Blech! I don’t like this movie. If you like this movie, DON’T READ THIS REVIEW. Why would you do that to yourself? Go about your life and continue to be happy and loving. But if you also hate this movie, come over here by me and we can hate it together.
I made up my mind to hate this movie 8 years ago when it first released, and I successfully hated it without watching it for 8 years. And then I finally sat down and watched it and now…..I hate it so much more! With a depth and understanding I did not have before, I used to hate it just intellectually, now my hate runs far deeper, I hate it with my whole heart and soul, I hate it as deep as the ocean and as high as the sky. I hate it in a kind of Sufi meditative haze of hatred. So, I guess, Imtiaz achieved his goal. I have successfully lost myself in his art.
My original shallow hate was based on this being yet another film about the journey of a man towards enlightenment through art. Male artists always think these stories are fascinating, and I almost never do. Why should I care about your artistic pain? Everyone has pain!
You may be the most sensitive dying inside artistic soul in the world, but there are rape survivors out there, people with clinical depression, people with injuries that cause massive constant physical suffering. If we make this into a game of “who hurts worst”, the answer is not artistically unfulfilled healthy wealthy young men. And anyway, that isn’t a very good movie. Watching someone endure terrible suffering is either unendurable, or eventually just kind of boring. Or else you start to giggle.
No, the way to make a story of a hurting protagonist interesting, whether it is about a bad break up or artistic misery or anything else, is to make us care about the person outside of the hurt. They can be funny, or kind, or brave, or anything else, but we need a reason to like them, to want to spend time with them as an audience.
And this brings me back to the male artist problem. If you are a male scriptwriter, or director, or film reviewer, you will automatically connect with the story of a struggling unfulfilled middle-class over-educated young man. And because you connect to it, you will assume it is universal. And because you connect to it sooooooooooooooo much, you will not be terribly open to suggestions that it is not universal.
Do you know I have gotten more hate comments in defense of Ranbir Kapoor than any other actor? I can rip apart Salman Khan, even Shahrukh, and no one descends into swearing or incoherency. But if I take apart Jagga Jasoos for the steaming pile of stupid that it is, all of a sudden I get a comment about how I don’t understand, I have no vision, and it is all filled with the kind of abusive language that tells me this person has no perspective on this discussion. If you are a sensitive artistic type of young man, this sort of story and character resonates with you so much that it is hard to hear honest criticism of the story, the character, or even the actor playing him without taking it personally.
This is a film in which I never felt I had an answer to the “why should I care?” question. Our hero is unhappy, I believe that. But why should his happiness or unhappiness matter to me? We never see one moment of him reaching out and caring about someone else, he only seems to see others as reflections of his own needs and his own pain. Even his attitude towards his art is shockingly selfish. Instead of thinking of it as a way to reach out and bring healing to humanity, as a gift to others, he apparently sees it as only within himself, to satisfy himself.
Late in the film, there is a stadium concert that Ranbir walks out of at the last minute. The film frames it as his unspeakable pain that he is asking to forget in order to give petty pleasure to these people. But the pain he is in, surely at least one of the people at his concert feels something similar and can be healed by his music? Surely there is someone there whose mother is dying, who is recovering from trauma, who is looking forward to his art as a way to heal their pain. What makes Ranbir’s pain greater than theirs? And in reality, of course, performers do constantly make this judgement. The stories are legion of performers who went on after suffering terrible personal losses, aware that they have a duty to the people who can find solace in their art to give that art to the world. Come to think of it, Ranbir’s great-uncle Shammi gave his last performance in this film. Shammi’s beloved wife died in 1965, at the height of his career. Shammi didn’t miss a step, kept working and releasing films and continued to present a face of happiness and joy to the public, what the needed from him. If I know artists like Shammi Kapoor exist, ones who set aside their own pain in order to be what others need them to be, than why should I have sympathy for Ranbir in this film?
