Millennials Review Classics: ‘Laila Majnu’ Fails the Test of Time
Laila Majnu is an antique relic that fails to resonate with our times.
(Laila Majnu, released in 1976, is the love story of star-crossed lovers Qais and Laila, who belong to two warring tribes. Harshita, 24, watched the film for the first time this year.)
Bollywood’s beloved dupatta plays the cupid between Qais and Laila – the lead pair of HS Rawail’s Laila Majnu – who are stranded in a dreary desert in broad daylight.
They are drawn to each other almost instantaneously, unfazed by the turbulent storm brewing in the background. No words are said, just a long, bold gaze exchanged.
But before anything can be said, you know their love is doomed. Why?
Because “Amari aur Sharwari khaandaan jab kareeb aate hain to shehnaiyaan nahi baja karti, hamesha talwaarein hi khanakti hain.”
Too caught up to read? You can listen to this story instead:
But that’s hardly a deterrent for Qais who, without wasting time, gets down to work to nurse the pangs of love stirring in his heart. Damned be the sermons of restraint (in romance) which my millennial brethren are repeatedly accused of lacking!
Qais stalks down Laila, barges into her room at night, sings ostentatious paeans to her beauty, puts a pajeeb on one of her feet and vanishes into thin air, also declaring in no uncertain terms his intentions to sneak in again the next day.
Fast forward 37 years and you have Dhanush carrying forth the legacy in Raanjhanaa.
How times have NOT changed!
Presenting Majnu aka Qais
Make no mistake, Qais is not your ordinary lover. He is a pakka aashiq who rides a camel, wears bright monotone Baghdadi finery with matching headgear, talks mostly in shers and shayaris and dons a Tere Naam-esque hairstyle twenty-seven years before bhai popularised it.
Besides, he is a self-aware stalker for he knows “darbaar-e-husn mei bina ijaazat ke aana, gustakhi hai”. He equates his mohabbat (love) with ibadat (worship) and will go to any lengths to be with his beloved.
One look at Ranjeeta and you know why Qais is besotted. She looks stunning and is surprisingly ahead of her times – she is no demure damsel, no abla nari and has no qualms in professing her love for Qais in front of her stern father. She delightfully fools her brother every time she flees from the palace to meet Qais.
In a role reversal of sorts, Laila comes to the rescue of Qais when he is at the receiving end of public ire, breaking into the very popular “koi pathhar se na maare mere deewane ko”. While Qais is overtly melodramatic, Laila is restrained and even saves Qais from execution.
But alas! the dreaminess of Majnu and the spunk of Laila combined cannot avert the doom that awaits them. The lovers elope, well aware of the impediments to the path of their union, only to be stymied by roadblocks along the way.
Enter Bhaijaan aka Custodian of Family Honour
I was surprised to see the quintessential bad boy of Hindi cinema, Ranjeet, guarding his sister’s ‘honour’ because as far as my millennial memory goes, all I have seen him doing onscreen is latch on to women with a ravenous appetite.
But, in being the protector of his family ‘honour’, he fails miserably and hardly comes across as anything but a nincompoop. He hurls his sword (at Majnu and his folks) with a frequency not even Karni Sena can match. He maniacally checks on his sister, breaks into her room at odd hours on conjured suspicions, repeatedly tries to chastise her and mouths the most patriarchal dialogues with sickening pride.
In short, Tabrez is that egotistical, boorishly shrill, overprotective brother who cannot accept his sister’s individuality – a typical example of masculine toxicity at display, something that Bollywood struggles with even today (think NH10, Kai Po Che!).
The Melodramatic Maa
“Mere Allah! Kunwari beti gair mard ke saath...ye din dikhane se pehle tune mujhe utha kyun nahi liya mere parvartigaar?”, says Laila’s mother, breaking into inconsolable sobs. Hey there! Another overtly melodramatic maa.
She condemns Laila’s choice, hurls abuses at her and forces her into matrimony with a man her daughter doesn’t even know. There is a change of heart briefly but her son’s murder turns her into a cold matriarch. Ah! How conveniently she ignores her son’s follies, while the prospect of a loveless marriage for her daughter doesn’t even cross her mind.
Despite growing up on a staple diet of melodramatic Hindi films, I found it hard to relate to Laila’s mother. Perhaps because the likes of Seema Pahwa and Kirron Kher have turned the tide. And thank god for that!
Of Khandaan and Sanskaar
The rivalry between the Amari and Sharwari clans is invoked so many times in the film that it almost becomes a snoozefest. I mean, get over it already!
