Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani Movie Review: Karan Johar Wins Hearts and Updates the Bollywood Spectacle

Starring Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt, the film is about how tradition is schooled by modernity
Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani Movie Review: Karan Johar
Wins Hearts and Updates the Bollywood Spectacle

Director: Karan Johar

Writers: Shashank Khaitan, Sumit Roy, Ishita Moitra

Cast: Alia Bhatt, Ranveer Singh, Aamir Bashir, Tota Roy Chowdhury, Churni Ganguly, Shabana Azmi, Jaya Bachchan, Dharmendra

Duration: 169 minutes

Available in: Theatres

In the real world, generational gaps are irreversible. Not only are we fundamentally different from our parents, we also keep leaving our previous selves behind. Neither side really changes. More importantly, neither side has the humility to change. It’s why I love the ‘transformation scene’ in Hindi cinema. The moment where youngsters get inspired by the antiquity of their predecessors. The moment where veterans and patriarchs find within themselves the courage to improve, to listen, to progress, to admit they were too rigid. It’s such pure fantasy that, for Indian moviegoers, it’s like watching an action set-piece.

The action of transformation is the cornerstone of Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani, a film in which two young lovers swap families for three months as a compatibility exercise. It’s designed like an exchange program: Men get schooled by women; a regressive Punjabi household gets schooled by a headstrong Bengali; brains get schooled by bodies; lust gets schooled by love; old people get schooled by young; and most of all, tradition gets schooled by modernity. It’s silly, funny, gaudy, entertaining, emotional and everything else that’s been missing from mainstream Hindi cinema in recent years.

Unity in Diversity: The Rocky and Rani Edition

Rani Chatterjee (Alia Bhatt) and Rocky Randhawa (Ranveer Singh) meet in unusual circumstances. She is a fierce TV journalist with an uppity mother (Churni Ganguly) and a kathak-teaching father (Tota Roy Chowdhury). He is a flashy sweetshop scion with a tyrannical grandma (Jaya Bachchan) and scheming dad (Aamir Bashir). They have nothing in common. But an incomplete love story unites them. Rocky’s grandfather (a poignantly cast Dharmendra), whose memory is fading, had a fleeting romance in 1978 with a woman who turns out to be Rani’s grandmother (Shabana Azmi).

While getting them back in touch – contact rejuvenates the old man in true Bollywood style – Rocky and Rani fall for each other. Her self-seriousness is deflated by his inanity. The problem is that it’s not only all about loving your family in 2023, it’s also about making them earn that love. So instead of eloping or living in, the two embark on the three-month social experiment. More than ‘winning over’ the families, it’s about understanding each other’s ways so that the differences don’t derail their eventual marriage.

Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt during the 'Dhindora Baje Re' sequence
Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt during the 'Dhindora Baje Re' sequence

Ranveer and Alia's Dynamic Duo

Oh, and it’s also a nice excuse to cut Ranveer Singh loose as Ranveer Singh. It’s the sort of nutty role that thrives on the sheer anticipation of what he might do or say; the possibilities are endless. It helps that he can switch from humour to emotion – without diluting either – in the blink of an eye. It also helps that Singh’s chemistry with Alia Bhatt is the stuff of big-budget dreams. Their energy is similar, which is why their textual tension is off the charts. At first, it appears that Rani is amused by her intellectual superiority to Rocky. But it’s a testament to Bhatt’s talent that Rani’s flirty laugh goes from patronizing to affectionate (with the subtlest of pitch-changes) after she is called out for her elitism.

The two actors are charming enough to tide over the few cracks in the film – like Rani’s very basic influence on Rocky’s long-suffering mother and sister, or Rocky’s random rant against Cancel Culture for the sake of ideological balance. I like that the narrative leans more towards changing the conservatives (him) than the liberals (her), but in the end it stops just short of fully dismissing the offenders. You can almost sense the makers thinking, Okay, too far, that’s it, no more. It reminded me of Anil Kapoor’s fate in JugJugg Jeeyo (2022), an equally perceptive film from the same production house that stopped inches short of punishing his character’s sexism. I’d also like to imagine that Rocky is the one who moves into Rani’s home after the wedding, because it validates my enjoyment of a movie that’s too alert to sabotage itself so late in the game. I mean, why else are we watching Rocky transform from a gym-bro into a woke-gym-bro? Why else is Rani spared the cultural audit of the screenplay?

