By Arnab Banerjee
Film: Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani Duration: 168 minutes
Director: Karan Johar Cast: Dharmendra, Jaya Bachchan, Shabana Azmi, Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt
Cinematography: Manush Nandan Music: Pritam
Family, love, differences between the couple and lots of drama have always been at the core of umpteen love stories. So what’s new about Karan Johar’s ‘Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani’?
There isn’t any, and yet there is some!
It’s so much that it’s ‘old wine in a new bottle’, and yet, there is a huge difference too. Besides the presence and the unique combination of veterans such as Dharmendra, Shabana Azmi and Jaya Bachchan, there’s the chemistry between Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt that is easily the highlight of this nearly three-hour-long family entertainer.
And yes, there’s Pritam’s foot-tapping music too, though what the audience seems to be enjoying the most are some of the most popular Hindi film hits from the ’60s through the ’80s — these have them singing along loudly.
That’s not all that makes this film special. For once, Johar takes several leaps forward and tries to wedge in many life lessons into the script that would make people sit and take note of. After all, we love bittersweet doses of messaging in glossy packaging — these are far easier to swallow.
It looks earnest and determined to make audiences have fun all the way. It is an unabashed family drama (though, thankfully, not a tearjerker) that will capture hearts when it isn’t inducing eye rolls. It clearly states, “For lovers, the steering wheel may be in their hands, but it’s the family navigating as backseat drivers.”
Delhi boy Rocky Randhawa (Singh) is a loud and flamboyant Punjabi young man who has the onerous task of living up to the expectations of his father, Tijori (Aamer Bashir), and tyrant grandmother Dhanlakshmi (Bachchan) as the “eklauta waris” who would take up the reins of the huge mithai business that seems more like an empire.
His grandfather, Kanwal Randhawa (Dharmendra), suffers memory loss from time to time, allowing his wife to rule the roost. Demanding and a stickler for discipline, Dhanlakshmi commands awe within the family to such an extent that her daughter-in-law (Kshitee Jog) and granddaughter Gayatri (Anjali Anand) are petrified of her. Even her obedient son, Tijori, doesn’t have much of an independent opinion in any family matter.
All’s well within the controlled lives of the family until one day at a party Kanwal makes an embarrassing gesture of kissing a guest (Sheeba) mistaking her to be someone he knew as Jamini. Rocky uncovers the secret name and unearths a black and white torn photo of a young Jamini (Azmi) Kanwal had known way back in 1978.
That’s enough for Rocky to embark on a mission along with his best friend (Abhinav Sharma) to get to the bottom of his grandfather’s unrequited love. When the Internet helps him trace television anchor Rani Chatterjee (Alia Bhatt), who lives with her parents (Churni Ganguly and Tota Roychowdhury), and grandmother Jamini Chatterjee (Azmi), he must meet them and arrange a meeting between the two.
He also charms his way into the heart of Rani, a firebrand no-nonsense young woman whose feminist views and fearless approach to the age-old patriarchal views has a minister she interviews live on television fuming.
Love may have a towering presence and conquer all, but the Chatterjees and the Randhawas are poles apart: their culture, their political views, their lifestyle and even language are colossal barriers. The Chatterjees are refined, classy and have a keen sense of poetry and music, for the Randhawas, it’s money power and ‘Khandaan ki izzat’ that holds sway.
As Rocky rides roughshod over Rani’s dignified ways, she gets drawn to him willy-nilly even if she can spot the chasm that separates the two diametrically opposite viewpoints of the two families. Both Rocky and Rani also arrange meetings between Jamini and Kanwal, much to Dhanlakshmi’s annoyance.
The dynamics between intellectual Chatterjees versus the crude though tradition-bound business family of the Randhawas doesn’t bother Rocky, but, after facing his family’s bitter opposition to their relationship, he and Rani decide to live with each other’s families for three months before getting married.
Writers Ishita Moitra, Shashank Khaitan and Sumit Roy have underlined the distinctive routine lifestyles that the Punjabis and the Bengalis inherit, and what’s more, flaunt proudly. Not resorting to denigrating the values held dear by the two communities, the film treads softly onto the subtle and not-so-subtle dissimilarities and disparities between the two.
That’s as far as the culturally diverse ways of looking at life goes. What makes Johar look within — though he could have delved deeper, after all, he had an ace idea to sink his teeth into — is the celebration of diversity that he believes is possible.
Interspersed with humour and songs, the backgrounds, ethnicities and ethos that the Punjabi-speaking family and the poetry-loving Bengalis bring to the table, the film uses every bit of this diversity with a flourish.
