"Till date I have not missed a single train," says a breathless Geet (Kareena Kapoor) as she finally follows her belongings (handed up ahead of her) onto the train taking her home to Bathinda in Punjab. Little does Geet know that this will be the last train she actually manages to catch, and lucky for us that she does.
Geet finds her way to her seat, only to find it occupied by Aditya (Shahid Kapoor). If Geet's train journey has purpose and energy, Aditya's is the result of a completely random act. Depressed and shell-shocked, he boards the train only after leaving his office (where a legal battle is brewing), visiting a wedding (where his girlfriend is marrying someone else), after walking away from his phone, his car, even stripping himself of his tie and expensive cufflinks -- Aditya is walking away from his life, and his chance boarding of that train brings him into contact with the irrepressible, bubbly, talkative Geet.
Essentially, in Jab We Met, two strangers meet on a train, and although they don't know it yet, both their lives will change in ways that neither of them could have imagined when they boarded it. It's a simple enough premise, and in the hands of a lesser writer and director than Imtiaz Ali, Jab We Met could have ended up merely a banal repeat of other films with similar themes. In fact, there are echos of Ali's previous work (Socha Na Tha which he wrote and directed, as well as Ahista Ahista which he wrote and was directed by Shivam Nair) -- but Jab We Met isn't merely a rehashing of those earlier films. Instead, Ali is exploring similar themes in slightly different ways, giving them slightly different twists. What connects all of his films (including the more recent Love Aaj Kal) is a meticulous attention to craft, to the art of making films, from the art to the cinematography to the music to the script itself, the story and characters that inhabit it.
One of the things I love about Imtiaz Ali is his ability to create small, intimate moments and to capture the conversations that happen in them. This was, frankly, the best part about his debut film Socha Na Tha; the moments that Viren and Aditi spend talking to each other tell us more about each of them, and connect them to each other in ways that are powerful and meaningful. Most importantly, these private conversations feel real, not contrived in any way.
And these moments, the moments Geet and Aditya take to talk to each other are, perhaps, my favorite moments in Jab We Met, and they're where we get to know each of them just a little better. In the hotel room, when they miss the train (Aditya gets off at a stop, Geet rushes off the train to get him back on it, and ends up missing it, effectively breaking her previously impeccable record), Geet reveals her plans to marry Anshuman; Aditya opens up and finally shows Geet the photo of the woman he loved, who married someone else. Geet encourages him to be childish, to burn her photo and flush it, to flush her out of his life.
Later, sitting on a tree overhanging a river, Aditya reveals his passion for music, and Geet encourages him to be crazy, grabbing him and pulling him into the water with her.
When Aditya finally accompanies Geet home to her family, they meet out in the sugar cane fields, and she tells him about the twist in her plans to marry Anshuman: her parents have already arranged her marriage to Manjeet. The two discuss her options, bantering ideas back and forth, already sounding more like longtime friends than two people who only just met on the train.
What is particularly lovely in the crafting of this film is that all of these moments will twist back and return -- we'll see Geet and Aditya talking in a different hotel room, with Aditya now the one encouraging Geet to be childish, we'll see these chances to revisit conversations they had when they first met -- only this time, the conversations will gradually pull Geet and Aditya closer together.
It's one thing for a writer to create interesting characters; it's yet another for actors to take those characters off the page and make them breathe, make us love them, make us care for them, make us feel what they feel. But the magic of Jab We Met is that its two leads, Kareena Kapoor and Shahid Kapoor, manage to do just that. In fact, I'd say that for me, Kareena and Shahid are another one of those pairings I would love to see again onscreen, but regret that it probably won't happen (qv. Govinda and Rani). They invest Geet and Aditya with so much life, so much sorrow, so much sparkle that we fall in love with them and root for them all they way through the film.
Jab We Met is a film I've never managed to write about before, simply because I love it so much, and trying to analyse what about it works for me is a bit like taking apart a watch to see how the gears fit together. I could try, but I also know that once I got the thing apart, I'd be hard pressed to put it back together in a way that would be meaningful and useful. And sometimes, the magic of a watch is just knowing that the gears and bits and bobbles are all in there, and they work without our even knowing, really, how. We're just comforted by the small tick the second hand makes as it sweeps around the clock face, by the hum of the thing we can hear if we hold it close enough -- or, in the case of Jab We Met, by the rocking sound of a train that haunts Geet, that puncutates the moments when she realizes her life could be slipping away out of the station without her on board if she doesn't hurry up and catch it.