Karan Johar's Journey as a Storyteller

But the reason Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani works is because the film itself is a real-world transformation scene. The context is the clincher. This is Karan Johar’s 7th feature in a 25-year career. Watching it is like watching the director wrestling and challenging previous versions of himself. At some level, it’s like seeing the storyteller become the story. The look is the same, but the voice feels older and wiser. The “swaad wahi, soch nayi (same flavour, new philosophy)” tagline that Rani comes up with for Rocky’s sinking sweet empire applies to this film as well. The new ad spot they make – where gender roles are reversed in what looks like a Nineties’ Rajshri movie scene – goes viral for its progressive values. Even the chiffon-sari-in-snow song still happens, but this time it’s the girl pining for the boy after rejecting him. This glossy self-scrutiny is something Sooraj Barjatya did with last year’s sleeper hit, Uunchai (2022), except Johar’s attempt feels more personal and informed. Think Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (2023), where Johar is both Mattel and the subversive swipe at its iconic doll. 

Alia Bhatt and Ranveer Singh
Alia Bhatt and Ranveer Singh

As a result, all those retro and self-referential quips that usually dot Dharma Productions’ titles unfold with a sense of purpose. The roster is long and colourful. A showdown between Rani and Rocky brings to mind the moment in Taal (1999), where Akshaye Khanna’s Manav scolds Aishwarya Rai’s Mansi for ‘disrespecting’ his father. Veer-Zaara (2004) emerges when two old flames – who were once separated by circumstances – make up for lost time, while the young lovers passionately make out at the corner of the frame. Given Rani’s Bengali family, there’s a fair bit of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas (2002); a ‘Dola re Dola’ performance single-handedly breaks the toxic link between popular cinema and gender stereotypes. It’s the kind of writing (by Sumit Roy, Shashank Khaitan and Ishita Moitra) that transcends parody to address the director’s own handling of such themes over the years.

Homage to Mohabbatein

There’s also a lot of Aditya Chopra’s Mohabbatein (2000), the original clash-of-generations blockbuster whose forward-thinking was ironically undone by Johar’s own Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) a year later. Only, the men are substituted with women. Alia Bhatt is the Raj Aryan who threatens to shake the foundation of a loveless space with punchlines about “changing winds,” while Jaya Bachchan is the zero-tolerance Narayan Shankar waiting to be converted. At one point, the young couple even dances defiantly on a festival in front of the crabby matriarch. (Technically, Mohabbatein had the same family-switching plot…except one partner was spending time with her potential in-laws in heaven). It may look like Jaya Bachchan is reduced to a one-note caricature, but if you’re in on the joke – that she’s spoofing every North Indian movie patriarch immortalised by Amitabh Bachchan – it’s a worthy pursuit. 

How Karan Johar Balances Tradition and Modernity

Despite a reactive style that counts on our reading of his filmography, Johar’s strength is that he can still push those buttons with old-school conviction. Trust Karan Johar to make confessional cinema – the sub-genre where vintage directors sportingly tackle their blind spots and drill holes in their own legacies – without compromising on the Karan Johar brand of film-making.

It doesn’t feel dishonest, as can often be the case with films that fetishise their own self-awareness. In a way, the give-and-take premise of Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani reflects our relationship – as an evolving internet-era audience – with a quintessential ‘KJo’ movie. Over time, both sides seem to have ironed out their differences and listened to each other a little. Some of us have learned to accept and miss the excesses of the Bollywood spectacle, while this spectacle has learned to dispute tradition and update its social language. The metaphor is even stronger if you consider that one side has reached further than the other. After all, transformation is the cornerstone of every unlikely love story.

Watch Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani Official Trailer

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