October 28, 2016
Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Fawad Khan, Lisa Haydon, Imran Abbas, Guest stars: Shah Rukh Khan, Alia Bhatt
CAUTION: LONG REVIEW AHEAD
Confessions of a film critic: (1) I’m a sucker for mushy romances and good-looking stars. (2) I am a congenital crybaby. (3) Although I have rarely related to characters in Karan Johar’s films and I am vehemently opposed to the gender politics in several of them, I have still found myself getting swept away by the emotional wranglings of the writing in a couple of his works, the packaging, the gorgeous actors and the music, despite every cell of my being rebelling against what the film stood for (by that I mean Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham).
If you think about it then, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil – produced, written and directed by Johar – has all the ingredients required to reduce me to a blubbering mass of tears. A parade of catchy tunes by Pritam, ranging from soulfully melodic to peppy. A story set in three atmospheric and historic European cities: London, Paris and Vienna. The most delectable actors in the subcontinent. (Oh Fawad Khan! Sigh! Double sigh! Triple sigh!) And a climax so unabashedly emotionally manipulative that it puts every other KJo film in the shade in that department.
Yet, I felt curiously detached from most of the film, enjoying distinct elements but unable to connect to the whole.
The story revolves around Ayan Sanger (Ranbir Kapoor) and Alizeh Khan (Anushka Sharma) who meet at a London nightclub and hit it off. At the time, Ayan is dating a glamorous dunderhead (Lisa Haydon). On the rebound from a break-up with the love of her life, DJ Ali (Khan), Alizeh is dating a family friend’s son (Imran Abbas, another Pakistani actor – take that, MNS!). Ayan soon wants to be romantically involved with Alizeh, but she does not reciprocate his feelings. She wants him as her bestest buddy, nothing more.
The film then follows the two through the many years of that friendship, her equation with Ali, Ayan’s bond with the poet Saba (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) who is drawn to him sexually but not interested in love, and his continuing obsession with Alizeh.
Lookwise, everything about Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (ADHM) is glossy and flawless. Since this is a KJo venture, it goes without saying that the camerawork (Anil Mehta), art design (Amrita Mahal Nakai), costumes (Manish Malhotra, Anaita Adajania, Samidha Wangnoo) and makeup are rich and exquisite. Every earring, every strand of hair, every piece of furniture is just so. And the cast is a roll call of contemporary beauties, male and female. Visually then, ADHM is a feast.
The reason why that is just not enough is the film’s been-there-seen-that-done-this-all-before quality. At the heart of that fatal flaw lies ADHM’s hangover from Tamasha (2015) and Rockstar (2011) that is impossible to ignore. Both films were directed by Imtiaz Ali. Ved and Tara’s non-stop banter in the first half of Tamasha, driven by a shared passion for Bollywood, was riveting. She was lively and easygoing. He had a penchant for mimicking stars and was desperate to professionally explore theatre but stuck in a corporate job under pressure from his autocratic father. In ADHM, Ayan and Alizeh chatter endlessly about Hindi cinema, constantly reference films in their conversations, quote dialogues and sing old film songs. She is lively and easygoing. He wants to be a professional singer but is pursuing an MBA to please his billionaire father.
In Rockstar, Janardhan is told that he will become a true artiste only once he experiences pain in love. Being the dumbo that he is, he seeks out heartbreak to give himself a successful music career. Sure enough, he matures as a musician and becomes an internationally renowned rocker once Heer rips his heart out of his chest. In ADHM, Ayan’s songs develop a soul, he becomes an Internet phenomenon and a hit on the London club scene when his unrequited love for Alizeh takes over all else in his life.
Some of it is fun, funny and engaging, plus Kapoor and Sharma are easy on the eye and I lurved not just the music but the way it is woven into the narrative. Like I said though, it is impossible to get past that feeling of having been there, seen that, done this all before. Fun-ness and funny-ness are obviously diluted when a plot lacks novelty.
The uncomfortable familiarity of the storyline is further underlined by the fact that the Kapoor boy has been the lead in all three films. Saddled with this burden, his performance in the first half of ADHM suffers from repetitiveness. It does not help that his career is dominated by films in which – as in Rockstar, Tamasha and ADHM – he has played a man-child in dire need of some growing up. Again, been there, seen that, done it all before.
