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Rockstar: Imtiaz's magic touch 
21st-Nov-2011 12:22 am
The souls of all the greatest artists were forged in the fires of suffering, points out Khatana bhai (Kumud Mishra) to Janardhan Jhakar (Ranbir Kapoor). The Jat lad hailing from middle class Pitampura dreams of making it big in the world of music, like his idol Jim Morrison, but is entrenched in an ordinary, unremarkable life that gives him little scope for experiencing the kind of pain that makes men achieve greatness. He's never starved, his parents aren't dead, he's not adopted, he was never beaten up as a kid, he's never even loved enough to have his heart broken - then where will the music come from asks Khatana bhai matter-of-factly. Janardhan sees his point.

The solution? Heer Kaul (Nargis Fakhri), St. Stephen's very own "dil todne ki machine" (heart breaking machine). JJ decides that the much sought after Kashmiri beauty will be the one to shatter his heart into the pieces that shall inspire soulful sangeet. He wasn't that far off the mark, as it turns out. What begins on a childish whim of his, blossoms into genuine friendship between the two. By the time friendship simmers into unconfessed affection, and loving attachment boils into burning desire JJ, now Jordan, cares little for the fame and brilliance he used to dream of and wishes only for a happiness that is sadly out of reach.

Despite the ubiquitous nature in Hindi cinema of his genre-of-choice, there's something about Imtiaz Ali's love stories that make you exclaim "tujhe pehli baar main milta hoon, har dafa" (I meet you for the first time, every time). His movies appeal because he crafts them with a sense of humour and wit. They ring emotionally true because they depict not only the strengths but also the failings of the human heart. There's an appreciation in Imtiaz's movies for the journeys people need to take to grow and the time people need to learn about themselves and each other. All of this applies equally to the latest offering by Imtiaz Ali, Rockstar.

With a title like "Rockstar" one may be forgiven for being apprehensive about whether Imtiaz's movie would still feature protagonists that we can identify with. Characters that talk like we do, think like we do, have the same struggles as us - the "mango people" (aam junta), to quote a phrase from one of his own movies. One needn't despair, for despite his eclectic attire, angry attitude, and uncouth appearance during various segments of the movie we never feel alienated from Jordan. The movie does a credible job of taking the audience on its hero's emotional journey back and forth between hope and heartbreak. If anyone still had any doubts about Ranbir Kapoor's acting calibre this movie should firmly lay those to rest.

From JJ's pretend pain at being told to "burger off" by Heer to Jordan's genuine anguish at Heer pushing him away purposefully Ranbir infuses his character with an honest vulnerability and angst  that draws you in completely. Even at his most notorious, when his fans have adopted him as a symbol of their struggle for freedom, when the system has branded him as a problematic rebel, we the audience always know who Jordan really is. He doesn't give a damn about rousing people against oppressive authorities, he doesn't have any political agenda, he cares little for those countless millions who seemingly care for him. His songs are about the fights against his own demons, his own problems, his own little world that is too big to fit into society's little cage. Everything else is incidental. Jordan isn't a great man, but his affinity to the art give his music texture and his love infuses in it shiddat ...the combination of which propel him into greatness.

We expect female protagonists from Imtiaz's movies that are as well developed as their male counterparts. There was potential for the Heer of Rockstar to be as fascinating as Aditi from Socha Na Tha or as iconic as Geet from Jab We Met, however somewhere something just didn't click. Perhaps it was because next to Ranbir Nargis Fakhri's acting appeared doubly lackluster. She seemed to think that acting involved constantly raising your eyebrows when delivering dialogues, which was a bit distracting. On paper Heer does sound interesting - a "neat and clean", tehzeeb wali, hi fi ladki on the surface, but underneath it someone who has a zest for the audacious. While Nargis certainly looked the part she wasn't up to the task of delivering a nuanced performance about a girl who finds herself conflicted between the values she has been raised with and the love she feels compelled to reciprocate.

Thankfully however, though Nargis failed to convey the desired insight into Heer, her chemistry with Ranbir at least was thoroughly engaging. The depiction of Jordan and Heer's comfort level with each other, their sense of incompleteness without each other, their helplessness against their compulsions are all beautifully done. Certain moments between the two is the stuff poetry is made of - the scene in Kasmir where Heer asks Jordan to hug him, the scene where they are both being purposefully obtuse with each other about their feelings, the entire Aur Ho sequence, the scene where Heer and Jordan define their world full of exclusions...

