Finally, Karan Johar does it, finally. It's taken time, but this is without a doubt his best film. I thought his best film would probably come when he finally tones down the high melodrama that often prevails in his directorial efforts. But no, not only didn't he give it up, he actually embraced it wholeheartedly and in the process created a film so whimsical and animated you can't leave it. Indeed, Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani is a full-on emotional melodrama, but one that celebrates and remains in sync with its great spirit of joy, its musical abundance and cultural diversity, maintaining a deep connection to its Indian roots as well as the heritage of popular Hindi cinema, while conveying positive social messages through glossy entertainment.
The film is a visual extravaganza, and it's shot so well that in some parts it reminds you of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's films. The setting is highly luxurious and glossy, and the amount of money and effort put into creating some of the exteriors and the overall production design is quite evident. Some of the sequences, like the wedding ceremony, the Durga Puja party, among others, are absolutely stunning in their photography and style. Also noteworthy is the fact that finally a film by Johar isn't set in New York or London, finally a film that embraces its own Indian culture, particularly the diversity of it, and above all embraces the Hindi film format, showing that masala isn't a derogatory term for cheap potboilers, it could be a perfectly legitimate form of art, too.
The narrative style is just fully musical, and I can't think of a better way to have music as your main means of communication on film. Indeed, music comes everywhere, in the middle of the streets or a random conversation, even in the middle of a fight. The film totally celebrates Indian popular culture and it does so completely unabashedly. Some of the original numbers (including "Tum Kya Mile" and "Kudamyi") are stupendous and they're obviously wonderfully shot, but the nice original songs put aside, the film recaps numerous classic Hindi songs throughout its duration ("O Saathi Chal", "Hum Tum", "Abhi Na Jao", "Aap Jaisa Koi", "Aaj Phir Jeema", "Dola Re"), making it quite a fun nostalgic ride and a tribute to Hindi film music.
So, what this film is about is quite obvious, I believe. Rocky and Rani fall in love and their idea to bridge their cultural differences is to reside each in the house of the other for a period of three months. Both come from wealthy families, but his is a traditional, conservative Punjabi family led by his grandmother, a domineering matriarch who keeps a firm hand over everything and every member of the family. Rani comes from a liberal Bengali family of intellectuals and academics who love poetry and high culture. It is obviously a stereotypical portrayal, but it's passable. The hostility toward the two in each house exists, albeit at varying degrees depending on the particular members of the family, but it becomes a nice journey to learning and self-discovery for all.
Interestingly, instead of deepening the contrast between modernity and tradition, this film fosters a common ground between the two, finding creative ways to make them meet in the middle, which is exactly the kind of balance politicians in the world should do but never grasp. The film incorporates a strong feminist voice, while also defying gender stereotypes and prejudice. While the messaging is a little too obvious and a tad preachy at points, it's never extreme. The principles it promotes are most basic: equality, respect, and the right to self-fulfillment. At the same time, it strongly attacks the ever-restrictive rules of political correctness, and the weird phenomenon of the cancel culture, a terrible substitute for education and social change through teaching.
Now it's pretty obvious that the film isn't to everyone's taste. The dialogue is overtly emotional and exaggerated, with heavy music playing in the background and the camera focusing on crucial moments in amusing ways, exactly the way it's done in the most casual of soap operas. The way the families from different ethnic sectors are portrayed is also quite caricaturish. BUT it also depends on the context. Unlike Johar' Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006), which was an awful film for many reasons, particularly because of its attempt to make a serious film through the most shallow scenery, childish dialogue and the most convoluted of situations, here the context is everything and the foundation is so wild and traditionally melodramatic that much of it is forgiven.
The film stars two of the top stars working in Hindi film industry today, Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt, and both are wonderful in etching out their starry turns while still capturing the human core of their characters. Bhatt is exactly the right combination of the new Indian woman who knows her mind but also has her values intact, and she is wonderfully expressive and charismatic. It is Singh though, who keeps everyone on their toes. His flamboyant energy remains unmatched and is quite infectious, and even in the most melodramatic parts he manages to immerse himself in the dialogue and the character's emotional condition. The two have great chemistry together, which is very filmi but quite credible within the film's context.
But the show also rests on the towering presence of its veteran players, especially Jaya Bachchan and Shabana Azmi. Bachchan obviously hardly ever hits a wrong note in a role similar to what her husband played in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham... (2001). Her character does veer into caricature, especially in her permanent frown throughout the film, but it's so much fun. She nails every second of Dhanalakshmi's imperious presence, vicious stubbornness, and non-nonsense attitude. Her dynamic with Alia reminds one of Dina Pathak's rapport with Rekha in Khubsoorat (1980). Azmi is wonderful as her polar opposite, portraying with great delicacy and depth a character that could have been sidelined as just another grandma-filler part, but she gives it so much meaning.
And so do the other players. Dharmendra does really well in a relatively small part. As his son, Aamir Bashir, an excellent actor in his own right who is quite underrated, plays the male version of his mother exceedingly well. Tota Roy Chowdhury as Rani's father who doesn't abide by the rules of gender roles and keeps his love for Kathak dancing alive, is excellent. His dance is fantastic. Bit parts by Kshitee Jog and Anjali Anand as Rocky's mother and sister, are very good. It is Churni Ganguly, however, as Rani's eloquent but condescending, high class and touch-me-not sort of woman, who is the best of the character actors, and she grows as a character. Overall, 'Rocky and Rani' is wonderful entertainment. It's not a perfect film, but its heart is in the right place and it works.
Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani
Comedy / Drama / Family / Romance
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2 hr 58 min