There’s something seriously wrong with a film on unrequited love when the relationship you are rooting for does not involve the protagonists but the male lead and a satellite character. Bachchan’s Saba enters the picture halfway through the story and Saba-Ayan walk away with a film that should have belonged to Ayan-Alizeh.
This is the element of originality in the screenplay. This is where Johar shows signs of his evolution as a filmmaker and as a person. For instance, we are aware that Saba is older than Ayan yet a song and dance is not made of that fact, which is a big deal coming from a director who has persistently straitjacketed women over the years though never more so than when he told us in his debut film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai that a man may never become aware of his deep love for a woman if she does not conform to the socially accepted definition of femininity. It is in this portion too that KJo displays a willingness to mock himself, giving Saba and her ex poetic dialogues that could put a cheese factory to shame, then getting a friend to laugh at them.
It is in this segment that Kapoor comes into his own, perhaps because it is here that he gets to do something he has not done before. And while I had begun to think I would never get to say this, this is where I finally discovered the actress in the former Miss World, after nearly two decades of despair watching her on the big screen. Like Ashutosh Gowariker did in Jodhaa Akbar, Johar is intelligent in the way he taps into Bachchan’s ice-cold beauty and certain studied mannerisms to make them a part of the character she plays. No credit to her on that front, but in a scene in which Saba reveals the vulnerability within her strength, Bachchan reveals something of herself that we have never seen before, not even in her cinematic outings with Sanjay Leela Bhansali.
As it happens, the lady who has been known for her sexual conservatism in her film choices (she has broken her no-kissing rule only for 2006’s Dhoom 2 so far) has allowed Johar to shoot lovemaking scenes between Saba and Ayan that are very explicit by her standards. Kapoor and Bachchan are hot together. Yes, their lips do not meet – in most films, that looks very silly – but Mehta’s camera somehow makes that work.
It is interesting too that ADHM turns traditional Hindi film notions of marital infidelity on their head. From a film industry that has in the past made it a wife’s bounden duty to forgive her husband for sleeping around, it is refreshing to see a woman in this film telling us that her self-respect did not permit her to tolerate her spouse’s philandering ways, while another tells a man pointedly that it is not her job to pick him up when he falls.
Oh my! Is this an indicator that The World According to Johar is getting progressive? The celebration of this moment is tempered though by the manner in which Ayan is shown repeatedly roughing up Alizeh. Everything we know about domestic violence tells us that a man who pushes a woman around once will do it again and again, yet ADHM projects Ayan’s physical aggression towards his female friend as a mark of his ardour and the comfort level in their friendship, in pretty much the same way that Raanjhanaa in 2013 interpreted Swara Bhaskar’s character Bindiya constantly being roughed up by her male buddies including the hero. Seriously? Do Hindi filmmakers not notice and absorb the horrible things going on in the society they inhabit, or understand the role they play in perpetuating regressive beliefs?
No doubt, Johar will point out that he has shown Alizeh too smacking Ayan a couple of times. First, who said that is okay? Second though, is there an equivalence? This week’s other Hindi release Shivaay shows the hero’s eight-year-old daughter pummelling him in anger. Any kid hitting her Dad like that deserves to be severely disciplined, but Shivaay mindlessly presents it as cuteness and a sign of her deep, deep affection for him. That said, would we not react differently if the father had bashed up his child in a similar fashion?
Because it is not the same thing. See KJo, Alizeh hitting Ayan is not okay, but men are born physically stronger and your films are made in a social context where the massive majority of victims of relationship abuse are women, so please do not hold up Alizeh’s slap on Ayan’s face as a justification for the way he hits her. Johar may well argue that he is only portraying people and behaviours that do exist in the real world. Yes they do exist, but the point here is that nothing in ADHM indicates the film’s own disapproval of such actions.
