Director: Karan Johar
Writer: Ishita Moitra, Shashank Khaitan, Sumit Roy
Cast: Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, Dharmendra, Jaya Bachchan, Shabana Azmi
Duration: 169 minutes
Available in: Theatres
In the dazzling Durga puja song, 'Dhindora Baje Re' in Rocky aur Rani kii Prem Kahani, Rocky and Rani defiantly sing: "Ishq se badh ke dharam kya? (What could be more virtuous than love?)" Both are swivelling around Rocky’s horrified, disapproving grandmother. It’s a contemporary version of "Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya" from Mughal-e-Azam (1960). That sentiment – love is the greatest religion – is the operating principle of this sparkling, boisterous, sometimes bloated, but always determined-to-entertain film. Underneath the blinding star power, overbearing opulence and overblown production design, Rocky aur Rani kii Prem Kahani has a generous, beating heart, which exhorts us all to love a little more and judge a little less.
Rocky and Rani are both residents of New Delhi but they might as well be inhabitants of different countries. He is Rocky Randhawa from Karol Bagh: Loud, exuberant, Punjabi; the protein-shake drinking, faulty-English speaking heir to the massive mithai empire that his grandmother has built. This is a man mostly dressed head-to-toe in Gucci, who carries a gold-plated visiting card. Meanwhile Rani is the Columbia University-educated firebrand Bengali broadcast journalist who isn’t afraid to give a powerful politician a dressing down on her show. Of course, her wardrobe, consisting mainly of stunning saris, would be out-of-reach for many women working in television. But director Karan Johar, like Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’s iconic play, A Streetcar Named Desire, has no interest in realism. He wants magic.
You might argue that a woman like Rani would never fall for a man like Rocky but Karan and his writers – Ishita Moitra, Shashank Khaitan and Sumit Roy – not only make this love story believable, they make it pleasurable. The first half of the film is a breezy mix of romance, laugh-out-loud comedy and shameless exploitation of nostalgia and old Hindi film songs. Dharmendra, playing Rocky’s grandfather, and Shabana Azmi, playing Rani’s grandmother have a moment here that will make you gasp and sigh and want to run out and buy a Saregama Carvaan so that you can relive the beauty and melody of old songs again. These tunes are also used extensively in the background score. The film’s own soundtrack, with music by Pritam and lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya, never hits the high notes of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil but my favorite, "Ve Kamleya", has the ache and yearning to make it endure.
The fun leaks out a little in the second half when Rocky and Rani decide to prove the strength of their love by living with each other’s families for three months. The plot becomes more sombre and more determined to deliver social messaging – this is a film that bats for inclusivity. It shows us how patriarchy curdles even the closest relationships and suffocates even those who have power. In one scene, a son delivers a terrific dialogue when he tells his mother that she didn’t give him "sanskar" (tradition); she only gave him the "ahankar" (arrogance) of being male.
Rocky aur Rani kii Prem Kahani insists that women have a right to dream and soar and that their careers are not by default, a stumbling block to nourishing family ties. It recognises that senior citizens can also feel love and desire. Most importantly, the film asks that we accept flaws, in ourselves and in each other, and that we allow people to evolve and grow. In one deeply moving scene, Rocky tells Rani’s family that he is the way he is because, until now, he didn’t know better. He has been conditioned to believe certain things and behave a certain way. Which is why wokeness and cancel culture must make place for compassion.
These conversations are necessary and refreshingly new for Hindi cinema but the screenplay isn’t able to seamlessly make room for them. The plotting becomes simplistic and convenient and almost breaks under the weight of what the film wants to say. And when the writing falters, all the beauty and the expensive splendour has a sort of flattening, blandifying effect. The palatial mansions, fancy cars and exquisite clothes, by Manish Malhotra and Eka Lakhani, start to distract. (Though the designers have done such a fabulous job that I hope Karan Johar starts a Rocky aur Rani fashion label.)
Thankfully the director manages to steer past the soft spots on the strength of sheer emotion. This has always been his forte. For 25 years, he has made cinema that isn’t rooted in any known reality or location or politics. His reality comes from the rawness and bigness of the drama and sentiment. You remember that moment in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016), when Ayan tells Alizeh minutes before her wedding that he loves her and that he wishes her groom and she would die. And then he gives her the middle finger.
Rocky aur Rani kii Prem Kahani treads lighter. The film also stays buoyant because of the irresistible energy of Ranveer Singh. The actor is back in form as court jester, flamboyant lover and closet feminist. He combines the charm offensive with moments of vulnerability and tears with great aplomb. Alia Bhatt is also very good as Rani who has zero fear of confrontation or conflict. Their combined skills give this unlikely romance an ease and conviction.
The elders are also solid. It’s fitting that eight years after the superb AIB mockumentary Genius of the Year in which Alia goes from Dolce and Gabbana to being smart like Azmi, Alia is actually playing her intelligent, feisty grand-daughter. Azmi, resplendent in her beautifully designed clothes, brings empathy and sweetness to the role. Celebrated Bengali actors Tota Roy Chowdhury and Churni Ganguly are lovely and Dharamendra brings oodles of old-world charm. But the writers aren’t able to do justice to Jaya Bachchan. Her character, the sour matriarch, is a blend of the characters Amitabh Bachchan played in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) and Mohabbatein (2000). In one scene, she even repeats his famous line from K3G, "Keh diya na, bas keh diya". But the film doesn’t give her any layering. She is just badly behaved and mostly, she stays that way.
Curiously, this is a film arguing against stereotyping that cheerfully dabbles in stereotyping. So Punjabis are earthy and raucous and Bengalis are intellectual and snooty. You will find echoes here of Vicky Donor (2012), Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Khubsoorat (1980) and Bawarchi (1972) – in both films, an outsider helps a family heal and reconnect - the Telugu romantic comedy Bommarillu (2006) in which the girl and boy live with each other’s families and even Karan’s own K3G. There is a shot during a funeral sequence in which the hands of a father and son unite in lighting a pyre that is exactly the same as that film — right down to the beautifully embroidered white kurtas.
And yet, Rocky aur Rani kii Prem Kahani is very much its own movie. It’s delicious eye-candy with a rebellious core. Despite the flabby portions, I exited with a smile, wishing that Rocky was real and wanting to give my family a jhappi. There can be no downside to that.