In the post Dil Chahta Hai-world, Saif Ali Khan carved a hyper-specific mould for himself: the suave urban male with a penchant for the good life. It was a character that appeared to be a natural fit for the actor born into privilege and Khan played it with an easy charm and endearing self-awareness.
He was cool without putting in too much effort. Now what if that character, usually more fun to watch than to actually tolerate, actually got permanently stuck in a 45-year-old man’s body? That’s the premise of Jawaani Jaaneman, a mostly watchable coming-of-middle-age comedy where Khan’s London-residing, party-loving Jazz must reconcile with the sudden fact that he has a 21-year-old daughter, Tia, as a result of a one-night-stand from over two decades ago.
Jazz goes about his life picking up white girls at nightclubs, getting drunk out of his mind and generally living a debauched life he never feels apologetic for. He lives in a plush apartment, with faux red-bricks, lights for different moods, a projector; has a generous landlady and though he appears to be broke now and then, he manages to get by, wearing funky blazers over flashy Iron Maiden T-shirts. We get it. He’s old but then not quite, his relentless indulgences constantly at war with his age and sobriety.
How the entrance of his daughter, played by Alaya F, triggers an emotional awakening and a personal reckoning forms the crux of the drama. For most part, the film’s treatment is casual and lighthearted and even in its most serious moments, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously. Khan and Alaya share an easy chemistry refreshingly bereft of melodrama or guilt pangs: their relationship is depicted as what it is. After the initial shock settles in, a new order establishes itself between them and Kakkar actually creates profound and funny moments to develop both these characters individually and as a collective.
However, the film’s weakness is the way it handles Tabu. Shown as a hipster Mom from Amsterdam, the character is an awful stereotype. It’s difficult to tell if she’s meant to be some sort of a self-parody but the actress, great as usual, is reduced to a stock character saying lines that make a mockery of an alternative lifestyle, with Saif’s character casually branding her as a ‘drug addict.’
Which actually confirms a lot of lowkey conservatism lurking just beneath the faux woke surface of Jawaani Jaaneman. Despite using the chilled-middle-aged-dude-with-Dad-bod as a crutch to celebrate its own progressiveness, the film does show a fair amount of disdain to an alternative form of living and eventually succumbs to longingly looking at the ideal construct of family by invoking middle-aged loneliness. Midlife singledom can be a way of life too. In a scene that doesn’t even feel it belongs in the movie - Khan’s character meets his bar-owner friend, played by Chunkey Pandey, who’s recuperating alone after too much drinking and that acts as a trigger for Jazz’s own despondency
Perhaps the extent of wokeness Hindi films can display at this moment in time ends at doing away with marriage. Jawaani Jaaneman show children being born out of wedlock pretty casually and matter-of-factly. Unplanned pregnancies aren’t scandalous events and choice wins over emotional blackmails and archaic societal expectations. In a role that she aces, Kubbra Sait plays a hairdresser who’s divorced and looking for love. This is a subplot that exists solely to reveal more of Jazz’s character but adds a layer of complexity: while she seeks a friendship, he wants a quick fling and it takes him a while to come around that dynamic. While it establishes Jazz’s self-centredness, it also reveals his loneliness and towards the end, a suppressed desire to seek companionship despite him creating an outward appearance of being happy without it.
That the film is quite well-performed gives it a certain finesse. Veteran Kumud Mishra, as Jazz’s brother, is as reliable as always but it’s newcomer Alaya who actually impresses with her understated, natural performance. There’s a certain sadness in her evocative eyes the kind that says that she’s going to be okay even if her Dad rejects her entirely but she does desire that paternal acceptance. It’s a mix of vulnerability and strength and the actor strikes an effortless balance between the two.
Which brings us to Saif Ali Khan. To be fair, Khan has experimented at the cost of failure. From Kaalakaandi to Sacred Games to Laal Kaptaan, Khan seems to be putting himself out there. In that sense, Jawaani Jaaneman is his homecoming, a role he’s always known how to play. He brings in a certain likeability to Jazz, his face designed to express comical emotional terror followed by submissive acceptance.
So overall, Kakkar’s film is funny and fairly watchable. It’s just not as woke as it thinks it is.