The other truly disturbing aspect of ADHM is Ayan’s near-hatred for Alizeh when she rejects him. His animosity is ugly to behold. It chilled me to the bone. Again, no doubt such men do exist but the point is that this film romanticises one such man, packages him in the charismatic personality of a Ranbir Kapoor and presents him to us as a genuine lover. But this is not a lover, this is not love, this is obsession and a wounded ego, this is a sense of male entitlement, this is rage at a woman who said no, this is the kind of man who in the real India and Pakistan has been known to throw acid on a woman saying “if I cannot have you, no other man should.”
Does Ayan evolve beyond this? I shall leave you to watch ADHM and find out, but it does not matter, because what the film mildly describes as immaturity is in fact dangerous, and all the shayari in the world cannot excuse ADHM’s failure to point that out.
For a more wholesome account of unrequited love, watch Johar’s own production Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu directed by the wonderful Shakun Batra. There are men out there who do know how to take a no from a woman with equanimity, it is just that Hindi cinema usually avoids them possibly out of fear that male-dominated audiences will be put off by them.
In terms of performances, Anushka Sharma is consistently convincing throughout ADHM. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is the film’s surprise package. Ranbir Kapoor is a mixed bag – in the early portions there are crying scenes in which it is hard to tell whether he is being intentionally farcical or the storyteller has got the mood wrong, but as the film progresses Kapoor gets lovelier and lovelier. Fawad Khan has limited screen time and left me yearning for more – not just because of his divine handsomeness (though there is that too) but because he is a fine actor. In fact, one of ADHM’s best scenes is a crackling confrontation between Ayan and Ali. Lisa Haydon as Ayan’s girlfriend Lisa D’souza is a hoot – someone please give this woman a leading role in a film worthy of her pizzazz.
There is considerable mixed messaging emerging from the episode involving Lisa. No doubt she is ditsy, but I do not get why Ayan had to cheapen her with his gaze or Alizeh had to cheapen her with words to elicit laughs from the audience. Also, Johar appears to be making a point via this character about how we stereotype communities we don’t mix around with a lot. She practises all day to say “Salaam waleikum” in preparation for a meeting with two people who bear the surname Khan – because as every cliché-filled dunce knows, it is forbidden in the Indian Constitution to say “hello” or “namaste” to a Muslim.
Interestingly though, Johar unwittingly betrays his own prejudices by indulging in a spot of stereotyping in precisely those sequences in the film: the Hindu character is the only one who does not speak Urdu-laden Hindi, the Muslims both speak Hindi choc-a-bloc with Urdu, whereas the Christian girl is not good at Hindi and needs to have words translated for her. Et tu, KJo?
Sometimes the impact of individual grouses is diminished by the impact of a film’s positives. That does not happen in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil in which every positive is overshadowed by the awareness that so much of what we see in the film has been seen before.
Something about Saba and Alizeh’s styling and speech and certain conversational indicators also made me wonder whether these two women had originally been written as Pakistanis, before Maharashtra Navnirman Sena decreed that all Pakistanis should be persona non grata in Bollywood. We are never told where Saba is originally from – a non-mention that is in itself worth noticing – and Alizeh pointedly says she is from Lucknow … But something is missing … There is a disconnect that is hard to explain. If they were originally written as Pakistanis, then clearly so were DJ Ali and Alizeh’s boyfriend Faisal. Were they? Will Johar ever tell?
That a political party with a track record of violence and government patronage might have compelled an artist to re-write a story… the possibility is too heartbreaking to handle, so I am setting aside the thought for the moment. It is easier to deal with the artistic merits of the film.
ADHM has many elements worth loving: my pick of the lot is the manner in which the music is used – a perfect illustration of the musical genre shorn of Bollywood’s past mindlessness on this front – and the handling of the sub-plot featuring Kapoor and Bachchan. In its entirety though, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is not an immersive experience and after a while I lost interest in its rigmarole of relationships, the many datings and matings, break-ups and patch-ups, marriages, divorces, friendships and the one-way scenarios involved.
I neither loved nor hated this film. I neither liked nor disliked it. I simply did not mind it – and that is never a compliment.
Rating (out of five stars): **1/2
CBFC Rating (India):
Poster courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ae_Dil_Hai_Mushkil