmir, the land of eternal beauty and recent tragedy. Except for a roadblock or two spotted in the distance, Laila Majnu offers no signs of the autonomy movement and the omnipresence of the armed forces. This setting provides numerous local actors, eye-watering locations and the suggestion that some of the battles here are of a deeply personal nature, where the prize is the freedom to love and marry.
The film flirts with allegory in the same manner that Laila (Tripti Dimri) deals playfully with her numerous admirers lining the streets of Srinagar as she makes her way to college every day. Laila’s attention soon becomes focused on Kais (Avinash Tiwary), about whom tall tales of debauchery abound. The myth comes before the man, and Laila’s college mates have all the details: Kais is a drunk, a wealthy layabout, a drug abuser, and a serial heart-breaker.
Laila’s first encounter with Kais cannot be described as romantic. He is hanging out with his posse deep in the night, and stops to take a leak in a place where Laila happens to be hiding with her sister. The ground beneath Kais gets wet and Laila’s sister screams, but the first shoots of a romance that will transform all their lives have been planted.
Laila and Kais set the Srinagar gossip grapevine on fire despite knowing that their fathers, Masood (Parmeet Sethi) and Ghulam (Benjamin Gilani), are old and bitter rivals. Masood invokes family honour and uses emotional blackmail to force Laila to marry politician Ibban (Sumit Kaul). Kais nurses his wounds in London and returns to Srinagar after a four-year period, setting into motion a downward spiral into tragedy and insanity.
The idea of the lover who throws caution to the winds as the only sane person in the room has resulted in direct adaptations and also inspired numerous films. The best-known Indian adaptation of the Persian tale is the 1976 production starring Rishi Kapoor and Ranjeeta. The brooding hero who loses and then finds his way in a heady fog of amour fou haunts Imtiaz Ali’s own films Rockstar (2011) and Tamasha (2015).
Laila and Majnu puts a fresh spin on the source material. There is a suggestion that Kais’s madness is both psychological and spiritual. When Laila seems well within reach, Kais is saddened rather than relieved. The idea of suffering in love has already trumped the actual experience, best captured by Irshad Kamil’s sublime lyrics in the song Aahista, composed by Niladri Kumar. You will be mine in good time, Laila sings. What is the point of this waiting, Kais wonders.
Kamil’s unerring ability to articulate the underlying philosophy of Imtiaz Ali’s films makes redundant Kais’s eventual descent into the wild-eyed and matted-haired Majnu of yore. Avinash Tiwary is very effective as Kais, but his Majnu act is over-determined and overstretched. Kais as Majnu fails to evoke pity or empathy. The subtlety of the previous scenes is lost as Kais talks to himself, flaps about the place and terrorises the local populace.
The frisson between the lead pair isn’t heartfelt enough to make Kais’s decline believable. Tripti Dimri is to this movie what Nargis Fakhri was to Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar: a superficial source of beauty and attraction without enough flesh on the bone. The surrounding cast, many of them local Kashmiri actors, fare better, including Sumit Kaul as Laila’s hapless husband and Abrar Qazi as Kais’s caring brother, Zaid. Kaul’s Ibban emerges as a tragic character in his own right, and a diluted version of Kais. Ibban too loses his mind following his love for Laila, proving that in this corner of Kashmir, some battles are fought only to be lost.