The comparison that kept occurring to me was Guru Dutt and Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool. Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool are also about an artist who is tormented for pursuing his vision. But his art is merely part of himself, it is what drives him in the world, it is not who he is, it is not his heart. In Pyaasa, Guru Dutt made art for the people. He wrote poems for street venders and street walkers, and he delighted in their delight. I loved his character and cared what happened to him not because he was a Great Artist, but because he went to the red light district and cried over the pain of the prostitutes. That is what drove his art, the pain he saw around him, the humanity crying out whose cries he tried to amplify. In Kaagaz Ke Phool, the art is almost incidental. I care for his character because he is trying to be a good father and a good friend. Because he accepts personal suffering in order to help others to happiness. I loved the man, not the artist. I wanted the artist to be accepted and appreciated because I wanted happiness for the man behind him. In this film, there is no purpose to the art that will make me care about the artist. And there is no action of the man that will make me care about the man.
The frustrating thing is, this is a truly brilliant film in construction. The song sequences flow in and out across time while the story proceeds in a regular chronological fashion, giving the feeling of how music breaks past barriers of time and space and memory. There are flashes of poster art and cell phone videos that give the feel of a rock documentary along with a fiction film. And there are small innovative touches, like the way post-fame Ranbir can have a normal conversation without noticing the crowds around him because it has become normal to him. Of course the soundtrack is amazing, music bleeding through the screen into the audience. And all of this brilliance, all of this rare uniqueness, is in the service of a story that gives me nothing to care about, there is nothing there. It is like a gorgeous cloak wrapped around a dead body.
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We start in the present, with Ranbir arriving for a massive concert, chased through the streets. And then as he starts to play, we cut to a quick flash of all the times he worked on and played this song, in the streets, on smaller stages, through his whole artistic journey. It’s a legitimately wonderful opening, dropping us into that song sequence and making us feel like he feels, all those times he played this song suddenly bleeding together. Unfortunately, the rest of the story isn’t nearly as innovative as that opening.
This is the story of Heer-Ranjha. I read that in one of the early reviews by a reviewer wondering why that wasn’t more clearly acknowledged, and I have the same thought every time I run across this film. It’s not even in the wikipedia page. Heer-Ranjha is one of the epic Punjabi romantic tragedies. Ranjha was thrown out from his home and went wandering with his flute, ending up working for Heer’s family. Heer and Ranjha fell in love in secret and had happy days together. Then her family found out and forced her to marry someone else and threw Ranjha out. Months later, Heer’s marriage fails and she returns home, Ranjha returns and is welcomed by her family, they now approve of their marriage. But on the morning of the wedding, Heer’s jealous angry uncle poisons her laddoo and she dies. Ranjha finds her body, and eats the other half of the laddoo, killing himself.
What is different about Heer-Ranjha is that our hero and heroine did nothing to cause either their potential happy ending or their unhappy one. They are remarkably passive people. Ranjha is thrown out of his family home and does not protest, just wanders off. Heer is ordered to marry someone else, and does it. Her husband is the one who sends her home, her family are the ones who decide she will now marry Ranjha. And she dies through poison, the most passive of murder weapons. This is why in Jab Tak Hain Jaan, the song goes “Don’t call me Heer, I will be Sahiban”. Heer did nothing, let her life be stolen from her over and over again. Sahiban (and various other romantic heroines) fought back.
A painful moving version of the Heer-Ranjha story is about how women always suffer in silence and stillness, the poison that kills them is hidden in sweets, luxury is murder. And it would be a story about how the man who is truly able to understand and love a woman is one who is in a similar place, one who is thrown out into the world to wander alone with no power or support. And finally, how the simplest smallest things can snatch away happiness and all you can do is choose to suffer together.
This is not that version. This is the version of Heer-Ranjha where Heer only exists to cause suffering for Ranjha, not as a person in her own right. And where Ranjha is not a powerless poor wanderer who only has his love to cling to, but is an extremely wealthy and successful artist who should really just STOP WHINING.