But, if I've chosen to make a frankly feeble attempt at it now, it's because of Kapoor Khazana, and frankly because of Kareena Kapoor. Kareena is magnificent as Geet. Geet is effervescent, endlessly chatty (she even talks in her sleep, a detail that is totally, utterly charming); and if sometimes her family members think maybe she needs to learn to think before she speaks (something Aditya might concur with), the lovely, often naive Geet (she honestly has no clue that the desk clerk at the hotel thinks she's well, as Aditya puts it, a "call girl") is given to moments of incredible insight and perspicacity. In Geet's world, things are often not quite as she perceives them, but how she wants them to be.
It's this latter quality that eventually knocks the wind out of Geet's sails -- as we discover in the second half of the film, her relationship with Anshuman is anything but the perfect dream she has described to Aditya before he leaves her in Manali (Geet has run away to elope with Anshuman, Aditya has gone with her before returning to take the reins of his own life in hand again). And when Geet's family finally finds Aditya, and he learns that Geet has been missing without contact for nine months, Aditya sets out to find out what happened to her. We are, frankly, relieved that he finds her; we are not, frankly, prepared for the Geet he finds. Rejected by Anshuman, Geet has undergone a transformation. Gone is the bubbly, vivacious chatterbox; in her place is a woman so disappointed in her life that she is silent, subdued, colourless.
Kareena Kapoor is magnificent as Geet. Her personality is so infectious that we never find Geet annoying, as she could so easily have been. Instead, she is charming and wins us over just as she does Aditya. And our hearts break to see the change in her, to see her so sad and so defeated at having the air released from her dreams that she doesn't even feel she can go back and face her family. Her cousin Ranbir Kapoor called her "phenomenal" in Jab We Met, and in that, I wholeheartedly agree with him.
Beyond that -- beyond the fact that in the film's two leads are wonderful -- Imtiaz Ali creates a whole host of supporting characters that breathe life into his film. From the clerk in the train station who gives Geet a life lesson when she finds herself stranded after getting off the train ("a girl travelling alone is like an open treasure box"), to the desk clerk at the Hotel Decent, to Geet's own family (including her imposing Punjabi grandfather, played by Dara Singh, who calls her a devil, and who insists from the moment he first sees Geet and Aditya together that there is something between them) -- all of these pepper the film with humour and grace. Geet's family in particular is lovely -- they are angry with her when she runs away, yet they are distraught at not hearing from her for so long, and when Aditya finally brings her home, they welcome her as the prodigal daughter returned, with a celebration (and a wee bit of a scolding from her grandfather, whose constant refrain, "At my age, one glance is enough to realize what is going between a boy and a girl" turns out to be prophetically true).
The relationship that develops between Geet and Aditya is refreshing, too, borne out of those small moments of conversation that pepper their travels, and without any expectations or obligations. Well, just one, in Geet's mind -- she finds herself obliged to Aditya for bringing Anshuman back to her, because, as she tells him, if he hadn't, she never would have figured out what she really wanted in life. What is particularly lovely and deftly handled here is that while Aditya clearly has fallen in love with Geet when he drops her in Manali, he says nothing except to wish her well and to take care. When he returns to Manali to find out what happened to her, he does so with no expectations that helping Geet and taking her home will mean a chance at a relationship with her.
Best of all in my mind is the fact that Jab We Met is a road movie. I love road movies. I love how they act as metaphor for a life journey, and what I love about Jab We Met is that it takes a traditional road journey and gives it a twist. We think the one whose life needs changing is Aditya, and we're not wrong in that, and, in fact, the first half of the film lays the groundwork for Aditya to figure out how to walk back into his life and turn it around, all with the help of the vivacious Geet and her zest for life.
Jab We Met is particularly delicious for a fan of road movies, because here we get not one journey, but two. In the second half of the film, we come to realize that Geet needs her own transformative journey, too. In the first half, Geet transforms Aditya's life; in the second half, he transforms hers. In the end, they both manage to catch that train, together.