The love story of Laila Majnu, has fascinated filmmakers, so much so that there have been several versions of it over the years. When the original story was written in the 11th century, what appealed was the tragedy — of a love that was forbidden and unattainable. The Sufis have equated the beloved with god, and love as the eternal quest for the divine. This idea comes up as a tiny spark in Sajid Ali’s updated Laila Majnu, but is quickly buried under the mush of Bollywood romantic movie clichés. She teases, he stalks; she demurs, he persists. He dreams of a world in which he chops wood and she cooks! (Seriously!)
Ali sets his film in Kashmir, with a token nod to politics but absolutely no indication of the trouble in the state. But for fancy cars and cell phones, the film could have been set half a century ago, when Kashmir used to be a popular Bollywood destination. Unless the new Laila and Qais are different from today’s superficial youngsters, what is so appealing about their story?
Laila (Tripti Dimri) is the town flirt, who throws her lipstick smeared tissue out of her car window, for the boys to pick up and fight over. When she meets Qais (Aninash Tiwary), she says to her constant companion (Sahiba Bali) who follows her around with a worried expression, that she is just looking for experience till she has an arranged marriage. How their love deepens to the level of madness is not portrayed with any depth; the shortcut Ali takes is to have Qais say that their story is pre-ordained.
Since their fathers are enemies, Laila is married to a creepy cousin Ibban (Sumit Kaul, the only one who puts on a Kashmiri accent) and Qais sent to London. No indication of what he did there, but when he returns for his father’s funeral and glimpses Laila, he suddenly starts to lose his mind. He also has a devoted brother (Abrar Qazi), who takes him away to a distant village to recover.
Due to unexpected circumstances, Laila is within reach, but a short wait sends Qais off the rails altogether as he turns into Majnu (mad) of the legend. The whole idea of going crazy in the quest of the beloved is lost, and Ali gives it a spiritual twist a bit too late into the film. The idea of depicting madness is Qais having visions of Laila dressed in white, and dance around with abandon, as the local villagers look on in alarm.
With the material at hand, the staggering beauty of Kashmir and use of folklore, poetry and Sufi philosophy, Ali could have made a stirring love story that transcends the corporeal. He has an outstanding and totally unselfconscious actor in Avinash Tiwary, who is capable of real intensity. As it is now, what works for this contemporary Laila Majnu is the lead actor and the music.