Right, plot! Ranbir is a college student who loves to play music. His friend the snack shop owner Kumud Mishra tells him that he should give up on his dreams and work for the family business, but if he wants to be a great artist, he has to know heartbreak. Ranbir sets out to learn about heartbreak by announcing to Nargis Fakhri, the prettiest girl on campus, that he is in love with her in order to force her to reject him and break his heart. Nargis is amused and decides to use him as a friend who can help her have adventures before her upcoming marriage. Ranbir and Nargis go around together, she gets married, he joins the family business. And then his family throws him out because they think he stole money from the business. With nowhere else to go, he lives at a Masjid and plays music with the Sufi band there. He finally goes to his friend Kumud Mishra for help, and Kumud helps him to meet with a music producer. At first it seems unpromising, but then the brilliant musician Shammi Kapoor sees him and hears him and tells the producer to let him make his music his way. Ranbir is now a rising star and has a chance to go on tour to Prague, where Nargis is living with her wealthy in-laws. He goes to Prague and surprises her, Nargis is recovering from an unspecified illness, and she grabs hold of their old friendship for more adventures and distractions. But Ranbir falls in love, tries to kiss her, and finally convinces her to start an affair with him. His last day in Prague, he tries to go to her house to say good-bye and is stopped by her security guards, she tells him to leave. He is arrested and the scandal drives his CD sales. 2 years later he is a major international star and constantly getting in to trouble, doesn’t seem to care about anything. At a concert, Nargis’ younger sister talks to him and tells him Nargis is home and sick. He comes to see her and, miraculously, she starts to get better. Nargis and Ranbir again go off on adventures until she gets too sick. She ends up in a coma in the ICU because Ranbir got her pregnant (a death sentence with her condition). Ranbir runs out on a concert to come see her, her family curses him, he leaves and goes to one more concert where he has a vision of Nargis as he plays. The end. Blech.
The movie starts out with a joke about Ranbir being this innocent college student seeking out heartbreak because he thinks it is what artists need. But then it decides that it believes the joke, believes that great art means great suffering, that the suffering of an artist is somehow greater than that of a “normal” person. I want the film to see the joke, to laugh at the idea that art only comes out of suffering. Or, to put it another way, that suffering will inevitably result in greater art. Because I think that is a joke, I think it is laughable, and if it is not laughable, than it is infuriating.
Let’s take this theory to the inevitable conclusion. It means that, on the one hand, those who suffer the most will make the greatest art. If that is the case, than all great art would come from survivors of genocide, of torture, of other horrors. And on the other hand, it means that if you have not suffered than your art is not true.
What I would say instead is that an understanding of the highs and lows of life can add depth to your art. That doesn’t mean you have to seek out suffering, suffering is around us all the time, every where. It simply means you need to open your eyes and see it. This film argues that Ranbir becomes a great artist because his girlfriend dies and his heart breaks. Jim Morrison, who Ranbir’s character and the film itself tries to emulate, his initial understanding of human suffering came from when his family passed a car accident and he saw dead bodies by the side of the road when he was 4 years old. I suspect most people have a similar moment of understanding suffering in the world, just as you learn to understand hunger, love, fear. Was losing Nargis truly the first time in Ranbir’s life that he felt pain? He grew up in a country where children are wandering homeless on the street. That never touched his heart? His younger sister back home, she was never sad and scared and he comforted her? He never had a friend who died in the randomness of youth, never read a book that touched his soul, never heard a piece of music that made him cry? If you want to find suffering in order to deepen you art, there is no need to seek out a girl to break your heart, just walk outside and open your eyes.
There’s another part of this which I do believe, that art can bring with it suffering. In this film, Ranbir gives up his music and tries to be a good son and work for the family business and is thrown out of the family home under suspicion of stealing money. The artist biography with which I am more familiar is the one where they try to be easy, they try to work the family business and live a normal life, but their art drives them away from all of that. The fire of creation within them makes them unable to have that kind of a life. And I don’t see that in Ranbir’s character here. This film is arguing that his great magical suffering gives him the gift of art, not that art brings difficulties with it.
