After Ishita Moitra watched Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in 1998, she started wearing a red headband to school. Referencing Karan Johar’s filmography is a habit that’s only intensified after she wrote the dialogues for his latest movie, Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani. Recently, when someone asked her what the process felt like, she found herself quoting lyrics from one of Kal Ho Naa Ho’s (2003) songs to them: “Cheezein main rakh ke bhool jaati hoon be-khayali mein gungunati hoon (I have become forgetful of where I keep my stuff, and I mindlessly hum to myself)”.
“It feels so good to be part of this feel-good cinema that I grew up watching and loving,” she said. Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani follows the protein shake-swigging Punjabi Rocky Randhawa (Ranveer Singh) and the more level-headed, sharp-tongued Bengali Rani Chatterjee (Alia Bhatt) who fall in love but worry about a culture clash between their families. They come up with an ideal movie-plot solution: Swap houses so they can get to know each other’s families better. Moitra, who has previously written dialogue for films and shows such as Four More Shots Please (2019) and Shakuntala Devi (2020), spoke about developing the film’s humour, Johar’s pitch to her and what she thinks happens to the characters after the credits roll:
The first half of Rocky Aur Rani is, to me, the funniest a Karan Johar film has been and a lot of that is down to the dialogues. You reference a lot of pop culture, like the phrase “Wakanda Forever”, but the film is also very meta. The scene in which Rani asks Rocky who the president is reminded me of Alia's Koffee With Karan episode. Tell me about these influences.
In terms of the “Wonder Woman Wakanda Forever” bit, these are films that somebody like Rocky would watch in today's India. People watch a lot of Hollywood (films), much more than ever before. These are the references that one hears. Even when you’re with your friends, you see so many people make Thanos references. It wasn’t that I was consciously thinking of doing anything meta, it’s just that I was having fun with the characters. When you get a character like Rocky to write for, you can go quite insane. And he has the perfect foil in a character like Rani. You need someone as smart and aware and also self-aware as her to ask Rocky questions like where West Bengal is, and then for Rocky to have those reactions.
The idea was just to have fun. My references are all real people, particularly for Rocky — I’ve seen a lot of Rockys in Delhi. All these gym bros. There’s a certain way in which they speak, like, “Hello, hows you?” It’s really fun. The idea was not to make fun of those characters. Rocky himself calls out people for their elitism because they make fun of his English. He’s not afraid to be who he is and he is not afraid to speak in a language which he doesn’t fully know or understand. He’s full of confidence and flamboyance and that’s really enjoyable to watch, and also to write for. Jaya Bachchan plays her version of Yash Raichand from K3G (Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, 2001) in this film and she was amazing too.
We had a lot of meta references that didn’t end up making it into the film. The idea was that the whole film is an ode to Hindi cinema, and that’s how the meta moments came in – what is Hindi cinema without Karan Johar?
When you write a joke, do you have a method to test how it’s landing? Do you read them out to friends? Do you say them out loud and see what they sound like?
In the beginning, I say it aloud to myself again and again and I remove the flab. Say I’ve written five jokes for a scene, the three best ones make it in. I would send them to Karan and then we would have meetings and he would say, “This is landing, this you can do better”. He was constantly involved in the writing process. Whenever there was something we both laughed at then we knew that it was working. He also narrated the story to many people and we looked at what was getting laughs.
What was Karan Johar’s pitch to you like? Did you know this was going to be the tonality from the beginning?
I had been writing a show called Call Me Bae for Amazon Prime Video starring Ananya Pandey and another film, which is now being directed by Anant Tiwari. Karan had read my work and so his producer Somen Mishra called me one day and he said “Karan wants to talk to you about his film”. I was like, “Main thehri rahi zameen chalne lagi” (I was still but the land beneath me was moving). Then we met and he told me the crux of the story and I was super excited. I’m a Delhi Bong and this is a story set in Delhi, and I speak Punjabi. I can actually read and write Punjabi as well. So, here I was and he was telling me that he wants me to write this story about the Chatterjees and the Randhawas and I was like ‘God! What is happening? Thank you, universe.’ It was the right place, right time.
We discussed Ranveer being a male version of Poo from K3G, who I think was really, really hilarious. So I knew that was the tone I had to nail. I don’t know if this is the funniest film Karan’s ever done – I find Kal Ho Naa Ho and K3G hilarious. But we knew Rocky was inherently funny and inherently good, and we could do something with that. And so whenever he was pitted against any other character, that was a situation that created humour — it was inherent to who Rocky was.
What are some of the best Ranveer improvisations in the film?
He improvised a lot. For instance, whenever Rocky sees Somen, he calls him, "Shobha", "Sonam" or something else. Ranveer came up with that. He’s a genius. Eventually, Rocky became an extension of him.
Even though the film is so meta and self-referential, it is also subversive of Karan Johar’s earlier films. If those are all about loving your parents, this one asks, ‘What if your parents are not deserving of that love?’
Rocky Aur Rani is about standing up to your parents. That’s what Karan wanted it to be. I can’t take any credit for it. He wanted to update that idea.
The film is a lot about the stereotypes Bengalis and Punjabis are subjected to but it also leans into a lot of those stereotypes. What was it like to find that balance?
