Saturday, November 12, 2011
ROCKSTAR (Hindi; 2011)
Early on in Rockstar, Khatana (Kumud Mishra), the resident sage of Delhi University's Hindu College's canteen, pooh poohs the musical ambitions of Janardhan Jakhar (Ranbir Kapoor): for Khatana, art is borne of suffering, and sorrow in turn of love and a broken heart. The callow Janardhan (who will in time be re-christened "Jordan") promptly decides to fall in love with the next pretty girl he sees, with an artificiality the film knows better than to take seriously. I found myself chuckling at these scenes, reading in them director Imtiaz Ali's send-up of a bourgeois misreading of Romanticism in the arts.
I was wrong: Imtiaz Ali was dead serious. His Jordan really can become, not only a musical success but even a genuine musical talent, only once he has loved and lost Heer (Nargis Fakhri). Not a trace of irony may be discerned here, and the result -- a "rockstar" who might see "Free Tibet" signs at his concerts, but whose military fatigues and lyrics about "Sadda Haq" cannot hide the fact that there is no cause, no politics, nor even any social awareness here but a highly personal loss. Nor is there any of the sex and drugs one might expect: Jordan barely drinks (and is expressly a teetotaler until he no longer has Heer). While the latter might seem like a minor point, both of these underscore just how safe Imtiaz Ali wants to play things (perhaps he, like most others of his directorial generation in Bollywood, simply knows no other way; certainly every other film Ali has made has been utterly conformist, and Rockstar is, in the final analysis, no exception for the most part.)* The story arc sounds epic enough -- struggling musician falls in love; loses the woman in his life by way of her marriage to another man; becomes a celebrity; finds her again before losing her for good; and continues with a tortured and guilt-ridden career -- but its execution, heavily weighted as it is in favor of the love story, left me confused as to whether Ali had made a film on the proverbial rock star, or whether this was a love story where one of the protagonists simply happened to be a popular singer. Imtiaz Ali has clearly lived with this script and this character for a long time -- perhaps far too long: it bears all the hallmarks of adolescence, the sort of film one gets into the film industry in order to make. It shows in the film's "rock" backdrop, more reminiscent of a youngster's investment in icons like Jim Morrisson and Led Zeppelin, than of the wider relevance of that sort of figure in the Indian landscape; in how Heer seems to be a boy's fantasy given form, given her reveling delight in all things bawdy (ranging from skin flicks to strip clubs); and in how indulgent Rockstar is: it is much looser than Ali's other films; the second half feels especially long, and is quite tedious (several people in the Andheri theater I saw the film at were audibly impatient by the end).
Perhaps the film seems so long because of Nargis Fakhri: her acting is so wretched, so abominable in just about every scene, you have to wonder what Imtiaz Ali was thinking by casting a performer this weak as half of his lead pair, in a film that is more a love story than anything else. Fine performances by the likes of the reliably excellent Piyush Mishra (playing a hard-nosed music producer; for those unfamiliar with his work, the scene where he exploits Jordan's need by snapping "mein tujh se bade kuttay paper sign karvaaonga" should suffice) and Shernaz Patel (who plays Heer's mother) cannot make up for it, and it's no use criticizing the actress -- the blame lies squarely with the director, for offering her the role in the first place.
But goddammit, there is a lot I can forgive this film: while intellectually conformist, Rockstar, like Dum Maaro Dum earlier this year, hearkens back to a time when big films could nevertheless be made with passion (not assembled in the way far too many contemporary Hollywood and Bollywood films are). In these times, a film that demands a little bit from its audience, both in the form of sustained attention and the possibility of (gasp!) a Sad Ending, might without more be considered risky. On that front, Rockstar is a world removed from the sort of banality that far too many of Ali's peers churn out: simply put, there is some cost to watching this film. And even if it is less than the sum of its parts, it has some superb parts: the Delhi ambience early on in the film; very brief Bombay sequences much later on; and the most striking Kashmir I have ever seen on film (a cheap nod to Ranbir's genealogy in the form of a reprise of a Shammi Kapoor song notwithstanding). [Ali falters badly in Prague, which could be, as he;s filmed it, anywhere in Europe -- an unpardonable sin where this city is concerned.]
