(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)
Is there a more unabashed fan of Bollywood than Karan Johar? Let me rephrase that. Is there a more unabashed fan of sappy, tacky, all melodramatic guns blazing Bollywood than Karan Johar? This is something we’ve known about him all along. Right from Rahul and Tina and Anjali and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Many of us love those films. Some of us despise those films. Some of us loved those films at that time and would hate to admit it now. But if there is someone who has remained painfully consistent, it is Karan Johar. Maybe it has got to do with social media and the digital age but Johar has only grown more honest about everything, especially off screen. His films have continued to be middling but over the years his off-screen personality has only minted admirers. With Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Karan Johar gets both allegorical and autobiographical. They are both its strength and weakness. But the treatment is delightfully un-Johar like for content that couldn’t be more Johar.
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil works as Johar’s painful and heartfelt love letter to the world of cinema, especially the cinema he lives and breathes – the Hindi film industry of Shakti Samanta, Nasir Hussain, Yash Chopra and the likes. The film takes some time to warm up, what with an awkward cameo from Lisa Haydon and the Ranbir Kapoor-Anushka Sharma chemistry taking a while to get used to (this seems intentional because they do have some sort of a jump start themselves) but once it gets going, it is surprisingly organic with its throwbacks and references. Almost nothing is spared. First, it seems like Johar is only getting self-referential but then he goes the full hog – a song from Chandni is recreated in all its glory right down to Ayan Sanger’s (Ranbir Kapoor) sweater that resembles the actor’s father’s in the original and Alizeh’s (Anushka Sharma) yellow sari. Johar’s references are also tongue-in-cheek in clever ways. We often joke/complain about how the Johar-Chopra school of filmmaking loves to uphold traditional Indian values for make-benefit-glorious-audience-of-NRIs. Here Johar creates a scene where Alizeh does not know how to drape a sari, and she and Ayan get by with the help of YouTube videos. As Ayan is helping her drape, he says if he ties it around her waist one more time, they’d be married. Now that’s a cheeky Karan Johar I did not see coming. You also don’t expect Johar to underplay emotions or treat such a scene with the kind of low key handling normally associated with the post-Farhan Akhtar Bollywood. This is where he gets relentless. Later in the film, he references this aspect too – when the man-child Ayan does not get the reaction he wants from Alizeh, he asks why this restraint? He literally asks why are you reacting like Irrfan Khan?! Johar knows and this is where Ayan becomes Johar, the man-child that is hopelessly in love with Alizeh – Alizeh aka Bollywood who has moved on to assume different definitions so much that Johar now feels left out. He feels that this Bollywood doesn’t exist anymore. It is not respected anymore. Yeah I may be getting ahead of myself here but only because Johar has. With some success.
A lot of these moments work thanks to Ranbir Kapoor and Anushka Sharma’s superlative performances. Especially Sharma’s. The film’s focus is of course Ayan (autobiographical, duh!) but watch Sharma floor you in the scene where Ayan unblocks her and calls her back after months. He calls her only to spite her, to tell her about his new relationship but she retorts that it is okay because she is very happy that he called. It’s the film’s single most affecting scene, partly because it comes out of nowhere and partly due to the fact that I cannot imagine anyone apart from Anushka Sharma pulling it off. It’s also clear that Johar was very aware of the strength of Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s casting. The role doesn’t require acting chops and the winner here is the casting itself. Because nothing in this digression works – neither the Urdu couplets nor the love sermons from Shah Rukh Khan. Saba works more like a rebound for Ayan and how can you look past those drop dead gorgeous looks of Rai. Acting and everything else is secondary. Taking a leaf out of Mani Ratnam book (last year’s Ok Kanmani), Johar stages a beautiful scene set to a dubstep version of Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo (Wonder if the apology for the whole Fawad Khan-MNS issue from Johar included the use of this song), no dialogs and just the carnal attraction between Ayan and Saba. More un-Johar like filmmaking.
In his ruthless attempts to pay tribute to every Bollywood cliche, Johar goes a bit overboard in the last few portions of the film. Almost a decade ago, the Bollywood that Johar claims he doesn’t get flipped over the airport ending cliche in Abbas Tyrewala’s Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na. But Johar suddenly in the end plays it all too straight. He becomes the manipulative, handkerchief offering Karan Johar again. The saving grace being he’s still got the jokes in all the serious moments, unlike before. That counts for something, I guess?