They are still in school, but Zoya knows Kundan isn't her type and slaps him hard. He turns up again the next day, and the day after. 15 slaps later, her heart melts. Oh wait, but before that he slits his wrist. In the 10th grade such an act could be dismissed as childishness, but soon you realise it's just his personality and what's worse, it rubs off on others too.
Zoya is sent away––she Muslim, he Hindu=eternal taboo––Kundan pines, his philosopher friend Murari (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, impeccable) can't fathom this senseless obsession––"Ishq hai ya UPSC ka exam. 10 saal se koshish kar raha hai!" he exclaims with righteous indignation (did I mention he walks away with the best lines in the film?) when Zoya returns home, her slate wiped clean while Kundan renews his desperate entreaties.
As he stands under her window and tries to jog her memory about their brief dalliance I am reminded of Sadma's devastating climax when Sridevi is going away and Kamal Haasan, bruised and broken, runs after the moving train miming scenes from their days together. That, great melodrama; this, pale imitation. Anyway, such men often turn up as cinematic heroes. They don't need to earn a living––love is their sole vocation. At least unlike her Ishaqzaade namesake, Zoya knows her mind and doesn't do silly flip-flops. She is brought down to her knees not by the hero's arm-twisting but by several implausible and manipulative twists involving false identities and political chicanery.
But for once the girl chooses the right guy––an idealist and ambitious student leader (Abhay Deol, handsome in thankless role) and for once young people don't just run around trees, they take to the streets and even spout ideology (although in Sonam's voice it sounds like an immature school play). There are a couple of interesting scenes in the meandering second half––for instance Kundan's amusing interaction with DU students who mistake him for a thief and spend an entire night trying to analyse the cause of his misfortune.
The film eulogises unrequited love; Kundan's persistence and willingness to abnegate his personality is admirable in an old-fashioned way––young people today are perhaps too self-absorbed and fickle to be that committed. He’s a far cry from Darr's loony Rahul with mother issues too, but one is extremely squeamish about stalkers, even the mild and repentant variety.
You know the writer (Himanshu Sharma) and director (Aanand L Rai) have their hearts in the right place. But as the screenplay starts leaning left (in the vein of Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola) it loses steam. The attempt to marry an epic love story with political issues fails––honourable failure, one might add, considering even Mani Rathnam couldn’t resolve that conundrum. The dialogues, on the other hand, are often sharp and witty.
Rai skilfully weaves the bustling and colourful Benaras backdrop into the narrative and Rahman's "Banarasiya" (exquisitely rendered by Shreya Ghosal) complements it perfectly––this is undoubtedly the composer’s best work in a while. One feels sorry for Swara Bhaskar, severely compromised as Kundan’s childhood friend who loves him with the same devotion he showers on Zoya and is humiliated repeatedly. She deserved a better role and Raanjhanaa a better heroine than Sonam Kapoor, who'd have the calibre to pull off her reasonably well-written character.
Thankfully Dhanush's infectious presence makes it worth your while, so that even though you have misgivings about the film’s trajectory, you have no regrets having watched it.