Jab Tak Hai Jaan was legendary director Yash Chopra’s final film. Starring long-time collaborator and box-office superstar Shah Rukh Khan, whose career Chopra launched in Darr (1993), Jab Tak Hai Jaan is sprawling and ambitious romantic adventure.
Khan plays Major Samar Anand, a fearless bomb disposal expert and mysterious lone wolf. In a memorable opening sequence, gorgeously shot on location in Ladakh, he meets a young adventurer and film maker Akira Rai, who is played with relentlessly delightful charm by Anushka Sharma.
Soon we learn Anand is a man with a hidden past, and we travel to London, ten years earlier, to watch love blossom between him and the rich young businesswoman Meera Thappar (Katrina Kaif). But, as often happens in these kinds of films, circumstance soon puts their romance to the test.
The cinematography in Jab Tak Hai Jaan is consistently beautiful, matched and powerfully accented by A.R. Rahman’s score. Like many recent Bollywood films, London is made to look like a pristine playground, where immigrant ambition is soon rewarded with casual elegance. But the real visual star in India herself, in some stunning sequences shot in Ladakh and Kashmir.
However, the most controversial bit of cinematography involves the kissing sequences between Khan and Kaif. For the longest time kissing onscreen was not the done thing in Bollywood. Even as tastes changed, Khan maintained a strict, old school, no kissing policy, even as his films became racier and more risqué. Lips would come tantalisingly close, sometimes microscopically separated, but without actually making contact.
But, in Jab Tak Hai Jaan there is actual, somewhat awkward, lip to lip contact, the shock made more potent by the camera leaning in, handheld and shaky, in those moments (which were shot by Chopra’s son, Aditya Chopra).
This is a tension Jab Tak Hai Jaan does its best to play on. The romance between Samar and Meera is classic old school Bollywood, but Akira is the wildcard in the film, the embodiment of a new generation with a more open, sexually liberated approach to life. We meet her early on, as she strips down before jumping into a frozen lake, on a dare. She is athletic, flat stomached and emotionally confident.
However, her first on screen words, before she jumps into the frozen waters are “In the name of God,” which sets up the other, big, theological tension in the film. Much of the drama revolves around the prayers and promises to God made by the characters, especially Meera.
There’s not a lot of sermonising, but the promises do wreak havoc with the main character’s affections. This has been a theme in a lot of Chopra’s films, the way tradition and obligation arrest and hold back romance.
And, one could easily criticise Jab Tak Hai Jaan for getting bogged down in these theological obligations, especially in the fourth act. At times it’s disappointing how film leans into melodrama as it draws to a close; patching together a storyline that is part Hurt Locker, part End of the Affair and part Random Harvest.
I’m inclined to feel the film defies its own logic, by resisting a quite natural ending and instead, lurching on for close to another 45 minutes to bring about its final resolution. It’s as if Chopra felt he had to resist giving the film a “modern” conclusion and instead push through to allow the classical structure to run its course.
But, I’m prepared to forgive this because along the way the film is so charming, endearing and exquisitely beautiful.
After all, Jab Tak Hai Jaan gives us some exquisite moments of pure cinematic gold; Major Samar Anand riding through Ladakh, the younger Samar’s first glimpse of Meera in the snow outside a London church, a remarkable night time dance sequence between Kaif and Khan and the irrepressible Akira’s romp with the soldiers in Kashmir.
With Yash Chopra’s passing, the time will come to look at his work in retrospective. Jab Tak Hai Jaan will not be remembered as his best film. But, no doubt it will stand as a powerful statement of how far Indian cinema has come and the challenges it faces as it addresses it’s own traditions, codes and standards and the way those may be both helping and hold back the next generation of filmmakers.