The first ten minutes of Tanuja Chandra’s latest, Qarib Qarib Singlle, clearly lays out its methods and intentions. This segment introduces Jaya (Parvathy), a 35-year-old widow, who works in the health sector and lives by herself. The title and promos of the film indicate that this is a romantic comedy – about the frustration of being ‘single’ – with a twist; its protagonists, although single, aren’t young or falling in love for the time.
Qarib Qarib Singlle reinforces this through Jaya in its opening segment. The film opens with her attending a friend’s wedding: “Who knew I would find a husband through Tinder?” Jaya’s friend says, a customary reference to modern Indian dating in, well, a film on modern Indian dating. Once Jaya returns from the wedding, the film details the small moments in her life. She reads a book late in the night, while killing mosquitoes with an insect killer racket; she gets spooked by a lizard; she lounges aimlessly on a couch. Everything about these scenes, in the way they’re written and shot, spell that Jaya is alone. Later, when she reaches office, her colleague advises her to start dating; she tells her – or rather us – that Jaya hasn’t had sex in two years, and that, if she continues to be celibate, her virginity would return. You know where this is going, and what purpose this ‘set-up’ serves: to tell us that Jaya is single.
A few scenes later, before going on a date, a nervous and conscious Jaya rehearses her lines aloud, as if she’s a living a life not for herself but for the camera, for us. It is one thing for a character to be alone and single, and quite the other for the film to repeatedly hammer that, at the cost of her mannerisms looking fake and performative. Sure, cinema is make-believe and involves calculated manipulations, but the opening scenes of Qarib Qarib Singlle tell us that its protagonist’s life revolves around, and is dictated by, her most pronounced troubles at all times – as if people are only a sum-total of their problems. This isn’t just lazy writing, but exemplifies a poor understanding of life, and is quite common to Hindi films wanting to tiptoe the line between mainstream and indie cinema.
The problem with these films – the ones wanting to be both realistic and frothy – of which Qarib Qarib Singlle is a good example, is not that they are bad; it is that they could have been good. Even in portions where the forced authenticity of the film jars, Parvathy is an assuring presence. She makes her character funny, vulnerable, and relatable. But locked by unimaginative writing, she can only do so much. Things don’t improve with the introduction of another character either, Yogi (Irrfan), a 40-year-old consultant who has self-published six books of poetry.
Irrfan’s Yogi could have been a novel addition to this film, but he too is less of a character and more of a type: a man conventionally considered old to be romantic, someone who is unsophisticated, loud, and tries hard to be funny. In fact, Irrfan has himself played these roles before: once in the 2007 film Life in a… Metro and quite recently, earlier this year, in Hindi Medium. Given that Irrfan is a consummate and versatile performer, he nails his part; he is sassy, unpredictable, and frivolous. Yet, no matter how credible Irrfan’s performance is, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that Yogi, much like Jaya, is a contrived result of the screenwriters’ (Chandra and Gazal Dhaliwal’s) imagination. Yogi exists to serve as a foil to Jaya: she is restrained, he is in your face; she is dignified, he is loud; she is English, he is Hindi. It is a roundabout way of saying, “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus”; it’s a trope, and it has become tiring.
But even if you want to forgive or, for the large part, forget the film’s method, its lack of story is really off-putting. Early in the film, when the protagonists are just getting to know each other, having gone on a few dates, Jaya says casually that Yogi keeps mentioning his ex-girlfriends; she finds it hard to believe that, even after all these years, they pine for him. To which Yogi proposes a plan: of going on a vacation to meet his exes who live in different parts of the country (Rishikesh, Alwar, and Gangtok). Jaya puts up a feeble protest but agrees rather quickly. There’s nothing about Jaya, and her relationship with Yogi, that convinces us of her decision. This plot point feels forced, ridiculous, and random, something that seems planted in the movie for the sake of giving it a story. And that is the biggest undoing of Qarib Qarib Singlle: that you can see the hands of the puppet-masters, that you can (almost) see Chandra and Dhaliwal watching this story from the outside.
A large portion of the film revolves around the conversations between Yogi and Jaya. Yet the film does precious little to flesh out their individual characters. We don’t know who they are, what they want, why they do what they do – except that, for some reason, they have fallen for each other. It’s a little too easy, a little too superficial. The film is saved to some extent by its humour, brought alive by sharp whimsy dialogues and scenes reveling in absurdities of life. But the main problem of Qarib Qarib Singlle is that it can’t not look at itself. It knows that it is essentially a romantic drama where the leads will come together at the end after overcoming indecision and miscommunication. Qarib Qarib Singlle’s story though doesn’t organically produce such a conflict, so Chandra and Dhaliwal invent one, and it looks silly and forced, making the film’s dénouement predictable. And that is the most disappointing bit about this film: that even its failures are run-of-the-mill and forgettable.