“Love is like wildflowers; It’s often found in the most unlikely places.” – Anonymous
So it is when 35-year-old workaholic Jaya (Parvathy) meets clumsy, chirpy Yogi (Irrfan) on a Tinder-esque yet glaringly un-sophisticated and embarrassingly creepy online dating website called Ab Tak Singlle. No, they do not hit it off right away, much less fall in love, but embark on a charming ride that is languorous and unhurried in its pace, yet sweeping you up in its nuanced fluidity.
Marking South Indian actress Parvathy’s Bollywood debut and critically acclaimed director Tanuja Chandra’s comeback after a nine-year long hiatus, Qarib Qarib Singlle unfolds as a light-hearted rom-com in stark contrast to Chandra’s previous works underlined primarily by thriller and tragic themes (courtesy: Dushman, Sangharsh and Zakhm). Rooted in a radio play penned by her mother Kamna Chandra many years ago, the film takes the wittiest elements of the former, infused with a freshness that is easy to soak into, but hard to shake off.
The opening in itself is mighty impressive. Much is said about Jaya in the first 3 minutes- where a harmless, decked-up attendance at a friend’s wedding becomes a sore point for rehashing the past, serving as a window for the audience to have a peek into her life – she is a widow, a fact the world decidedly does not want to let her forget.
From this point on, we are drawn into Jaya’s superficially successful yet mundane everyday life, dotted with an unrelenting obsession with work but crumbling at the nooks and corners, exposing us to the brittleness of her being and the dark spots she casually dresses up in pastel shades and thick-rimmed glasses.
Don’t get me wrong – in no way does Jaya come across as miserable with her life, man or no man (the director takes great care to establish the same). And yet, one can’t help but notice how she is defined more by others’ perception of her than her own. From the subtly cruel and disparagingly insensitive friend introducing Jaya to her husband as the ‘woman whose husband died’ (at her own wedding, no less), to the friend shamelessly dumping her parental responsibilities on stepni aunty, we are repeatedly made familiar with society’s hypocrisy and conditioning that somehow paints married people in brighter strokes than it does someone who is widowed/unmarried.
Remember the friend back in college who didn’t have a social or romantic life of her own, and was relegated to the side, only to be called upon to save her actively social and unabashedly promiscuous friends’ sorry asses? That might have been you, that definitely was me back in my Diana-cut, no-kajal, skinny-arms-and-legs days of adolescence, and this is what makes Jaya seem so real to us.
Enter Yogi and right off the bat Jaya’s closed, monotonous, ‘cultured’ existence is thrown into a state of pandemonium, where all that she knew about doing things the ‘propah’ way comes crashing down, albeit, riding on a lot of humor and sprinkled with just as many shocks.
Yogi is outspoken, effortlessly amusing, and an unabashed flirt. From the moment he occupies the screen, you are reminded of Monty from Life in a Metro and Rana from Piku who seemed to have just caught on from where they had pressed the pause button last. The brightness and unmistakable weirdness of the character is quite obviously carefully constructed, and yet, this in no way acts a barrier to the audience bursting into peals of laughter over Yogi’s hilarious antics – from sharing anecdotes about his exes apparently still pining for him to meditatively lecturing on how mangoes should be eaten (safeda kaatke, dussehri chooske), Irrfan, through his hungry, mischievous eyes, that careless gait and the relaxed demeanor conveys more than words can.
I am yet to figure out what about such loud, unsophisticated male characters appeals to me – bordering on the ‘social misfit’ type, these are the men women would least want to be seen with, let alone be in a relationship with. A man who insists you hand over your phone to him so he can teach your online ‘admirers’ a right little lesson, to inviting you over on a trip to revisit his past, believing his exes still hold a candle to him, you are left flabbergasted, amused, flummoxed by the sheer audacity of this impenetrable creature. Curiosity really does kill the cat, and so sneakily, quite unconsciously you feel drawn to this character, in a I-need-to-figure-this-chap-out kinda way.