Eventually, whatever anyone thinks of the other, all those stereotypes are shattered. Like, if you think we are fat-shaming a character, by the end you will know we’re not fat-shaming anyone. The characters within the film are judging each other and eventually, they all learn to love and accept each other for who they really are. The same thing happens for the audience as well. Even if you think, “Oh, this is a stereotypical Bengali family” or “This is a stereotypical Punjabi family”, you will see who these people are beyond the stereotypes. And this happens in the second half, once Rocky and Rani go to each other's homes. We needed to set up those stereotypes to break them.
Tell me a little bit about the tonal shift between the first half and second-half of the film. The first-half is a lot more light-hearted, funny and the second half becomes a lot more serious and message-heavy.
Yeah, the first half is a romcom, and then it becomes a family drama. If you remember, films in the past used to be everything. When you watched a masala Hindi film, you had action and you had romance and you had comedy and you had drama. It used to be like a thali. It’s just now we have started looking at other industries and seeing how they work, and now letting ourselves be defined by genre. But that was never who we were before. The film was always going to be like this because once the characters go into each other’s homes, they will encounter different people and there will be drama and then also conflict. There are people who want to make sure that Rocky and Rani’s relationship doesn’t last, which is why they are creating drama. Meanwhile, Rani is a feisty girl who won't take anything lying down. So this is all a set-up for more drama.
One of the best bits in the film is the ‘Dola Re Dola’ sequence. Can you talk to me about scripting that? Was that always going to be the choice of song?
Yeah, it was always going to be ‘Dola Re Dola’. We had discussed where the sequence would come in the film and we didn’t think there was a more fitting song than that. The original has two of the most beautiful women in India doing Kathak. It’s an iconic song for a reason. I don’t think there could have been a song better than that to subvert that and portray the kind of masculinity that we wanted to represent. The scene is also about Rocky being freed of his fears, right? I think it does that beautifully.
The film has a strong feminist bent. It starts with Alia giving that whole speech about rape and then it keeps coming back to the idea that women, once they are married, stop working. To a certain segment of the audience, these are things that we know but were you hoping to reach other parts of the audience with this and educate them?
Yes, absolutely. Even in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), Simran is actually fighting against the patriarchy. Her father has decided for her how she’s going to spend her life. Then he comes around and love wins, right? Rani is a news anchor and has her own voice and she also makes a living based on her opinions, right? She wouldn't just sit around and watch anything that she thinks is unfair happen around her. It’s established right in the beginning that she won't take shit from anyone, even if it is a political elite. That’s where it came from. We verbalised some of these ideas and I’ve seen people weeping at the end of the film and really considering the idea of “Kya yeh rishtein hai ya samjhote hai?” (Are these actual relations or just compromises?).
When Rani comes into the world of Rocky’s mother and sister, they all realise that there is another way of living (your) life, in which you don’t have to crush your dreams, in which you don’t have to be decorated like a ladoo and presented to potential suitors for marriage. She’s the catalyst for change in their house.
A scene that I really love was the big romantic speech that Rani gives Rocky on the road in which she’s like ‘Come over to this side’. What goes into the art of writing a grand romantic speech?
For me, it’s a very sweet moment because we rarely see women propose. I knew that this is the kind of character Rani would be – she would have gone to Columbia (University) and LSR (Lady Shri Ram College). While writing it, I just went deep into myself and thought about the time before my husband and I were married, and everything I wanted to say to him and how I felt.
There's a love story between Shabana Azmi and Dharmendra, but what the film glosses over is that Dharmendra is essentially cheating on his wife. It’s instead presented as a sweet love story. Can you talk me through that decision?
It's not treated in the same way as one is used to seeing infidelity presented. It was a call that Karan took. We wanted it to be a sweet love story that happened in the seventies, which both parties forgot about, and now the man is ill with Alzheimer’s. In the present, he’s not even aware of what he’s doing. It’s Rocky trying to give him a little bit of love. This is a man who has lived all his life alone on a wheelchair and without any love from his wife or his son. Rocky is trying to give him a little bit of love before he passes away. That is the lens through which Karan wanted to see it as opposed to passing any moral judgement on it. It’s less about judgement and more about emotions. It’s established that both partners have had bad marriages. Jamini (Shabana Azmi) also had an abusive partner. Both of them got very little of the sunshine of a happy relationship, but they decided to walk away from each other instead of breaking up their families.
Tell me a little bit about the ending. It’s interesting that Dhanalakshmi isn’t reunited with the rest of her family, and it isn’t a completely happy ending. What went into that choice?
We discussed that a character like Dhanalakshmi wouldn’t come back and start dancing with them because that’s not who she is. At the same time, for her character just to have even acknowledged that what she has done was wrong, and made a peace offering is huge. She gives Rani the recipe for the sweet boondi (ke) ladoo, which is everything to her. Dhanalakshmi has been shown as a very ambitious woman who started from one sweet shop and turned it into a 2000-crore empire. Her ego won’t let her come face-to-face with Rocky and Rani. It felt more real that she would acknowledge it, but that she was going to take her time. Maybe in a few years.
What do you think happens after the credits roll? Because the dilemma between Rocky and Rani initially is that they don’t know where they are going to live. And by the end, they still haven’t decided.
They are going to live in their own house. Tijori and his wife and his daughter will become a unit and they will re-discover their family bonds. Both families, the Chatterjees and the Randhawas will have a very, very good equation now with Rocky and Rani, who will have an independent life.