Other moments are so delightfully low key and full of candour that they take you by surprise. The scene in Prague where Jordan points out to Heer that they should kiss now reminded me in spirit of one of my favourite scenes from Jab We Met - when Geet and Aditya are on a train in Shimla and she asks him "Main tujhe bohat achchi lagti hoon na?" (You like me a lot don't you?) and he replies "Bohat. Magar vo meri problem hai." (A lot, but that's my problem).

"Yeh kya hai?" (What is this?) you wonder after Rockstar ends. Imtiaz's magic touch manages to make even the audience forget its moral underpinnings. When Heer and Jordan are together, the audience is beyond right doing and wrong doing too, caught up in the magnetic field that doesn't allow these two to let go of each other. That moment in the Prague State Opera theatre where Jordan is singing about the evidence of his helplessness and promptly leaves the stage to kiss Heer who is hiding in the wings sums it up really. You just don't see how it could be any other way.

Aside from Imtiaz Ali's deft directorial and authorial skills and Ranbir Kapoor's commendable performance the music and editing in Rockstar are tours de force in themselves. Seldom have we seen such a well crafted and interesting narrative structure in our movies. The first few minutes of the movie traverse the entire graph of Janardhan's journey from JJ to Jordan, setting up the intrigue around his character well.The rest of the story pushes the boundaries of non-linear storytelling by having scenes fractured and repeated all over the place, keeping the audience guessing about Janardhan's emotional state and the reasons behind it till the end.  Hats off to Aarti Bajaj for being the skilful editor behind the movie and to Imtiaz who apparently wrote most of scenes that way in the first place.

A R Rahman, Dileep Subramanium and Imtiaz Ali have proven to be an explosive combo in Rockstar. You couldn't ask for a more organic integration of music, sound and story; it's as though their hearts were wedded to each other. The entire movie feels like a soul stirring 3 hour musical composition. The music moves you seamlessly into Jordan's journey of self discovery with the acoustic Jo Bhi Main. You experience Jordan and Heer's joie de vivre and their blossoming friendship through the catchy Katiya Karoon. With Phir Se Udd Chala you soar with Jordan as he flies aimlessly into the world having lost something he isn't yet prepared to admit he has lost. The sufiana Kun Faya kun is hypnotic in itself but onscreen the tumult of emotions Jordan undergoes, from rejection to acceptance, make it further mesmerising. There's a scene during the song where Ranbir in the middle of singing looks upwards and pauses as though he's had a revelation, and then slowly begins singing again - there was something so inexplicably gut-wrenching in those eyes.

The Sherawali Mata song to the tune of Thoda Thoda Pyar from Imtiaz's Love Aaj Kal was an unexpected surprise. I was instantaneously transported to the summer trips we made with family and friends to Vaishno Devi when I was young, I never could keep a straight face when they used filmi music for devotional songs but used to love it nevertheless. My only gripe about the movie's music would be that we didn't get to hear Shehar Mein in its entirety, though I understand that it would have paused the flow of the movie needlessly. I can only hope it makes it into the cut scenes on the DVD (cross your fingers folks!). Mohit Chauhan as the singing voice of Jordan needs a hearty applause for the range he has brought to the songs.

Attention to detail is something that I've always loved about Imtiaz's movies and we can pick Hawa Hawa as an example to demonstrate the talent this man has for maintaining a sense of continuity in his movies. Jordan's music in the movie has always been a reflection of where he is both in body and mind and Hawa Hawa comes out of his collaboration in Prague with a group of gypsies and his reawakened sense of happiness at seeing Heer again. Not only is the number fun and foot tapping but it also seems to tells us what Jordan thinks of Heer and her life now. Lyrcist Irshad Kamil has adapted a fairytale about twelve dancing princesses (that I vaguely remember reading as a kid) into a song that speaks of a queen who spends her nights dancing in hell and is discovered when her king appoints someone to find out how she manages to wear out 12 shoes overnight. Upon discovery the queen requests that the king let her go for her happiness does not lie in his cage of gold and finally "jo na kiya tha kiya - gande mandein bandon mein thi malang vo, apne rang ghoome, phire, jhoome, nache" (what she couldn't do freely before she could now - roam with cheap and dirty folks, walk and dance the way she wanted to). The use of the word "gande" surely is no coincidence when "gand machadenge" has been their mantra from way back when Jordan first asked Heer if she was going to go home "ya aur gand machani hai?" Watching Heer dance during Hawa Hawa, you are also reminded that she used to be a dancer during her college days and probably hasn't danced since then.

