We all know about the notion that art is inspired by life, and life is inspired by art. But when life starts to become problematic, art becomes a reflection of it, thereby becoming a means to make necessary amends in real life. Now, the problem with initiating this self-reflection is that it can’t be too obvious because all of us are aware of what is happening around us. We know what’s wrong and what’s right, and we are making conscious choices between them. However, if the message about course correction is too in-your-face, the reaction is usually negative because we feel like we are being talked down to. And as I sat in a theater all by myself, getting preached about interfaith relationships by “Almost Pyaar with DJ Mohabbat,” I could hear the adjacent hall celebrating a character called Pathaan, being played by Shah Rukh Khan.
“Almost Pyaar with DJ Mohabbat” takes place in two locations: Dalhousie and London. In Dalhousie, we follow a Muslim boy named Yakub (Karan Mehta) and a Hindu girl named Amrita (Alaya F). The two of them run an account on the bootleg version of TikTok, which is called Ting Tong (because TikTok is banned in India), with Amrita playing a burqa-clad character called “Saloni Ammi.” They want to attend the titular DJ Mohabbat’s (Vicky Kaushal) concert. But since Amrita’s family won’t allow it, the duo makes a run for it, which predictably creates a fiasco in town. In London, the daughter of a Pakistani magnate, Aisha (also played by Alaya F), becomes obsessed with the Indian DJ, Harmeet (also played by Karan Mehta). She essentially stalks him until he is left with no option but to let her into his house. When Aisha’s father learns about this affair, he sends Harmeet to jail for violating a minor and ruins his dreams of performing in India.
Over the course of two very long hours, Anurag Kashyap does nothing other than state the obvious. He talks about the inconsequential nature of hatred that stems from bigotry. He shows how people can identify Nazis as villains, be homophobic, and also gobble up incendiary sentiments about minorities via WhatsApp forwards all at the same time. He highlights how the Indian police are complicit in such acts of violence. He even critiques a certain Indian influencer who achieved fame by playing a caricaturish Muslim woman without experiencing the consequences that women face in India for being Muslim. So, kudos to him for putting all this on the big screen despite the excessive amount of censorship that’s going on in Indian cinema. But is that it? What is the commentary? That these things exist? Yes, we know all of the aforementioned incidents. How is your film helping us process it? How is your movie reacting to the reality we are living in? Is it doing anything to counter this wave of vitriol? If not, then what’s the point?
You know what? It wouldn’t have been all that triggering if “Almost Pyaar with DJ Mohabbat” regurgitated everything that happens in and around interfaith relationships without any additional commentary. But Kashyap seems to go out of his way to paint women as the unempathetic disruptors of men’s lives. As in, women are so oblivious to the consequences of their actions, and men are so innocent and gullible that the latter is doomed to bear the brunt of this “forbidden” relationship. Kashyap even renders the trials and tribulations of the Muslim characters meaningless to apparently make a point about how Hindus will always find each other at the end of the day. To make matters worse, he throws in these predatory queer scenes. In doing so, all the little moments of erasing religious, class, and ideological divisions to make way for love feel utterly performative. The film is technically proficient and has good music, though I’d argue that it’s trying too hard to appeal to Gen Z. However, the storytelling is so dull and lifeless that neither the visuals nor the songs can keep you engaged.
The performances from Karan Mehta and Alaya F are fine. They get a lot of screen time and material to work with. But, to be very honest, there’s not a single moment of acting that’ll stay in your mind. The supporting cast is much more natural and in tune with their characters. Vicky Kaushal talks so much about love that you’ll be begging him to play the next song on his list.
In conclusion, the reason I brought up Shah Rukh Khan and “Pathaan” is because its implicit takedown of the various kinds of political bullying that has been happening over the years has led to an explicit and collective movement against this manufactured air of hatred around the cinema. Even the most vocal haters of Khan are being forced to admit that they’ve crossed some lines and that they don’t have enough venom to counter all this love. “Almost Pyaar with DJ Mohabbat” is way more explicit about the religious identities of its characters and the political climate of India. But since Anurag Kashyap thinks that being explicit and bleak about his film’s themes and commentary is more than enough, it amounts to nothing. We are anyway demoralized by the real life, and Kashyap’s empty musings about interfaith love make things worse. I’m not saying that every film has to be positive or have a solution to all our problems. However, I’m saying that your movie has to be more than a reflection of the obvious. Does this mean I’m recommending “Pathaan” over “Almost Pyaar”? No. Watch both of them and form your own opinion.