ADHM Review: An original idea of love, thwarted by recycled images of love

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is probably Johar’s most cynical film, but then he sugarcoats it with a YRF-style Bollywood-tribute.

Director: Karan Johar

Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Fawad Khan

Rating: 2 stars

A film tells you much about its maker. Back in 1998, as a young man coming to terms with life, Karan Johar explored the concept of love and friendship as a binary equation in the triangular rom-com, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Friendship had a short-haired, spunky androgynous face; love had a long-haired, sari-clad glow of womanhood. This made poignant sense to dreamy-eyed school-going boys like myself. Tomboys would always bloom into beautiful Indian flowers, we were assured. But the fact is that if Rahul’s wife Tina hadn’t died, he wouldn’t have bothered with Anjali – no matter how she looked – ever again.

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Eighteen years later, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil surfaces as a good-looking apology to that line of thought. “Love is Friendship” has now turned into “Isn’t friendship a different kind of love?” This is a complex question, and a worthy one. Johar has aged, and his understanding of feelings has evolved. It has acquired a throbbing pain, a glassy-eyed maturity that only comes with experience.

Johar has aged, and his understanding of feelings has evolved. It has acquired a throbbing pain, a glassy-eyed maturity that only comes with experience.

This is perhaps his most cynical film, and yet there’s a sense that he doesn’t want to sound so bitter – which is where his sugarcoated, YRF-style Bollywood-tribute syndrome steps in.This time it isn’t gender stereotypes, but language and music used as an allegory; love is poetic and passionate Urdu, and friendship is contemporary fast-food Hindi.

The two in this film who feel true and uncontrollable love, the kind associated with legendary tragedies and stories, are genuine creators of art, words and music. The two who’re conflicted about the texture of love are professional drifters – a DJ who remixes original tunes for a living, and the quintessential all-rounder who serves as a transient muse to both.

Johar is perhaps starting to feel something that Imtiaz Ali forever feels through his own stories. He wants to say the same things, but is confused about how to say them differently. His coming-of-age voice feels a little too late on the scene, a little too recycled and not loaded enough. Which is why the first thirty minutes of his latest drips of a familiar unconventionality.

Johar is perhaps starting to feel something that Imtiaz Ali forever feels through his own stories. He wants to say the same things, but is confused about how to say them differently.

We’re made to notice how poor little rich boy (RanbirKapoor, as Ayan) and life-loving girl (Anushka Sharma, as Alizeh) meet in a faraway land, a la Jab We Met and Tamasha.They interact like forward-thinking modern-day social-media characters; a bad kiss turns into a strange friendship full of bold self-aware chatter and hat-tips to Johar’s own filmography. The catchy breakup song is a perfect extension of their unnaturally bindaas chemistry.

Ayan is a wealthy lost boy (now where has Ranbir done that before?) and an aspiring singer (now where has Ranbir done that before?). Alizeh is, well, Anushka Sharma, for lack of a better term. She is awfully expressive, saddled with the most complicated role of the film.

When she hears Ayan sing for the first time, she tells him something he had heard in Rockstar – only true heartbreak inspires great artistry. What happens next will not shock you. Ayan can’t get over Alizeh, who can’t get over her ex, Ali (Fawad Khan; limited to beard-and-cigarette love). Throw in the cougar-like red-lipsticked Saba (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) and her fleeting ex-husband, and this becomes the Human Centipede of unrequited love.

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Every time there’s heartbreak and sad smileys (and there’s a lot of them), the diehard romantic in Johar can’t contain himself from being lyrical and lofty-dialogue-ish about things. It’s in his DNA. Words like junoon, khwahish and ibadat are spoken as cinematic moods. But this is 2016. He knows how unrealistic it sounds.

It’s in his DNA. Words like junoon, khwahish and ibadat are spoken as cinematic moods. But this is 2016. He knows how unrealistic it sounds.

Saba, therefore, is introduced as a professional shaayar, so that it becomes her job to sound mysterious and beautiful. Alizeh, too, comes from Lucknow to justify her grammatically tasteful bouts of melodrama. Ayan, who gets influenced by both, allows their refined rhythms to creep into his songs and his perception of darkness. He soon becomes the viewers’ eyes and ears, often even wondering why riddles and dialogues are necessary, and gently mocking all the cinematic ambiguity around him. For most part, these vocations and backgrounds seem like obvious justifications to go old-school on us.

To make doubly sure, we’re often reminded by the characters how corny they are; they get the filminess out of their system, and then laugh at themselves for sounding like nostalgic nutcases. At one point, they even drape themselves in flimsy jackets and chiffon sarees on a snowy peak to mimic a classic, only to end up a freezing mess. One can imagine Johar, the talk-show host, good-humoredly admitting here that selling dreams is a difficult and amusing process. But this self-referencing, self-depreciating tone doesn’t always work consistently in a film deliberately trying to be in denial about its depth.

One can imagine Johar, the talk-show host, good-humoredly admitting here that selling dreams is a difficult and amusing process. But this self-referencing, self-depreciating tone doesn’t always work consistently in a film deliberately trying to be in denial about its depth.

Which is why there’s an adult-like incoherence to Johar’s vision, too, like the cinematic equivalent of a trembling phone-call made to a jilted ex. Everything is channeled into the shape-shifting shoulders of his lead actor.

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Kapoor showcases himself as perhaps cinema’s finest crier and thrower of on-screen tantrums; you feel, again, for his man-childish ways, no matter how often he does it every year. He isn’t the Shah Rukh kind of crier; he weeps buckets if he has to, and is as effective with the silent single-tear sob. He asks improper questions, and even begs, whereas yesteryear heroes would maintain a dignified, suppressed silence.

Kapoor showcases himself as perhaps cinema’s finest crier and thrower of on-screen tantrums; you feel, again, for his man-childish ways, no matter how often he does it every year.

The vortex he is caught in, though, takes a direction and form of its own – where every outburst, breakdown, lost-puppy expression and huff becomes the film’s last resort. If nothing else works, the script then throws him more unnecessary reasons to have meltdowns about. It doesn’t feel like he belongs to this world of designer-bag love and sadness; there’s more to him, perhaps because of directors like Ayan Mukerji and Imtiaz Ali may have conditioned us to think.

In many ways, he looks a lot like a young Raj Kapoor trudging through the ruins of a very disparaging environment. He is his own animal and deserves a happier ending – both, from his filmmakers, as well as his films. Much like the roles he essays, there’s a unique interpreter of human behavior in him. It hasn’t been tapped enough yet. Perhaps it could soon be time to make his own luck, by making his own films. By giving himself the platform he deserves. It’s in those genes, after all.

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