Built upon a surfeit of stereotypes, Karan Johar’s Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani hinges on a pulpy Punjabi-Bengali culture clash that serves as a means to explore the ups and downs of relationships, the often-crushing pressures of family ties and the shackles of gender roles in a changed world.
The noises that the mawkish and musty melodrama makes is sporadically spot-on, but the film, overly keen to play to the gallery and take recourse to storytelling tics that feel out-of-date, lacks consistency of purpose. Parts of it are fun but most of it is marred by an undisguised urge to pontificate.
The screenplay is erratic – it goes back and forth between taking its eyes off the ball and hitting it out of the park, with the ratio tilted markedly towards the former – but the performances are robust enough to help the film paper over its creases.
Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani, written by Ishita Moitra, Shashank Khaitan and Sumit Roy, aims to deliver a mix of hearty laughs and ‘useful’ marital advice. It makes rather heavy weather of both although in the matter of taking cracks at unmasking patriarchy, outdated notions of masculinity and cultural chauvinism, it does deliver a few pointed home truths.
But what takes away much of the film’s sheen are a whole bunch of cliches. Faded chestnuts abound in this tale of modernity squaring off against tradition in a very physical form and in very obvious ways.
On one side is Randhawa Paradise, a sprawling mansion somewhere in National Capital Region. On the other is Chatterjee House, a no less impressive bungalow in (as we are tangentially told) in South Delhi. The two families that reside in these buildings are so different from each other that they could be from different planets.
In the orthodox Punjabi business family, a matriarch (Jaya Bachchan) calls the shots, her arrogant son (Aamir Bashir) scowls and growls in perfect concert with her whims, but the other women in the household – the man’s wife (Kshitee Jog) and daughter (Anjali Anand) have no agency. The Bengali brood is made up of three women from three generations and a man who makes a living as a Kathak guru.
Predictably, a few of the hackneyed ideas that are propounded by one of the two families are torn to shreds in the battle that erupts when a flashy Punjabi boy (Ranveer Singh) who wears his heart on his sleeves meets a sedate Bengali career girl (Alia Bhatt) with a Columbia University degree.
Rocky Randhawa and Rani Chatterjee’s love story sets off a chain of events that is entertaining to an extent till the point that the film refrains from taking itself too seriously. When it begins to strike ‘reformist’ postures half way through and goes the whole hog with them post-intermission, it runs a touch ragged.
The paths of Rocky (Ranveer Singh), the scion of a family that owns a Karol Bagh Market sweet shop famous for its desi ghee laddoos and Rani (Alia Bhatt), a television news anchor who lives with her parents (Churni Ganguly an Tota Roychowdhury) and grandmother (Shabana Azmi), cross in unusual circumstances.
Rocky goes looking for Jamini Chatterjee, a married woman who his dementia-afflicted grandfather (Dharmendra) met at a kavi sammelan in Shimla in the late 1970s and still remembers. He hopes a reunion would revive his badly impaired memory.
Jamini is of course Rani’s grandmother, whose brief encounter with Rocky’s grandpa was a weeklong affair that had a lifelong impact. The septuagenarian lady regrets not having the courage to turn her back on her marriage to be with her lover.
Recognising that it would take the involvement of their two families to get their impending marriage off the ground, Rani and Rocky decide to spend time in each other’s homes to test the waters. At both ends, the beginning is frosty. How the thaw begins and pans out in the two households as Rani and Rocky try to build bridges against heavy odds is what the rest of the film revolves around.
Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani, filmed on lavish (when not outright garish) sets, deals with regrets and renewals, accusations and apologies, showdowns and patch-ups. All its inferences and truisms are delivered in unsubtle, simplistic ways with an eye on ensuring that no ‘message’ that it delivers goes abegging.
Glitzy and rambunctious -that is the least you’d expect a Karan Johar movie to be – Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani has peppy songs composed by Pritam (with linguistically and idiomatically varied lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya), a range of retro numbers (to highlight a love affair from the past as well as underline the differences in ethos that separate the younger lovers), some rough and ready humour, and a generous springling of caramelised, sickly sweet pearls of wisdom.
On the screen and off it, flamboyance comes easy to Ranveer Singh. There is nobody in the Mumbai industry who could have pulled off Rocky as well as he does. Is his exuberance toned down in a way that generates coiled, consistent energy? Well, almost.
Alia Bhatt strikes the right notes in the role of a girl who embraces her beliefs with confidence and confronts all the imperfections in her and in the people around her without letting any of it get the better of her. She is the real star of the show.
Dharmendra delivers a performance that you cannot but fall in love with. In fact, the supporting performances are all from the topmost drawer. Jaya Bachchan as the hero’s testy grandmother who yields no ground to anybody and Shabana Azmi in the role of the heroine’s spirited but soft-hearted granny are terrific.
Churni Ganguly, cast as the flowery English-spouting mother who has instilled a spirit of independence in her daughter, has far less to do but the impact that she has on the film is second to none.
Tota Roy Chowdhury carries off the role of an accomplished kathak dancer redefining the boundaries of maleness with noteworthy aplomb. Aamir Bashir does an impressive job of presenting the ill-advisedly confrontational face of masculinity.
Tu hai kya, yaar? That is a question that Rani poses to Rocky a number of times. Exactly our question. Not to Rocky, but to the film. In one scene, Shabana Azmi’s character, responding to a request made at a wedding to her dancer-son to perform a number from Devdas, says: So typical! The film need not have been so typical.
For all the subversion that runs through Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani and pretty boldly at that (as in the lingerie store sequence or in the discussion on being a male Kathak dancer), the film is a shiny but shallow family drama that uses disappointingly obsolete methods to serve up contemporary, pertinent theories about the need to be mindful in love, loyalty and language.
Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, Dharmendra, Jaya Bachchan, Shabana Azmi, Churni Ganguly, Tota Roy Chowdhury
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