Johar also breaks several labels and pigeonholed dogmas that abound in our society — a septuagenarian woman still pining for the man she had met briefly 44 years ago (shades of ‘The Bridges of Madison County’) and the 80-plus man, too, recalling and reciprocating her feelings; a sexist minister’s remarks about girls inviting trouble for themselves by sporting skimpy clothes; women leaving their parental homes and trading their independence for domestic lives; men hesitating to walk into a lingerie shop and talk about bra sizes; a rich brat overweight daughter getting into share trading; a middle-aged wife and daughter-in-law with a melodious singing talent but saddled with familial duties dreaming of participating in a reality show as a contestant; men taking up Kathak as a career, and many more.
For once, Singh and his infectious energy are not tiresome. Talking the hindlegs of a donkey, he makes his way into the Chatterjee household with elan. As a Hindi- and Punjabi-speaking unpolished and unskilled daring dude, he enthrals with his smart-alecky one-liners.
Bhatt, on the other hand, is dignified and looks ravishing in sarees. A natural, she never lets her alluring charisma rule; rather, she blends effortlessly into a scene without any in-your-face dramatics. Together, they make a very adorable pair.
Tota Roy Chowdhury, as the father who takes pride in being who he is, and teaches Kathak, underscores the many passions that men and women in our land would like to follow, but are either forbidden or mocked at only because society’s unwritten rules continue to govern us.
His on-screen wife, played by Churni, a well-known face in Bengali cinema and serials, is a snobbish professor of English whose penchant for using British English in her day-to-day dealings. She could have been caricaturish, but she doesn’t come across as an oddity — so effortless and unaffected she is.
Viewers will simply adore and welcome back Dharmendra on screen after so long. They would recall how the Punjabi Jat loved shedding copious tears at the drop of a hat in emotional scenes. His wheelchair-bound presence in the film spells class even as he gets demonstrative recollecting his good old days in a manner affecting the audience’s lachrymal glands.
Aamer Basher, a great actor-director, is perfectly cast as the son of an oppressive mother. Keeping his tonality and expressions skilfully measured, he has a magnetic presence that gets noticed even in a crowded cast.
Jaya Bachchan and Shabana Azmi, both consummate actors and accomplished veterans, prove once again that it’s actors who can easily strike a balance between performance and posturing. The two display a sartorial panache culled from designer Manish Malhotra’s collection and seem to be having loads of fun flaunting their rich embroidered outfits. Azmi as Chatterjee, who breaks into Bangla intermittently, keeps a tight hold of the Bengali accent that could slip away, and barring a few places where the inflection or the intonation could be a little off, it settles well for a character who’s not a typical Bengali from Kolkata. Playing the grand old lady who is pretty much the authority everyone reveres in the family, she adds dignity to her role.
Bachchan, on the other hand, spews venom in Punjabi. She plays it safe not to overemphasise the Punjabi words and delivers common one-liners that are less capable of getting mispronounced. But she remains one-dimensional, not allowing different facets of negativity overcome the authoritative lines she mouths nearly all the time.
Viewers would love some of the most familiar musical gems that every generation knows and remembers like the palms of their hand. And so, ‘Abhi na jao chhod kar’, ‘Mast baharon ka main aashiq’, ‘Jhumka gira re’ and many others have been remixed and woven into the narrative seamlessly.
How I wish instead of fresh voices trying hard to do justice to some of the songs from the golden era, they had used the original numbers that can never fade away.
A scene that is the high point has two male actors performing to ‘Dola re dola’ with aplomb. After getting slighted by the Randhawas who laugh and scorn when Chatterjee’s father performs kathak, the duo of Singh and Roychowdhury break all barriers to prove that art has no gender and that one should be accepted the way one is.
Manush Nandan’s photography makes everything and every actor look resplendent. Popular singers Arijit Singh and Sherya Ghoshal, Jonita Gandhi and Bhumi Trivedi lend their chiselled voices to full-toned beats that the young love today.
Johar is most comfortable dealing with love stories set against the backdrop of warring or disagreeing families. Has he broken the stereotypical recipe for a fresh start?
Not really. Once in a while, he might pat himself on the back with a ‘My Name Is Khan’ or ‘Lust Stories’ and the like to believe that he can, and has. broken the mould he has so arduously created over the decades, but if one is expecting him to add a nuanced dimension to an idea, it’s asking for a complete metamorphosis, and that would be altering his basic DNA.
To be fair, within the limitations, if he is adding shades and gradations gradually — rather gingerly — it is a great effort on his behalf!