In the latter half of the movie the music needs to be experienced rather than written about, from slow burning passion, to anguish, anger, loss, comfort and reassurance - the emotional graph of Rockstar just doesn't let up and in the dark cinema hall with a big screen and the sound magnified the impact of it is all the more intense.

This seems like a gushing review, but it is no less than the movie deserves. There's so many brilliant things still left to mention:

  • the fiery Aditi Rao Hydari as the journalist Sheena who follows Jordan through his career - that scene where Jordan asks her if she is close to him is telling of how isolated and friendless he feels and how ruthless yet loyal she can be;

  • the late Shammi Kapoor as Ustad Jameel Khan, a joy to watch as always - the musical jugalbandi scene with Jordan can't help but make you smile for Jordan, a bit wiser in music now, can hear what he couldn't before, while you can see in the Ustad's eyes his wish to draw Jordan out of his pain;

  • Kumud Mishra who goes from muft-ka-gyaan (free advice) bantne wala canteen manager types to being Jordan's manager - the scene between him and Ranbir where he's attempting to impress upon Jordan, amidst a crowd delirious over the rebel rockstar, that his bad behaviour is winning no hearts is nothing short of comic genius, and Jordan's response, so free of irony, is nothing short of heartbreaking;

  • Sumit Basu's production design - especially Jordan's house in Pitampura and Heer's in Kashmir;

  • the intimate way Anil Mehta has shot Heer and Jordan's scenes in some cases - how they just fill up the screen as though they are blotting out the outside world;

  • how Heer is always running out of time - time before she gets married, time before Jordan leaves Prague, time before she dies;

  • the motif of Jordan as an injured bird with no home;

  • the way Jordan's speech pattern remains the same throughout the movie;

  • Imtiaz's authorial penchant for past scenes and dialogues mirroring the present

...I suspect further watches will only serve to deepen my appreciation for this movie.

"Haaaah!" Jordan goes when he's surprised into a laugh by someone. "Haaaah!" I feel like exclaiming in delight,  I've found a gem of a movie that I know will remain in my list of all time favourites for a long time to come, along with two other Imtiaz Ali movies. Not bad boss.

Other reviews:

Reema Moudgil: And they both don’t know what is it that binds them together. The hero in a Imtiaz Ali film does not speak in Yash Chopra’s refined love talk. He does not mention phrases like ‘sanson ki khushboo‘ and ‘ankhon ki masti.’ There is no formality between Ali’s lovers. Here too no matter how many painful years have yawned between them, Jordan always addresses Heer as, “Jungli Jawani.” After a soft porn film they watched together in a rundown theatre in Delhi. The physicality creeps in very late after they have established within their hearts that there is something beyond time and space between them. From a hug before Heer’s wedding to a kiss years later, they traverse the distance between deep friendship and uncontrollable desire with a sense of wonder and fear. “Magic touch,” he says once holding her, “what is this?” “I don’t know,” she says,”it just is.

Baradwaj Rangan: Like Mausam, Rockstar enshrines the notion of romance as a slow-burning flame that sears the soul, and like Shahid Kapoor, Ranbir Kapoor loses his heart to a somewhat remote beauty and trawls through time and space (across continents, actually) in pursuit of a horribly idealised, often self-destructive love. Both men are slowly stripped of their innocence, their vigour and good humour, and both films feature a malady that is healed not through medicine but by the magic of love. Both films feature a scene where lovers reunite in a European city, and this reunion isn’t marked by squeals of elation but with a near-existential shrug of acceptance, as if this meeting were inevitable, ordained by destiny. They could be ordering soup. And both films are narrated elliptically, as if flipping through a scrapbook of emotions; because the scenes are cut short and we aren’t shown everything, we feel, sometimes, a little disoriented about the chronology. (Perhaps that’s what makes them timeless love stories.) Both Mausam and Rockstar are operatic films that play out in a remarkably non-hysterical fashion (save for a few outbursts), and the experience is like listening to La Bohème as performed by Bob Dylan in his folk-guitar phase. Thunder-and-lightning material, the fodder of florid arias, is rendered casually, like a troubadour’s ballad. This apparent disconnect between form and content (which, of course, exists only in the mind, for there’s nothing that says movies have to be made only one way) is perhaps what’s causing the audience to tune out. In both films, I was surrounded by viewers who, after a point, could take it no more, and began to hoot and jeer. But I left both films on a near-spiritual high, as if cleansed of the grime that sticks to us after a few too many bubblegummy love stories. Like Mausam, Rockstar is some kind of crazy-great movie.

