Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani: Culture wars, family drama and the return of big screen romance
After the success of Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani, director Karan Johar, in an interview, spoke at length about the critical and box-office reception of the film. “I needed the validation. I was feeling vulnerable as an artist…as someone who has been in the industry for so long..I needed it [the positive reviews]”, he said while holding back tears.
For a filmmaker helming a project after a seven-year-gap, that too in post-SSR Bollywood where celebs are under intense scrutiny, Johar’s anxiety was more pronounced than it would have been otherwise. “There is always a certain level of polarization with my films. I was expecting them [critics] to critique designer clothes, song and dance ….[but] this time, there were good reviews everywhere”.
Having received validation from box-office beast as well (the film has raked in good numbers), Johar stands vindicated in his brand of cinema by naysayers who once criticized it for being too flashy and insubstantial. How did this happen?
Culture wars and family drama
In Rocky Aur Rani…, Johar uses the culture war as a backdrop to explore the idiosyncrasies of dysfunctional Indian families and marriages. What seems like another ‘boy-meets-girl’ story followed by family drama, is quite the opposite. If anything, Rocky Aur Rani… challenges the very presumptions around its genre that the audience harbours. The clash of cultures portrayed in the film is quintessential Bollywood, and arguably, more compelling than the Barbenheimer clash last week.
Rocky carries a bottle of protein shake with him. Rani is usually in the newsroom asking political elite hard-hitting questions. She has a keen eye for art and poetry. He, for Old Monk and Smirnoff. His wardrobe is as blingy as it can possibly get, while she wears sophisticated sarees (which only occasionally resemble the flag of Ukraine). Their families are polar opposite, which makes for a perfect conflict for a family rom-com drama.
Rocky Aur Rani…: celebratory and subversive
Rocky Aur Rani’s biggest win is that it subverts the very genre it celebrates — a paradox only Karan Johar can explore to its full potential. The subversive themes are explored in an easily-digestible family drama with plenty laugh-out-loud moments.
The lead pair in Rocky Aur Rani… rebel and challenge parental authority which was a no-go-zone in most 2000s Bollywood films. Think Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham…(2001) where Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) was disowned by his father, Yash Raichand (Amitabh Bachchan) because he chose to marry Anjali (Kajol), a girl with a lower-class status. We see none of that in Rocky Aur Rani.
On the contrary, Rani (Alia Bhatt) challenges the patriarchy in Randhawa palace, where piping hot food is served to men on the dinner table as women eat cold leftovers later. Over at Chatterjee estate, Rocky learns about male Kathak dancers and ushers in a softer, more sentimental masculinity, courtesy Rani’s father.
The nostalgia of the 2000s, with present-say syntax
Rani teaches Rocky’s mother, Punam Randhawa (Kshitee Jog), the difference between unconditional love and abuse, while urging her to pursue her long-lost passion of singing. This marks a significant departure from not just Johar’s films but other rom-coms in an era where women’s agency was limited.
Think of Raj, presumably Rocky’s distant NRI cousin, who couldn’t get Simran’s father to approve of their marriage until the climax in Yash Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995). Should we judge Dev and Maya in Kabhi Alvidaa Na Kehna (2006) for finding love outside marriage? Why must Jennifer in Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) suffer for extramarital affairs of her husband?
Why must Rocky’s plus-sized sister Gayatri (Anjali Anand) go on freak diets for her family to find her a groom? Why should Rocky’s grandfather, Kanwal (played by Dharmendra) and Rani’s grandmother (essayed by an evergreen Shabana Azmi), feel ashamed to express their desire? Johar isn’t afraid of asking these difficult questions.
The return of big screen romance: A tale of redemption
Despite a significant departure from Johar’s usual cinema, Rocky Aur Rani remains an unabashed celebration of the big-screen romance, which only exemplifies his signature style. Rightfully so, the film’s lead pair suddenly break into an impromptu dance sequence and lip-sync the lyrics, the actress wears a chiffon saree in sub-zero temperatures (and no one questions it). It is a film where romance is bigger than life itself.
The film, which marks Johar’s return to the director’s chair after seven years and commemorates 25 years of his directorial journey in Bollywood, elevates romance to a terrain where emotions are amplified, and melodrama reigns supreme. By cocking a snook at conventions, and striking a delicate balance between old-school Bollywood romance and a contemporary narrative, Johar redeems himself as a filmmaker who evolves with the times while staying true to his cinematic roots.
Subversion wrapped in nostalgia
Rocky Aur Rani… is a much-needed breather for cinegoers who are fatigued having watched a string of biopics and big-budget action films in the last decade. It has many Easter Eggs that allude to 2000s Bollywood rom-coms, including Johar’s film Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna and Yash Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. It isn’t entirely surprising that Johar has made a comeback with a genre that he was once known (and then ostracized) for. Poetic justice, isn’t it?
In a scene from Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani, Rani’s grandmother, Jamini (Shabana Azmi), is seen reminiscing old Bollywood numbers. Rani says “Mujhe pehle lagta tha unhe puraane gaano se mohabbat hai. Unhe mohabbat unn gaano se nahi, yaadon se hai”. (I used to think she loves old Bollywood songs. She doesn’t. She loves the memories that come with it). The quote sums up why there is still an appetite for Karan Johar’s brand of cinema.
Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani is now playing in theatres.