All sorts of expletives are thrown at Laila for falling in love with a man her clan doesn’t approve of. Sample these:
“Behaya! Ye deeda-dileri? Maa-baap ke saamne apne aashiq ke naam ka dam bharti hai?”
“Is kambakht ko to paida hote hi marr jana chahiye tha”
“Kya ye mumkin hai ki koi shareef-jyaadi apne bhai ke kaatil se mohabbat kar sakti hai?”
What disappointed me the most was despite being a venerated classic, Laila Majnu’s romance is not allowed to take flight. It can only operate enmeshed in a complex web of family feuds, filial duty, misogyny and patriarchal concepts such as family honour (shouldered by the woman).
It’s a pity that between Amari and Sharwari and Rajadi and Sanada (Bhansali’s Ram Leela) not much has changed.
...And An Array of Harebrained Characters
I could not gauge the director’s intention in carving three show clowns disguised as the hero’s friends? Neither do they aid the narrative nor are they given solid punchlines to keep the viewer entertained. They, at best, come across as caricatures saying some of the most thaki hui shayari and going into boring digressions.
It was disheartening to see actors like Asrani and Paintal being used as pointless props. Equally unnecessary and farcical was the subplot of the burglars. Even a fine actor like Raza Murad couldn’t salvage the situation.
And don’t even get me started on Danny. He decides, on a whim, that Laila will be his prospective begum. Of course, what she thinks doesn’t even matter. He fails miserably in playing a magnanimous Prince who, at most times, is anxious to get laid but won’t do it until Laila agrees to be his baahon ki zeenat of her own accord.
At one point Prince Bahksh says to Laila, “Tumhara husn din raat ham par sitam dhaata hai...batao ham kahan tak sabr karein?” He is so restless by Laila’s ‘shabab’ and ‘jalwe’ that he’d rather have his eyes pierced out than wait in agony. Seriously, bro?
Danny’s impassioned, lengthy monologues got unbearable. I couldn’t wait for them to get over. All fluff and no substance – only an unpalatable concoction of patriarchy and misogyny.
As if that wasn’t enough, we have Aruna Irani as the “fallen woman”. She mouths cringeworthy dialogues such as “sharab se inkaar hai to shabab ko mauka dijiye”. She is testimony to the aiyyashi of rulers who use women as playthings. She is mostly an embellishment whose only work is to sing and swoon and smile at Prince Bahksh. The Prince can visit her at his whim but she is not fit to be his mallika – yet another putrid manifestation of patriarchy.
Laila Majnu Seems Antiquated
The characterisation of Laila Majnu is a minor irritant in a film goaded with patriarchy and peppered with crass humour and misogyny.
I couldn’t react to dialogues such as “raaton wali shararat sirf mardon ka kaam hai”. In fact, such is the case with most poetry in the film, which mostly hits incongruous notes and makes love seem like a tiring charade.
The film is marinated in melodrama with scenes that could put Ekta Kapoor’s overtly dramatic heroines to shame.
Laila Majnu transports you to an utterly unrelatable world filled with garish costumes, outlandish songs and farcical dialogues. It is an era where a fawn becomes the messenger between lovers. Yes, a fawn in the middle of a blazing desert!
And all this while, I kept thinking kabootars preceeded email and Whatsapp.
Reserve your judgment, there’s more...
It is a world where orders of sar kalam karna (beheading) are given with ease. It is a world where a stream appears magically in the midst of a desert and...umm, you know what, watch the song Ab Agar Hum Se Khudai Bhi for a blast from the past, and discover the gems yourself.
Laila Majnu is an antique relic which fails to resonate with our times. At two hours, forty minutes, it is excruciatingly long and I couldn’t help but heave a big sigh as the credits rolled by.
Sadly, it didn’t leave me with a broken heart at the tragic fate of the lovers. I neither rooted for them to be together nor felt dejected at their separation. I was indifferent and unimpressed.
But I must confess, I didn’t go expecting a passionate tale of an extraordinary romance considering Bollywood’s patchy tryst with classics. Be it Ram Leela or Ishaqzaade, the adaptations of classics have seldom come close to capturing the passionate romance that these timeless love stories embody. It makes me wonder if classics are best left untouched.
Because for a love story to be celebrated, you can’t rely on cliches, cinematic or tradition – it kills the passion.
The performances are earnest but to weave magic onscreen, you need a strong script and deft direction, and that is where the film stumbles.
Laila Majnu, I am told, was a massive hit. Perhaps that’s what we call a generation gap.
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