‘Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani’ movie review: Karan Johar’s celebration of imperfections looks well-groomed, but lacks a beating heart

The rich pool of talent led by Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt is let down by shallow writing that gains momentum only in the second half

July 28, 2023 02:27 pm | Updated December 27, 2023 03:16 pm IST

Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt in ‘Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani’

Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt in ‘Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani’

Karan Johar redesigns his signature space of family drama to mount a glitzy essay against the entrenched cancel culture in our society that doesn’t really believe in unity in diversity when it comes to marriages. There are paragraphs on misogyny, casual racism and fat shaming, and the film goes on to say that we can learn to live with each other’s imperfections.

However, the art of an essayist lies in creating a wholesome entertaining experience but Karan first dresses up an ostentatious love story between opposites and then studiously starts ticking the boxes so much so that the prem kahani starts reading like a lesson in social science. Of course, it looks well-groomed and starts sounding politically correct by the end but RARKPK lacks rhythm and a beating heart.

Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani (Hindi)
Director: Karan Johar
Cast: Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, Dharmendra, Jaya Bachchan, Shabana Azmi, Aamir Bashir, Tota Roy Chowdhury
Run-time: 168 minutes
Storyline: After falling in love, Rocky and Rani try to bring their families together and overcome their cultural differences

The jaunty Rocky (Ranveer Singh) is a prosperous urban Punjabi youth or ‘pupy’ who enters the refined Rani Chatterjee’s (Alia Bhatt) life like a storm from another planet. A conscientious journalist, she comes from an ‘enlightened’ background where her father is a Kathak exponent (Tota Roy Chowdhury) and her mother (Churnee Ganguly) is an English professor.

In contrast, Rocky runs a family sweetmeat business that is controlled by his grandmother Dhanlakshmi (Jaya Bachchan), who is patriarchal in her mindset and misogynistic in her behaviour. Over the years, Rocky’s father Tijori (Aamir Bashir) has treasured the jaundiced worldview of his mother, reducing his wife (Kshitee Jog) to a doormat and her daughter to only an object that needs to be married off. When Rocky and Rani realise there is more than just physical attraction between them, they try to convince their respective in-laws to get over the cultural differences by living with them for three months.

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There was a time in Hindi cinema when lovers hailing from two warring clans were told that when their uncles and aunts tried to break the rule, they met with a violent end. Here the troika of writers (Ishita Moitra, Shashank Khetan and Sumit Roy) have tweaked the trope by telling us that Rocky’s grandfather Kanwal (Dharmendra) and Rani’s grandmother Jamini (Shabana Azmi) could not turn their love into a relationship because of social conditioning and kept on squirming in loveless marriages. How the new-age couple draws from the past and helps their parents in getting over the cultural prejudices forms the rest of the story.

As a producer, Karan has been dealing with cultural differences as obstacles in love stories for some time now. One was expecting a more nuanced take on the subject but he disappoints. In its treatment, it seems the film indulges those who get away with casual misogyny as long as they promise a golden heart beneath a gold chain. Perhaps, the segment constitutes the paying public in multiplex these days.

So, the pitch - soch nayi, swad wahi (new thought, same taste) - doesn’t really hold and finds traction only in the second half. Till then, it pans out as a laboured rom-com, laced with broad humour, that needs to be told because Karan hasn’t directed one for a while. In the first half, it lacks a voice and when it gets one, it gets into a high-pitched social messaging mode.

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To begin with, the gaze is infantile, the characterisations caricaturish and the writers have come up with bumper sticker logic to take the narrative forward. Cast as a man born with poetic sensibilities in a business family, Dharmendra is unnecessarily reduced to a laughing stock. So is Jaya Bachchan whose Dhanlakshmi seems to have been referenced from Amitabh Bachchan’s characters in Mohabbatein and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham but the execution remains strangely uneven, especially in the first half.

Despite a bevy of old hits playing in the background, the spark between Dharmendra and Shabana fails to ignite any magic. The romantic frisson between Ranveer and Alia is only slightly better. Karan curiously seems to believe that kisses can automatically generate chemistry. Ranveer needs a haircut and some heartfelt lines to make his natural charm and energy take over. So does Alia whose deep expressions don’t match the shallow lines she has been given to work with. For the most part, the hard-nosed journalist comes across just as a label, for Rani is presented as the same old chiffon sari-clad Bollywood heroine. Before she takes on a boorish politician, she is introduced with a shot of her back, with the camera focusing on the deep-neck blouse. The gaze parity is quickly achieved when Ranveer is equally objectified.

The borrowed old melodies light up the mood but they create an unnecessary comparison with what Pritam has composed for the film. Obviously, despite his best efforts, everything that comes after ‘Ek Pyar Ka Nagma Hai’ and ‘Aap Jaisa Koi’ pales in comparison.

The narrative gets some much-needed heft when Rocky and Rani shift to each other’s homes. With a message ensconced in humour, the second half has moments filled with some inspired writing where both sides of the divide learn and unlearn many things they grew up with. The scenes where Rocky performs Kathak with Rani’s father and the one where he goes shopping for lingerie with his prospective mother-in-law make a strong statement even if they are made with a bleeding pen. As Karan employs the good old tricks of high-pitched melodrama, the entitled brat learns what it actually means and takes to truly respect women and Rani’s family finds that golden thing beneath the six-pack abs of the cocky Rocky.

The best part is when Rocky, in a rare moment of candour, complains about how can somebody be politically correct all the time and Rani’s grandmother talks about her husband who was no different from Rocky’s grandmother. It kind of counters the stereotypical representation of Punjabis and Bengalis in the film as it goes on to suggest that patriarchy is not exactly defined by geography and gender.

Shabana adds some gravitas to the proceedings and is fun to watch in lighter moments. After the initial struggle, Jaya immerses in the half-baked villainous role. Chowdhury and Ganguly also bring in an air of freshness. Having said that, things get increasingly preachy and self-conscious as Karan refuses to say cut. Someone needs to tell him that a good film doesn’t necessarily mean a long film. As the film approaches its denouement, the emotions start resembling a visual flowchart that you have solved many times over.

Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani is currently in theatres

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