A funny thing happens when you make a movie that breaks from mainstream Bollywood convention (and I realize Bollywood convention has been a moving target for a few years now). The frame of reference by which you are judged changes.
So let's say I were to watch a Shahrukh or Salman movie with a lot of needless dhol-dhamaaka, matki-tapaa and rona-dhona in it. I understand the structure of the potboiler and enjoy its moments of fleeting ingenuity. I don't mind the ill-logic of it or miss the absence of a plot.
But try making a more grounded movie - such as the bold but confounding Love Aaj Kal - and my frame of reference changes. Dramatically. And as it turns out, I just about liked the movie without enjoying it much. I'll explain why - but before I do that something worth noting is that writer-director Imtiaz Ali has probably remapped the rules for rom-coms in Bollywood. We'll all see more mature behavior from our 40-something stars in the future and tell ourselves 'well, we saw that in Love Aaj Kal before'.
So why did the movie not work for me? Primarily because its not nuanced. If you have a simple plot - boy meets girl, both figure out they love each other, life gets in the way - you need something to guide the audiences' understanding of why things are happening.
Nothing is more confounding than to watch people act in certain ways and not understand why. What, for example, propels Saif Khan's Jai - a more charming version of the lothario played by Akshay Kumar in Kambakkht Ishq? Why is he that way? Why does it take him so long to come to grips with the notion of love? And what precisely pivots his mind and helps him act on his affections? (No, it can't possibly be playing a video game too many times or simply because Men are from Mars).
Saif gets a lot of screen time, but as far his character goes - its under written. As is well documented by now, in a nifty bit of casting Saif also plays Veer - a puffed chest, cocky, virile, sardar who isn't afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. He does enough of a marvelous job tuning his body language that he's convincing. Its not a blow-out performance - but its enough to show you a star who takes his craft of acting seriously.
Deepika gets much less screen time than Saif - her character is even more loosely defined. Where does her carefully guarded confidence come from? Is she really so absorbed in her work that she doesn't need the support system of any friends or family to overcome her worst moments? And why in heaven's name does she fall for Saif?
In a deliberately frenzied montage that opens the movie, Imtiaz Ali dispenses with the reasons for falling in love. He seems desperate to sidestep the boy-girl-meet-cute pleasantries. Skipping small talk is fine by me - but the deeper conversation has to follow. Over the course of its run, the movie has to explain itself. And you can avoid the ghisa pita scenes from rom-coms past, you can do so in other ways without compromising your characters (see Oye Lucky for some great examples on how to explain characters without expository writing)
There are countless scenes that could have been better served to create a more meaningful exchange. Instead Imtiaz fritters them on the cast engaging in Bollywood-ish cute antics.
Sure, there is nothing like scrunchy noses, doe-eyed exchanges and hipster comedy to capture the imagination of audiences - but is your movie a commentary on modern day love then or something else?