Bollywood films, for long, have frowned upon the ambitions of their protagonists, that is, if they have any. These films tell us that the secret to a happy life lies in not finding one’s calling, but a life partner—a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a husband, a wife. Of course, in life, it’s never one way or the other, but these films, mostly romantic dramas, insist otherwise, pitting ambition against love, numbers against people, accomplishment against happiness.
Baar Baar Dekho, starring Sidharth Malhotra and Katrina Kaif, is no different. Its hero, Jai Sharma (Malhotra), a professor at New Delhi University, is a mathematical genius. Since he was a kid, he’s always bonded with numbers and their intricate patterns. Since he was a kid, he’s also bonded with his childhood friend and, later, girlfriend, Diya Kapoor (Kaif). Baar Baar Dekho, in a rare moment, captures this quite beautifully in two consecutive scenes. In the first, Jai shows up at Diya’s house, about to give her a birthday present, a book wrapped in a red ribbon. Diya, however, can’t take her eyes off the other gift, one given by her father: an SUV, also wrapped in a red ribbon. Jai lowers his eyes, and hides his gift behind his back, perhaps thinking it’s no match in front of a car. Malhotra plays these roles, of a young man failing to speak his heart and mind, quite well. In the next scene, Jai drops acid at a party and, in his psychedelic trip, sees mathematical equations swirl around. The implication is clear: Jai is fond of Diya as well as Math.
But this is one of the rare instances of smart writing, of understanding its protagonist, because the film quite quickly shows that it neither understands Math nor Jai. In many scenes, Jai’s love for Math is dumbed down and simplified. Dia asks him questions such as “What is 158 by 93?”, “What is the square root of 3,40,000?” and Jai replies instantaneously, as if every mathematician is a calculator, as if love for numbers necessarily means becoming a machine. Later, the priest mocks him by calling “Mr Logic”. (Also, no mathematician solves equations on a windowpane; it might have looked okay in A Beautiful Mind, but that film released more than 15 years ago.) So, a logical question is this: Why make your protagonist a certain way if you don’t attempt to understand him?
Even if you look beyond the film’s forced conceit, there’s much that doesn’t work, especially in its initial portion, which drags with little sense of purpose: a forced comic scene with father-in-law, a customary wedding number, bits involving side characters who hardly add any drama or meaning to this segment. But, more importantly, and, sadly unsurprisingly, Kaif shows again that she can’t act. Any scene of considerable emotional heft, which requires her to look more than just pretty, is beyond her, and, as a result, she keeps pulling you out of the film. What’s worse, we don’t know her character well. An accomplished artist featured in India Today, Kaif’s Diya is weirdly unambitious. We do know that she wants to get married to Jai, but the film barely talks, or hints, about other aspects of her life: her professional desires, how she wants to shape her own life (beyond getting married and settling in Delhi). Jai’s love for Math —no matter how poorly materialized — is at least important to the plot; Dia’s love for the arts (quite inexplicably, after being a housewife for several years, she resumes exhibiting her work) is barely touched upon.
Baar Baar Dekho, a film centered on time travel, is ironically quite old fashioned, in ways both thematic and cinematic. Right after the interval, following a scene centered on Jai’s personal loss, the film cuts to a conventional song, implying it is no better than most Bollywood tearjerkers: afraid of negotiating uncomfortable silence. In another scene, a “psychiatric ward” and its patients are planted for comic effect; several other scenes in the film, too, forcibly nudge us to laugh.
The film leaps forward in time (initially 10 days, then 2, 18, and finally 13 years), and this, at least in theory, looks like a smart ruse to think about relationships and people, but it’s poorly handled by the director (Nitya Mehra) and screenplay writers (Mehra, Sri Rao and Anuvab Pal), for they’re utterly clueless about the real meaning and effect of time. Here, time, quite bizarrely, only brings about a cosmetic change in people and their circumstances, and its notion merely a subset of screenwriting convenience. In Baar Baar Dekho’s universe, life isn’t observed or thought about as an unending fluid spectrum, often a bundle of contradictions, but as isolated moments endowed with unique powers.
To the film’s credit, though, its last 20 minutes are fairly pleasant and sincere, reshaping the meaning of redemption, but by then—much like the protagonists’ equation, a relationship rocked by fundamental discontent—it’s too late.