Sukanya Verma: Rockstar, like Mani Ratnam's Dil Se.. or Ashutosh Gowarikar's Swades is a heart-felt, inflexible vision of an insightful filmmaker. It is bound to generate polarizing responses. Either you will be able to hear the unsaid, draw your own subtext, understand Jordan's disdain for the system, disregard for his fans, sense the reason for the lingering rejection of his family and girl , read his eyes, see the pain and  feel his need to be treated normally again. Or you will nitpick where he took his guitar lessons, why don't we ever see him talk to his mother, why did he not reveal his true feelings to Heer earlier on, why doesn't he care for idolisation, why are Heer's folks so benign and inconsequential, why does the film end without any drama or dhan-te-nan?

Make your own answers. Because, at the end of the day, this is Ranbir's tour de force and there's nothing derivative about his performance, which aspires to be a reference point in its own. Whether he's the guideless lout from St Stephen's, a subject of indignation at the hands of his family, a lovelorn Romeo barred from consummating his relationship or a badass,
unwilling rockstar. Ranbir's heads-on approach to Jordan is rich in texture, nuances and caliber placing him far ahead of his immediate colleagues and in direct contention with the Khans, in bent if not box-office.

Raja Sen: Ranbir shines through the film, be it on stage tossing his tonsils into the microphone looking like a slightly oriental Frank Zappa in a Sgt Pepper's jacket, discussing the terms of a kiss in a Czech field, or at a formal dinner dressed in upholstery. It is a performance that breathes life into the character, making us care about his JJ more than the story deserves. He wraps his mouth around Mohit Chauhan's voice with desperate fervour, flinging out the words as if they were his own. And here again we see a love of nuance. His fingers close concentratedly into mudras as he sits in a recording booth trying to strike the right pitch, and while his guitarwork is unimpressive and often anachronistic to the music, his electric wriggling on stage makes up for it. Once, while in a meeting with a massaged music mogul, he breaks into a guffaw that, in itself, is worth the film.

The film is told in flashback fashion. Sorta kinda. Director Ali deftly spins through the story, working backwards, until he comes full circle. The beginning shots are of an eccentric, raggedy-looking rockstar Jordan, in full artist mode, sporting baggy, almost salwar like pants and headgear, scuffling, running. Soon, however, we move backwards in time and meet Jordan as JJ. The first-half of the film is build-up; there is Janardhan, in all his middle class glory, resplendent in his high-waisted jeans, garish sleeveless sweaters and dorky haircut in the middle of a Delhi winter, lugging around his guitar. There are sessions in the college canteen with the portly Khatana bhai, who I guess is some kind of clerk at the college. The fabulous attention to detail made me nostalgic for that time and place, and by extension for Delhi itself.
TV | Firefly | The tortured Tams
22nd-Nov-2011 01:34 am (UTC)
A simply fantastic review, thank you so much for sharing your love for this film. In a world where snark and bitter cynicism rule, it is a true delight to read such inhibited joyful enthusiasm. Refreshing for the soul, even for someone who plans on scrupulously avoiding this particular film. Sugarier!
22nd-Nov-2011 08:31 am (UTC)
Heh, you know I thought of you when I read a couple of pieces online about this movie that called it the modern generation's Pyaasa - people used that line you love a lot: yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai? in conjunction with the spirit of this movie. I was curious to see what your thoughts on the matter would be if you ever did see it because your review of Pyaasa is still one of my favourite blog posts/reviews by anyone about a movie. I have it flagged as something I want to watch when I go home from x-mas!

And thanks for the lovely encouragement Stuart. This is boiling it down to something simplistic, which Rockstar definitely isn't, but I just haven't seen a movie full of anguish and angst that I could love wholeheartedly for a long time - and the fact is I do really love angst in my fiction ...just not the kind where I know I'm being played like some puppet by the writer/director. This was a movie where I didn't get the time to *think*, to be sceptical, to stand back and fold my arms and go -seriously? I can see what you are doing-. Rather I was caught up in it all, left emotionally reeling and it's a rather thing in fiction to feel that these days. Genuine pain, not manufactured. I think I really needed that.
22nd-Nov-2011 08:33 am (UTC)
I meant rare* thing in fiction.
22nd-Nov-2011 08:59 am (UTC)
And *I* meant UNinhibited, so we're even on the miscommunication score. :)
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