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Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani: How Karan Johar defied his own Dharma and delivered his most subversive film yet

In discussions about films, you often hear the phrase ‘it works’. How was the scene? Great, it works. Was the music too overbearing? No, it works. She delivered that line perfectly, didn’t she? Absolutely. It really worked. This is what you say when you don’t quite know how to articulate what you’re feeling. Sure, gun to your head (or Kangana Ranaut in your ear), you can probably highlight the 15 different things that you loved (or hated) about a particular moment, but ultimately, what people are responding to when they say something ‘works’ is the sincerity.

Sincerity is the most difficult thing to fake on screen as it’s intangible, and often irrepressible. But if there’s one Indian director who knows how to sell the most ridiculous nonsense on film without making you question the logic of it all, it’s Karan Johar. Keenly self-aware and always willing to evolve, the director made a comeback to feature filmmaking this weekend, with Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani — a movie that simultaneously embraces everything that he stands for, and in one fell swoop, dismantles the very foundation upon which he has built his career.

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The moment comes right at the end, when Ranveer Singh’s Rocky Randhawa, after a lifetime of living in fear of his formidable father and grandmother — she’s lowkey the Wicked Witch of West Delhi — finally stands up for what is right. He says something to her that nobody in the audience could’ve seen coming, especially in a film directed by a man who has spent two decades convincing the country that nothing overrides the importance of family. “Dadi, mere ragon mein aapka khoon hai, par meri dil ki dhadkano mein aapka naam o nishaan nahi hai (Your blood runs through my veins, but you have no place in my heart),” Rocky tells his grandmother Dhanlakshmi as the music swells. Somewhere in Los Angeles, Vin Diesel probably shed a tear.

Played by Jaya Bachchan, Rocky’s grandmother is arguably the only ‘villainous’ character to not be given a redemption arc by the end of the movie. Even Rocky’s father, played by Aamir Bashir, has a change of heart in the nick of time (although an entire person had to die for him to learn his lesson). But Dhanlakshmi is cursed to spend the remainder of her days in loneliness and regret after the entire family turns its back on her. She is also the only major character with whom Johar and his writers — Ishita Moitra, Shashank Khaitan and Sumit Roy — haven’t taken a tongue-in-cheek approach. It’s almost like his only direction to the famously stern Bollywood icon was, “Jaya aunty, in this scene, pretend like the paps are chasing you.”

And that’s exactly what she does, right up to that final confrontation, where she tells Rocky, “Tu iss parivar ka khoon nahi ho sakta hai (You don’t belong here, you’re not one of us).” Rocky might not recognise it at that moment, but he isn’t merely standing up for his mother and sister; he’s actually standing up for himself. Johar, however, certainly knows what he’s doing. He’s subverting the very idea of family as seen in our cinema — particularly the kind of cinema that he has been the architect of. In his own pastiche-y way, he is confronting the unspoken dysfunction that gnaws at the soul of our society.

Perhaps he is feeling guilty. The filmmaker has certainly been responsible for projecting an unrealistic image of Indian families — and not just superficially — particularly to those who have had to separate themselves from their own and make new lives abroad. His earlier movies have displayed questionable takes on gender politics and sexuality. But unlike most of his colleagues, he has readily apologised for the many problematic tropes seen in his past work (if not the poor quality of it). Just last week, for instance, the core team of Bawaal went on a victory lap even as their movie sparked an international incident because of its insensitive portrayal of the Holocaust.

But it seems like Johar’s seven-year sabbatical from feature filmmaking has changed him as a person and an artist. Certainly, becoming a parent can radically alter one’s outlook. But the world is no longer what it used to be in 2016, when he released Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Audiences aren’t going to keep their feelings to themselves any more. But as democratic as the landscape has now become, it is also more unforgiving than it used to be, and in many ways, more cruel. Barring the brief moment in which it seems as if Johar is suggesting that he was cancelled — he wasn’t, but it was touch-and-go for a moment — the movie has its head screwed on straight.

While the second half of Rocky Aur Rani can often feel like a moralistic lecture — both central characters go on a quest to challenge long-held traditional values by brandishing the flag of progressiveness — the first half is pure charm-offensive; the best stretch of star-driven entertainment that mainstream Bollywood has produced since the opening hour of Aanand L Rai’s Zero.

And a lot of it is down to the inspired lunacy of Singh’s performance as Rocky — a cockatoo of a man who struts in and out of rooms as if he is being followed by a reality show camera crew. An emblem of the millennial Bollywood hero’s fluid masculinity — “I am a fragile,” he says in one scene — Rocky falls in love with Rani, an ambitious young journalist played by Alia Bhatt. Rocky and Rani are nothing like each other; while he can be found at functions dedicated to identifying the ‘Punjabi of the Year’, or, alternatively, at ‘akhada’ inaugurations, Rani is usually hitting shady politicians with hard questions on her primetime news show. The will-they-won’t-they culminates with what can only be described as the most romantic scene ever shot in Gurugram.

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Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani is a screwball comedy, a kitschy drama, but most impressively, it’s a real musical. In one hilarious throwaway line — there are dozens — Rani tells Rocky that she has left their grandparents, both of whom are prone to breaking into song, to their own devices because ‘woh bahut loudly gaa rahe hain’. It’s a movie that is just as comfortable admiring Asha Bhosle as it is vibing to Diljit Dosanjh. Sure, Dharmendra looks like he’s being puppeteered by Sunny and Bobby crouching on either side, just out of frame. But here’s the thing… It’s Dharmendra. And few filmmakers have the instinctive ability to harvest star power like Johar.

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This is the movie with which Johar’s maximalist aesthetic has become fully-formed. The director has addressed the generation gap in his movies before, but this is the first time that he is unpacking generational trauma. And the conclusion that he has come to — that found family is sometimes more valuable than the people with whom you share DNA — is unambiguously bold. There is something to be said about a man whose best film happens to be the one he didn’t even direct, but this is him embracing his identity — both on screen and off it. Each frame of this movie is unmistakably his, and just because Rocky Aur Rani doesn’t have the self-importance of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s cinema or the artisanal quality of Wes Anderson’s movies doesn’t make it any less authentic. The key, once again, is sincerity. It works.

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Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.

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