The hero (Shah Rukh Khan) is a poor man. The girl (Katrina Kaif, as always playing the overseas Indian to justify an odd Hindi accent) belongs to the rich, stuffy upper class. He shows her the pleasures of being in the uninhibited lower-deck. She gets to let herself loose, value the fun things of life. They hit it off. This premise is probably as old as Titanic and only as recent as Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar.
The lead couple are in love. They realise it almost at the same time. There is the slight issue over the girl being already engaged to someone else. But it’s not the kind of problem that can’t be overcome. These are freer times. Neighbourhoods and relatives don’t get to decide your fate. Running away from an engagement is no big deal, certainly not in London, the city of Big Ben (now Elizabeth Tower), where this film is set.
But the hero (Shah Rukh Khan) meets with a road accident. The heroine (Katrina Kaif) prays for his life. In exchange for his wellbeing, she promises to God that she will never see him again. Only a director as polished and accomplished as Yash Chopra could hold you to your cinema seat for almost half a working day over a story with a conflict as weak as this. It’s what certain reviewers call the Idiot Plot, the sort of crisis that can be fixed with one quick conversation – in this case, between God, the hero and the heroine.
But that would be to suggest we watch film for stories. Not always. And certainly not the proverbial "Yash Chopra romance", where devotees swooning over the super-star (SRK’s hard-core female fans aren’t likely to be disappointed) is just as essential as the detailing in the heroine's costumes (they look lovely), or the location (that is stunning), or the soundtrack (which is hardly to write home about here), or the background score (a good portion of which has sadly been lifted by Rahman from the film The Motorcycle Diaries).
The director clearly knows how to put all these pieces together into one place for the fair price of a movie ticket. He knows, and always knew, how to hold a moment. There are several such in this film. It’s just that as an audience you’re not sure of how many stories the filmmaker wants to tell. The sheer sweep of the movie then equals the full season of a TV soap opera that could do with two intervals, since there are at least two mid-points, and four important tracks.
In the film’s first part, SRK plays himself, or plays what he has for most of his career: the carefree, charming lover-boy. In the second part, he transforms into an ageing, quiet, intensely masculine character of an Army major who defuses bombs for a living. This is when another girl (Anushka Sharma, in baggy jeans and ordinary tees, dressed too hard to look like a tomboy; jhalli, as they call it) falls in love with the hero in the same way that he had fallen for someone else before. In the third act, SRK’s character loses memory.
This is a romantic weepy. They are expressly made for women audiences the world over. Be warned. But you knew that all along. There's an emotional woman inside every hardened man. No one should feel shy about letting it all out. Except that by the end of the saga, you worry less about the hero’s love and his wellbeing, and far more for the movie’s length. I suspect Yash Chopra would’ve figured this out himself, even as this was meant to be his last hurrah, the final goodbye to films and romance as an active filmmaker.
Few people in show business receive the same amount of respect and admiration while alive as they do when they’re no more. Yash Chopra was that rare exception. He was 80 when he passed away, only a few weeks before his film’s release. In a reasonably prolific career spanning six decades of the 100 years of Indian cinema, Chopra stood out as a filmmaker, because he took chances with his scripts. Daag (1973), his first film as director-producer, which is vaguely close to Jab Tak Hai Jaan, for instance was about a man (Rajesh Khanna) who lives happily ever after, with two wives (Sharmila Tagore, Rakhee Gulzar).
The successful films he made became formula for the film industry thereafter. Waqt (1965) was Bollywood’s first lost-and-found drama. Lamhe (1991) was probably the first romance set among impossibly rich non-resident Indians, an overseas hit, and a formula that still endures. After Chandni I suppose (his comeback film in the late '80s), he became a byword for a formula himself, with audiences taking a look at other copy-cat flicks, and suggesting, “That is so Yash Chopra!” An earthy aesthete from Jalandhar with incredibly gifted ears for both poetry and drama should still not be remembered as merely the king of romance, which would be limiting for a talent whose range was remarkable. If anything, action-drama Deewar (1975), by his own admission, was the tightest script he'd ever filmed.
After close to three and half hours in the theatre, when you step out of Jab Tak Hai Jaan, you realise his last film, at 80, wasn’t clearly his best. It would have been unfair to even expect that. But it did have shades of what we loved him for. You can instantly tell why he was the still youngest filmmaker around. This film may not survive him. There’s a huge legacy that will, and I suspect we will forever thank him for being.