And then there's the music. Not just A.R. Rahman's songs, nor even his background score, but the way Ali has used it in this film: so seamlessly has the music been integrated into the film -- heck it is almost the very texture of the film -- that I would be hard-pressed to pick a high-point: as Mani Rathnam first did with Rahman's music in Guru (2007) (in particular, with the "Ae Hairath-e-Aashiqui" song); and later Rakeysh Mehra (albeit less adroitly) managed in Delhi-6 (2009) (the omission of most of the sublime "Rehna Tu" still smarts), Ali treats Rahman's album as a collection of musical motifs for the most part, and pieces of different songs float in and out, leaving me both incomplete and spellbound -- in this, the music tracks the films chronology (featuring flashbacks within flashbacks, including non-linear ones!), and makes the film. Not since Rang de Basanti (2006) has a major Hindi film been so unimaginable without its music -- and while I still maintain Rahman's album is hardly a rock album, I found myself caring not a whit. Not when "Hawaa Hawaa" easily transcends its origins in Guru's "Maiyya Maiyya" and bewitches the audience; or when "Kun Faya Kun" is given form in and around Nizamuddin (replete with appearances by the shrine's Nizami qawwals): the dargah has featured in many a Hindi film, but never so vividly, in as magical a manner, as here, where it is literally the site of Jordan's awakening. Even on "Nadaan Parindey", where the over-the-top trailer (that is, the video's incongruity with the lyrics) had given me grave misgivings, it all made sense in the film. Not the best musical moment in Rockstar, but perhaps it couldn't be: by then Jakhar is Jordan Inc., the singer's troubled life and controversies simply fodder for the manufacture of his own celebrity.
I'm nearly at the end of this piece, and if I haven't said anything about Ranbir Kapoor's performance yet, it's because there isn't much to say. Beyond that he is superb here, in easily the role of his young career (indeed, he might well go years without getting another opportunity like this one). Prior to Rockstar, I'd never found Ranbir less than competent; but equally, I'd generally found him too groomed, too safe to really surprise the audience. And while there is some of that here (I found his portrayal of the young Janardhan in college condescending, and somewhat implausible -- more a representation of some imagined middle-class boy from Pitampura than Janardhan Jakhar), there is no denying that he really comes into his own once he is kicked out of the family home, rising above the inconsistent characterization the script saddles him with to weave in real nuance and impact. We see Jordan go from epiphanic acolyte at the dargah -- the scenes where he takes a back seat to the qawwals in the singing parties are masterpieces of understatement -- to hack singer at private parties, combining earnestness and disinterest, to bona fide celebrity, to tormented star, and you really feel the change in circumstance, the fact that this character has come a long way. Even in the romantic segments later on in the film, Ranbir manages to make the done-to-death sequences more than watchable; given my limited patience with this Bollywood genre, that's saying something. And then there are all those scenes of the man singing. If, like me, you've been irritated at how unconvincing most actors seem while playing other artists, look no further: I kept forgetting that the man on the screen in "Sadda Haq", every sinew into the song, was simply lip-syncing for Mohit Chauhan's voice. It might not seem like much, but the conviction and variety he brought to these sequences, were integral to his role's -- and the film's -- plausibility. Rockstar isn't a great film, and Jordan isn't an especially well-etched character, but Ranbir doesn't let you see any daylight between him and his avatar once Janardhan Jakhar is out of the way: you suspend disbelief, and stay till the end.
*[But not completely: Ali deserves credit for the fact that this is perhaps the first popular Hindi film I have seen where a woman cheats on her husband, and is nevertheless dealt with as a sympathetic character. The film's final twist is similarly unconventional, inasmuch as it, while quickly buried, does not reflect Jordan in a good light.]