Bollywood through a feminist lens

Review: Jab Harry Met Sejal (2017)

A few hours before watching Jab Harry Met Sejal, I happened to watch the 2017 live-action Ghost in the Shell. As that movie ends, a voiceover tells us, “Our memories don’t define us. Our actions do.” This idea was running through my head as I watched Jab Harry. . ., which instead argues that our memories, and our reactions to them, define us.

Harry (Shahrukh Khan) is a travel guide in Europe. He has just left his latest group at the airport, happy to be rid of them. Sejal (Anushka Sharma) rushes to his car, demanding she help him find her lost engagement ring. And so they travel across Europe looking for the ring, getting into misadventures and falling in love along the way.

Harry is haunted by a memory, a woman he met only twice, a woman he loved, a woman who married another. He left his small village and became a womanizer in Europe, unable to forget her, unable to move one. Sejal cannot remember when last she had her ring, retracing her steps of the last month, and in doing so, retracing her relationship with her fiance. Harry’s life has been aimless because of one event, while Sejal’s is all planned out. As the movie ends, they have learned that they cannot change the past, but they can change their reactions to it and thus change their future.

The power to change is just one aspect of power running through the movie. Sejal has power over Harry because she comes from a wealthy family and can afford to treat him like “the help,” demanding his time. Additionally, she is a lawyer, and uses her education to, if not manipulate people, manipulate events in her favor. Harry, however, is older, and knows the cities they stay in. Several times Sejal runs afoul of dangerous men and Harry saves her. Harry must deal with violence, but Sejal must contend with both physical and sexual violence.

As a young woman in her late 20s, Sejal is trying to figure out who she is. She calls herself “selfish;” she is opinionated and headstrong. She bristles when Harry calls her “sister-type.” This comment, and her reactions to it, drive much of the plot. She wants to be sexy and desirable; she wants Harry to desire her. In a scenario many women can relate to, Sejal dresses up, visits a club, is aggressively hit on, and can’t get the guy to back off. Because this is a romantic movie, Harry is able to save Sejal in these situations; in real-life, women must either put up with the behavior or find a way to extricate themselves. It’s easy for the audience to blame Sejal: “What did she expect?” But we should expect that we can dress up, have fun, and have our “no” respected.

Thinking about the these themes of power, we ask: is the movie feminist? Maybe.

I could see a lot of my younger self in Sejal: trying to navigate adulthood and societal expectations, trying to be “good.” Sejal is not perfect or logical. She is selfish. But she is also caring and willing to try new experiences. She is fearless, trying to navigate a world that expects women to fear.

But as any SRK movie must end, Sejal falls in love with much older Harry. Sejal seemingly gives up her family and career. Sejal must accept that Harry is wiser, or at least more worldly, and so that means he is often right.

So I think the movie does an excellent job of capturing what it feels like for many women trying to figure it out, it being family, relationships, sex, the future. And even if I’m not personally thrilled with the ending, the events are Sejal’s informed choice.

Our reactions to memory and power wind throughout the movie. Our actions define us, but we act based on our memories, based on what we have learned in the past. Maybe our memories define us, but we can change how we move into the future.

Sidenote: I really enjoyed this movie, and it included many of the tropes I love in romantic movies. Solid performances, lovely cinematography, enjoyable music.

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