The allure of traipsing through unknown lands with a stranger (who queerly still feels familiar and safe to hang around with), Jaya is pulled out of the trance of her remarkably ordinary life and hurtled into a time-machine of sorts, zig-zagging through incredible experiences and much needed laughter. And tons of warmth and that sly, crafty love that sneaks up on her when she least expects it, like a coffee brewing for a little too long.
On his part, Khan as Yogi eventually ceases to be the drifter that he has always been (or so we are made to believe, unless of course a sequel pops up), finally stopping to pause for breath and smell the roses as they really are (read: give love yet another chance, by pushing reminiscence of the past right where it belonged).
Yes, it is a familiar trope resorted to by Bollywood and Hollywood alike – the shy, introverted female lead paired against the boisterous, bolder gregarious male lead (or vice-versa). The plot isn’t novel as such, in the way it brings opposites together, bound by externally different, yet intrinsically similar circumstances – of really wanting to be loved and share a beautiful companionship instead of drifting about or hanging on to memories that no longer serve the soul.
The tempo of this sometimes tiresome journey though is saved by the initial build-up of curiosity, that continues almost till the very end, barring a few unmistakable hiccups along the way.
So missed trains and flights through Dehradun, Rishikesh, Delhi, Alwar, Jaipur and Gangtok repeatedly keep pulling us into the temporary world of this odd pair – each surreptitiously scanning the other’s mind, as if to tick off an invisible box in the head – until we’re hooked.
On the downside, the extreme interest in Jaya’s sordid, lonely existence seems at times overplayed in contrast to a vague summary of Yogi’s life and background – we only know he is a self-proclaimed poet and he somehow has his pockets filled with dough enough to go around the whole country (I’d really like to know how he digs in all that moolah from merely shooting shayaris off his mouth). Technically, the cinematography is disappointingly average, with the sheen of the locales relegated in favor of the couple’s (sometimes mindless) meandering through the film.
At times you wish the scenes didn’t jump too fast, and the sub-texts didn’t multiply with each location covered. Also, as hilarious and affecting as the overall journey was, the rational bone in your body does perk up quite a few times wondering, “Why the hell would any sane woman (and as sane as Jaya) agree to revisit this complete stranger’s past?” Also, that all of Yogi’s exes should welcome him with open arms and sexy dresses and off-kilter behavior (read: Neha Dhupia as one of the bunch casually flirting with Khan over some overwrought poetry) sounds preposterous and supremely wishful. You of course, know, this subtext has been thrown in to lend some padding to an otherwise simplistic plot.
So yes, that’s the level of trust, absurdity and incoherence on display here that unnerves you for a few moments here and there, till the leads recapture your attention and sweep you off your feet with their earnest performances.
The supporting characters here hardly support the narrative in any credible way – with the exception of Pushtii Shakti (the first of the exes the couple paid a visit to) who was the only one I could somehow relate to, the rest seemed to have been treated worse than furniture, as mere appendages.
Neha Dhupia looks phony at best whereas Luke Kenny as Jaya’s friend (ex?, what was he?) looks like he may have been shoved into the frame because no one agreed to do the part. Isha Sharvani as the third ex, seems to have wasted time showcasing her svelte body and fluid moves, I think a picture of hers with a garland around her neck might have sufficed. Navneet Nishan as the parlour-wali aunty Mrs. Saluja swings her part well, even though you find it stereotypical and bordering on a rehash of every other role she has ever played till date.
Jaya’s makeup has been tastefully done, with pastels and soft shades dominating much of her wardrobe in the movie. Full credit to Parvathy, for not being the quintessential Bollywood heroine and yet owning her part in her very first brush with this maya nagri. Her mastery over Hindi minus the familiar South Indian twang too is commendable.
Qarib Qarib, admittedly, is a flawed enterprise in more ways than one, and yet, it is hard to look away from the screen with such an oddly fresh pair tugging at your heart. If you walk in wanting to have a good time without letting your judgment come in the way, if you want to go all heart and not rationalize and identify rights and wrongs in the movie or identify isms and themes dotted across the length of the feature, you’ll probably come out with a silly grin on, wondering why it wouldn’t leave your mind – despite your brain having pointed out its occasional ludicrousness to you.