Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani Movie Review: Karan Johar's Comeback Film Revels in Alia Bhatt And Ranveer Singh’s Chemistry

The film marks 25 years for Karan Johar in Bollywood as a director, and also stars Shabana Azmi, Dharmendra, and Jaya Bachchan
Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani Movie Review: Karan Johar's Comeback Film Revels in Alia Bhatt And Ranveer Singh’s Chemistry

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

Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani Movie Review

A strange question looms over Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani. Do the leads — the Bengali Rani (Alia Bhatt) and the Punjabi Rocky (Ranveer Singh) — have chemistry? 

On the one hand you can say, that if we have to ask the question, then the answer must be no. Chemistry is intuitive, immediately grasped, and eternally locked, right? There has been a lot of pointed chatter online about this. A viral tweet asked why Ranveer Singh, for example, jerked his head back when Alia Bhatt’s hair whipped it with her twirl in "Tum Kya Mile"? A similar moment featuring Shah Rukh Khan breathing in Kajol’s whipped hair from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) was deposited as evidence of contrast. Why does this longing feel glossy, as though Johar was more charmed by the gloss than the love? I felt a frigidity, too, in the way the two shared space — like two stars being stars, by themselves, separately — but reserved judgement because so much of chemistry is also what happens before, the things left said and unsaid, stewing in the gap between lovers as they lock eyes (or lips). 

And that is, perhaps, the greatest vindication of Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani — it gives chemistry context. This is not cloth-ripping intensity, but a more familiar, easier, less desperate kind of longing. When they kiss, it isn’t about it being inevitable as much as it is comfortable. Off-screen they call each other "sakhis" (companions). Their brand of chemistry, too, is coloured by this easy, unbothered companionship. You don’t have to see them come together. They already look together. 

Quirky Blend of Love, Laddoos, and Cultural Contrasts

Rani works for a news channel, Rocky works at a gym — and also for his grandmother’s (Jaya Bachchan) laddoo company, Dhanlakshmi Sweets, named after her. This would be the second big-budget film this year with a gorgeous, ab-inflected Punjabi hero in Delhi working lazily — hazily, barely — at his parent’s company, thumbed under a matriarch, falling in love with a woman cut from a culturally different cloth, far more ambitious than he is — the other being Tu Jhoothi Main Makkaar (2023).

What connects Rocky and Rani at first is not love, but something stranger. Rocky’s grandfather Kanwal (Dharmendra) and Rani’s grandmother Jamini (Shabana Azmi) spent a few days a few decades ago in Shimla, with just their ache and one half of a photo as memory. Rocky and Rani, in their pursuit to unite them, get united themselves. A lovely medley that references all of the old croons from "Yeh Shaam Mastani" from Kati Patang (1971) to "Aaj Mausam Bada Beimaan Hai" (which had Dharmendra) from Loafer (1973) plays out to both couples coupling — one cooing and the other kissing against Delhi’s monuments. 

Alia Bhatt (L) and Ranveer Singh (R) in a still from the movie
Alia Bhatt (L) and Ranveer Singh (R) in a still from the movie

To pair an old and a young couple is not new — Love Aaj Kal (2009) and OK Kanmani (2015) also furnished an older, more stable couple to steer the course of the rudderless younger couple. That is not the only familiar trope tapped. To have cross cultural love affairs souring because of the cultural gap — no, chasm — was mined for humour in both 2 States (2014) and Vicky Donor (2012). 

This is the thing about Karan Johar’s cinema. From Mohammad Rafi to Diljit Dosanjh, it derives from so much, so widely, and yet is never derivative. If you flip this sentence around, however, and chew over its implications, you can see the chinks emerging. How can a film both play an ode to the past and ground itself firmly in the present? Does it not smell of cultural anxiety — to be relevant to as many people as possible, casting a net so wide that it has nothing to do but snap? 

A Nostalgic Soaring Tale of Love and Humor

Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani, though, never snaps. It soars, endlessly, because it energises — not defines — itself with these references. The film in the first half comes so close to collapsing because so much of it plays out gorgeously — but statically — to old music. Like Johar’s last film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016), it has made an ode into narrative trope, and spot-the-reference an extreme sport. Nostalgia can only take you so far. The rest is cinema, which is Johar’s home turf — burnished with Eka Lakhani and Manish Malhotra’s costume design which is full of colour blocking, pushing the boundaries of silhouettes and cuts and prints and pairings, with the Manish Malhotra ankle length sari and the Sabyasachi angrakha with pleats that flare when twirled. Take the music, which vibrates with a swooning intensity for scenes after. Or even the scene where Rani professes her love for Rocky, in the middle of Delhi traffic with their faces lit by the headlamps of cars zooming about.

