They say that ‘love is giving someone the power to destroy you, but trusting them not to.’ An urban legend, I feel... for all that I have learned from the older sources of star-crossed love (and you know, being a human on most days) is that love only leads to pain and heartache. So, forgive me if I’m not up for that storm in reality. But Monty Tiwa’s Indonesian film ‘Layla Majnun’ has such a strong emotional core that, for a brief period, all those lines in terrible movies and beautiful books started resonating with the cynic in me as well.
Yes, it’s Valentine’s week, and satiating the romantics in us is another adaptation of the stunning Persian folktale about Laila and Qais (or ‘Majnun’ - the crazed one). ‘Layla Majnun’ is embedded in Indian cultural consciousness since forever, with multiple retellings across decades, languages, and aesthetics. So it goes without saying that perhaps the story itself wouldn’t prove to be ground-breaking but thanks to Netflix we get to see it in a brand new cultural context. In this version, we see contemporary Indonesia and Azerbaijan as the setting. Layla is a young and feisty Indonesian litterateur who was taught to dream and choose her own path from her deceased father. Circumstances lead her to an arranged betrothal with a childhood friend, but a short stint to teach in Baku leads her to Samir, her student and admirer. Samir’s connection to Layla is instantaneous while her walls towards are obviously up, but his sensitivity and understanding are enough for her to open a window. Following in the footsteps of decades of Bollywood films, Layla must return to Indonesia to fulfill her duty as a wife while Samir is led to insanity. There’s are key departures from the original in the way life pans out for the lovers, while the broad underpinnings remain the same.
The biggest draw of Monty Tiwa’s Layla Majnun is its young lead pair whose characterization and screen presence is off the charts. For an era in which genuinely resonant romances are far and few in between, their chemistry is simply electric. Acha Septriasa is one of the more known actresses from Indonesia who has been noted to play simple girl-next-door type characters. Here, she is of course the embodiment of grace and beauty. But Layla is a writer who makes her dream of teaching in Azerbaijan simply by virtue of her talent, which gives her the opportunity to transcend the shackles of culture that have bound her thus far and explore unknown territory. It is here, in a new world, where she meets Samir. The biggest barrier between their hearts is her own inability to free fall in love, and once she does, no one can stand in their way.
The source material is updated with some welcome changes. Samir is Layla’s student and she falls for his sensitivity and understanding, while both connect due to their mutual love for poetry, history, and culture. A significant part of the runtime is spent with Layla and Samir walking around the beautiful bylanes and historical sites of Baku, enough for us to fall in love with this city and this couple. This version of Majnun is perhaps the most vulnerable and least dependent on his natural charm, although the latter quality is never unwelcome. Reza Rahadian plays Majnun with an impish charisma, and his breakdown is truly heartbreaking.
There are downsides to adapting Layla Majnun just by the nature of the story and its central conflict. No matter how much one updates the story, it is next to impossible to avoid certain cliches and conventions if you want the film to transcend into a tear-jerker. Unlike Sajid Ali’s 2018 Hindi version whose 30-minute sequence of Qais’ descent into madness is a most exhilarating piece of cinema, this version touches only briefly on the effect of separation. Perhaps due to it being of a specific culture, certain gender norms and patriarchal notions can’t be let go off. So, in the climax, we have the usual - the fiance who turns into a complete nightmare, the mafioso who is more concerned about his image, the drunk uncle who takes out his frustrations on the women of the house, the arranged marriage that turns into imprisonment. It’s just the story, and we can, perhaps, get by that. But there are also some sweeping conveniences during the climax, an unnecessary subplot with Samir’s cousin and some glaring plot-holes, and we can’t get by those.
Dimple Kapadia summarises my thoughts on any successful romance film neatly in ‘Luck By Chance’ - “At this time, every boy should be fantasizing about the heroine and every girl about the hero.” The biggest compliment I can give Reza and Acha is that they’re beautiful people who make love look believable and our fantasies legitimate. There are some interesting supporting characters who have been cast well even if not written wholesomely.
Music & Other Departments
Just as the juxtaposition of the New City and the Old City in Baku deserve, the cinematography of Layla Majnun really brings out these two facets of the city. The costume work subtly alludes to the lore. The score is wonderfully minimal.
The idea that romance can be sparked from a genuine admiration, respect, and connection, is wonderful. Layla and Samir have a warmth. This adds to the sadness of their separation much more than any heightened sentimentality or musical crescendo could. I could watch them co-recite poetry all day. Both actors are extremely effective as contemporary versions of star-crossed lovers, perhaps why the updates to their story seem plausible. There are some great cultural and historical insights during their conversations that double up as cool trivia.
The reason why any adaptation is appreciated is its reinterpretation. The fact that this one is set in Indonesia and Azerbaijan is wonderful for their tourism, respectively, but the film doesn’t make use of the cross-culturally diverse atmosphere of the location. The conservatism of Indonesia, especially when it comes to women in the workplace and their right to choose their partners is also swept under the action of hero-heroine-villain. There are a lot of thoughts in the film’s screenplay - the seminal book on which Layla is named, the book that she writes eventually, her father’s teachings, and the shadow puppets that both Layla and Samir love. All of it becomes overwhelming and doesn’t come together, making the film feel slow in its final act. Unfortunately, the film also doesn’t have anything new to say other than give you warm fuzzies because everything about it is so dreamy and romantic.
Did I enjoy it?
I like the occasional reminders that life hasn’t rendered me completely dead inside. So yes, I did feel enough warm fuzzies.
Do I recommend it?
In spite of all its issues, yes. The tale and perspective are as old as time but the setting is new. Also, Reza and Acha are just beautiful. But if you’re a robot this week and would like to remain so, steer clear.