The biggest problem with the film is the whole “Rockstar” concept. It doesn’t really make sense, the film is presenting a version of music stardom that is very time specific, from back in the 60s-70s. Reporters chasing you, crowds swarming your car, and the big stadium concerts, it just doesn’t make sense now. Part of the reason it was so wild back then is that the world hadn’t adjusted. TV broadcasts, record companies, all of this stuff led to an inflated kind of crazy celebrity. And then security firms came in, and common sense preventative maneuvers, and all the other things that help regulate fame. It’s also a version that is very location specific. During that era, in the West, the baby boomers were young and wild and with disposable income and disposable time. And not for nothing, this was also the protest era, the rock stars were part of that whole rebellious feeling, musicians who could speak to them. A rockstar in modern India is literally not a thing that exists. The constant effort to make this form of fame fit into the wrong time and place is a sign that this is not a movie that should exist.
Imtiaz wanted to tell a story of a crazy musician, tormented by fame, larger than life. But instead of actually creating a character that was larger than life, he used the trappings of musical celebrity to make him feel larger than life. This is hardly the first film in Hindi cinema to address the price of fame and art. But the other films started with the story and the characters and added on the external fame later. Started with humanity, and then brought in celebrity. This film says that humanity does not matter, the only stories that matter are the ones that are larger than life, and it will bend reality to make that story big enough.
If this had been the story of a small time singer who slowly grew as an artist and gained some modest recognition at the same time that his personal life fell apart it would be, well, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil! Two films with the same star and almost the same story. But ADHM has faith in the stories at the base of it to carry the film along. Ranbir’s story there is a realistic artistic journey, someone who gained a modest amount of fame but saw music as his job, not his identity. If you watch the film and enjoy the film, it is not because of some strange kind of Rockstar fantasy, it is because of the characters.
Let’s swing back to that Rockstar fantasy for a moment. Setting aside the racism at the heart of rock ‘n roll (you notice how the Rockstar fantasy is always some white looking dude, not Jimi Hendrix?), there’s also the misogyny. Ranbir comes close to raping a woman twice in this film. He forcibly kisses Nargis, she shoves him away, he kisses her again even rougher and then tells her “wasn’t it wonderful?” while she turns away, almost crying. Later, the journalist Aditi Rao Hydari and he have a fraught conversation, she kisses him suddenly (a peck on the lips) and he drags her into his dressing room and throws her down onto the couch and looms over her. It’s all very rockstar, powerful dangerous sexy behavior. That is, if you are at a distance. If I am the woman being grabbed and molested, or dragged into a room and thrown on to a couch, I am not necessarily finding it so sexy. Oh, there’s the violence too. All those police officers and reporters and security people that he lashes out at, hits and kicks. I am sure it is very cathartic for him, but if I am a reporter or a police officer just trying to do my job, do I deserve to be punched?
The whole idea of the “Rockstar” is this elevation of a man (always a man) to the status of a God. And a God doesn’t have to answer to anyone. He doesn’t have to answer to the women he attacks, the men he hurts, his family he abandons, the fans he insults, anyone. That’s what this film believes in. Ranbir is a God, he can do anything, say anything, be anything, and no one else matters. Even the woman he loves doesn’t matter, not really. He will force himself on her, he will embarrass her in front of her family, he will do whatever it is that he feels like doing in the moment.
This film says I should worship Ranbir, I should worship all these famous men who somehow suffer more and greater than I do, who deserve to have sex, drugs, fame, adulation, on offer to them at all times. That they should be forgiven whatever they do to whoever they do it. That the rest of the world exists to serve them. It’s a dangerously seductive way to live, especially if it has been half true all your life (doted upon upperclass/caste Indian men, for instance, are forgiven most things in life). I feared I would hate this film for showing me a tormented Great Man and expecting me to sympathize with him to the exclusion of everyone else; after watching it, I can tell you that I hate this film for showing me an average man with average problems and expecting me to worship him as a God.