Karan Johar has been making for films for around two decades now. His filmography consists of five feature films and nearly all of them look gorgeous and opulent, feature lavish sets and good-looking actors, and broadly deal with themes of friendship, family and love. They share another common trait: They’ve been made by a director who wanted to do the right things, play safe, please everyone. Which is why Johar’s films, with a minor exception of My Name is Khan, seemed like pretty mannequins in front of a high-end store: pretty but not beautiful, visible but not real – something you could see but not feel. Like a man content to live in a fortress, Johar, it seemed, had built a wall around himself, too scared to allow his audiences in, too scared to fail, too scared of being rejected. With his sixth film, though, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, he’s taken a hammer and dealt a blow to that wall. It hasn’t crumbled, but it’s definitely got some cracks. Johar’s probably gotten tired of his fortress; he’s begun longing for a home.
It’s strangely fitting that this motif – of an artist being fearless – is present in a small scene in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’s initial segment. Here, Ayan Sanger (Ranbir Kapoor), an MBA student in a London business school, talks about his passion for music. He tells his friend Alize (Anushka Sharma), whom he’s recently met, that he wants to become a singer, someone like Mohammed Rafi. He then sings an old Hindi song, ‘Gaata Rahe Mera Dil’. Alize tells him that his voice is melodious, but it’s missing something valuable: It doesn’t seem to come from a place that’s personal, where something’s at stake. There’s a similar scene in another Ranbir Kapoor starrer, Rockstar, where a college canteen owner (Kumud Mishra) tells Kapoor’s character that his voice lacks pain, that great artists emerge from great heartbreaks. But Alize’s isn’t just talking loss (romantic or otherwise); her implications are more profound – that all great art, like all great love, shares one common quality: the ability to be vulnerable, to be in a situation where you are cornered so much that you can no longer hide or pretend, where being honest – or your complete self – is not an option, but is inevitable.
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, for the most part, displays the same recklessness, carefree abandon, and honesty. In the film’s first half, Ayan and Alize befriend each other in London and then take a short trip to Paris. But nearly nothing about this portion is perfect. Sure, Ayan’s rich enough to afford a private jet to travel from London to Paris, but he doesn’t live a perfect life, for he’s grappling with shame: the shame of being a kid abandoned by his mother when he was two, the shame of being a weakling who was regularly bullied in school, the shame of being a corporate drone-to-be wanting to be a singer. Ayan, in his own words, has always been “weirdo, introverted and ajeeb [strange]”. Johar conveys all of this to us in two small scenes, with just two lines of dialogues, without a close-up shot or a maudlin background score, because he’s probably realised that sadness is complete in itself; it doesn’t need the embellishment of cinema.
It’s heartening to know that Johar’s cinema is finally alert to real life. Alize doesn’t know how to drape a sari, neither does Ayan, so they take pointers from a YouTube video. Later, while dancing on vast tracts of snow to a famous Bollywood song, wearing a sari, Alize slips awkwardly, a rare instance of life deflating cinema in a mainstream film. In the next scene, unable to take the cold, a shivering Ayan’s crouched down on the ground near a boom box, saying, “Yeh Bollywood waale pagal hote hain [these Bollywood-types are crazy].”
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’s first half, controlled, confident and assured, is quite impressive, and not just by Johar’s standards, but by the overall standards of mainstream Bollywood productions. There’s singular energy and urgency in filmmaking, here, that Johar’s cinema hasn’t known before. But, more importantly, it also ventures into a territory that Bollywood romantic drama is not usually known for: acceptance cloaked in rejection, the interplay between the past and the present, between forgetting and remembering. And besides Johar’s direction and writing, a lot of credit must go to Sharma, who gives a powerhouse performance – one that has various shades: condescension, anger, liberation, humour. Kapoor, too, delivers an impressive performance, but you do get a sense that he, especially in romantic films, is getting typecast now: playing someone who’s trapped between being an adolescent and an adult, who wants to experience and enjoy adulthood but without the responsibility that comes with it. Even his anger and anguish seem to fall into a Ranbir Kapoor-mould.
His role, though, is well written, where Johar masterfully sweats the small stuff. Strange as it may seem, most Hindi films barely care about their heroes – their mannerisms remain unchanged irrespective of situations or people. But Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is different. Kapoor’s Ayan, for instance, speaks and behaves differently with both Alize and Saba (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), a poet. Ayan addresses Alize as “tu”, Saba as “tum”. He’s a ball of manic energy in front of Alize, much more calm when he’s around Saba.
But even with a lot going for it, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil flounders in the latter part of the second half, through a plot point so ludicrous and clichéd that it nearly tunes you out of the film. In fact, the tussle between clichés and original, heartfelt writing is often present in the film. There are scenes where characters delve into sappy lines about unrequited love and loss, explaining what’s apparent. Then there are constant references to Hindi songs, both old and new, that take some sheen from the movie, mainly because this device has been used by so many filmmakers in the last decade and a half (Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, Mujhse Dosti Karoge, Johar’s own short in Bombay Talkies, to name a few) that it appears and feels hackneyed – adding nothing new of value. This portion still consists of a few scenes that bristle with searing intensity and are well acted but by then, the film’s has mostly run out of ideas.
Even though overall Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is not a satisfying film, it’ll be remembered for ushering in a new Johar, one who’s toned down his fixation on external beauty (though, like all his films, this one looks pretty, too), who’s stopped looking for answers, and instead started asking questions. As a result, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, at its finest, bares itself, giving us much to savour. Here’s to many more cracks, Johar. Bring that wall down.