There is a tonal shift between the film’s two halves, and those schooled in the glistening classrooms of Johar’s filmography will know this — burying the emotional strains of the film in humour in the first half, and dousing it in melodrama in the second. Johar is a sensational comedic director with a clear sense of how the cinematic cut, the zoom, the scoring, can elevate a funny moment into a rip-roaring one. Some scenes are so unstable, you almost feel the humour is upending, distracting from the emotional thrust of the scene. But the thrust is kept for later. The humour sparkles throughout the first hour. The melodrama, though, shines only as bright punctures every now and then, but enough to keep the night lit. 

Melodrama & Morality in Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani

The melodrama takes the form of an extended catechism. All characters teach and are taught. Rocky’s mother (Kshitee Jog) dreams of being a singer but is too meek against her abrasive husband (Aamir Bashir) to assert herself or her talent, and has raised a daughter (Anjali Anand), who also hides her talent, in financial trading of all things (the most off-beat as far as Dharma jobs go; remember Alizeh from Ae Dil Hai Mushkil who would spend her days between yoga, Bollywood Zumba, and French lessons?).

Ranveer Singh (L) and Alia Bhatt (R) in a still from the movie
Ranveer Singh (L) and Alia Bhatt (R) in a still from the movie

Rani’s father (Tota Roy Chowdhury) teaches and performs kathak — this gives space for one of the most moving and secure expressions of masculinity in Hindi cinema. Her mother (Churni Ganguly), an English professor, is haunted by the spirit of Shashi Tharoor — both his vocabulary and his pride in it. Everyone has something to impart or learn. For the most part, the Bengalis teach, and the Punjabis learn. Rani teaches, Rocky learns.

The thing about morals in melodrama is that it is never about the morals, but the conviction of melodrama that matters. Johar does not give a character a background story of domestic abuse because he is moved by the violence. It is to shore up the dramatic momentum of the film. The morals can be flat — easy, convenient, bourgeois — but it is how these morals rumble into monologues, how they are delivered, the way you walk away, the way you pause, the crinkle of the nose, the glazed eyes. Rani keeps spouting Feminism 101 like a leaking tap with this patronising pout, and it never rankles because the grating simplification of every interaction into victim-saviour, oppressed-oppressor is overcome by the sheer force of her kohl-eyed presence. Rocky’s earnestness leaks from every pore of his gaze, it is a heartbreaking performance. This is what, perhaps, people call charisma, the capacity to not just elevate a film but transcend it. 

Jaya Bachchan's Comically Stern Role

Jaya Bachchan is playing up her public image, eternally unsatisfied, comically stern. The film begins with her and ends with her nowhere in sight, and perhaps that best describes how Johar sees her character — as a figure of authority who must be first weakened, then blurred out. Redemption is like a scarce resource, not to be wasted; his narrative only gives some characters so much of it. It is a smart decision, but as a film, it plays out as an incomplete arc. A lot of the film feels hasty because too much has to be taught, to be learned, and after a point, the film is aware that pedagogy is not narrative. Abruptly, but thankfully, it swerves to an end, using that lazy “few months later” crutch to tie the bow over the film.

A Predictable Yet Poignant Ending

Now, unless you thought that Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani was a horror film or an edgy and subversive stab at modern love, this won’t come as a spoiler. At the end, as the dust first raised gets settled, Rocky and Rani end up married. We even see shots of her wedding attire in the teaser — that’s how deeply predictable the genre is. But the film does not give this marriage the dignity of the big screen. It is flung into a post-credits smaller square, for people to peek at on their way out, much like OK Kanmani did. But some of the most moving, striking moments, shot by Manush Nandan, are buried here, the way the lights flare into semi-circles, the way the blurs hone in your attention, the soft ivoriness of the whole thing pricked at by Shabana Azmi’s gorgeous, colourful sari, the way characters look at one another, sighing, thinking how far they have come and that strange odyssey they just experienced. 

One question lurks uneasily, which Tu Jhoothi Main Makkaar unsatisfyingly but clearly articulated. Where will the couple stay after marriage? This was the central issue that spurred the film’s thudding second half. But in the larger context, this is not important. The film isn’t interested in making a statement as much as it is in how it is making that statement. Form over substance, always. That they (and the jhumka) fell in love, is enough for Johar. What next, where next, who is to know, who is to care?

Watch Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani Official Trailer

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