The healing power of music is the focus of an entertaining rock-group drama, whose high notes indicate it could have been so much more. Plus, sigh, another “comedy.”
AUG 31, 2008 – FARHAN AKHTAR HAS THE PERFECT VOICE for rock. Had Abhishek Kapoor’s Rock On set out to chronicle a pop band, Akhtar – who plays Aditya, the lead singer – would have sounded untrained and unpolished, especially in the ballad Tum ho to, which requires him to carry the phrase Tumko hai maangti yeh zindagi over to the other side of the octave. It’s not that Akhtar can’t hold a tune. (He manages quite well the slightly tricky detour at the line, Tum ho to hai sapno ke jaisa haseen.) But when zindagi is stretched over a series of ascendant notes and his voice cracks to a falsetto, you know his limitations. You know that a good pop singer wouldn’t have lapsed into helium mode – he’d have soldiered on with sheer lung power.
But if pop is about shiny, show-offy perfection, rock addresses the often-unbearable imperfection of being – and in grappling with these words, Akhtar beautifully (and perhaps inadvertently) brings out the blistering rawness in the lyric, and thus in the situation. (It’s not unlike how SD Burman, despite being no Rafi, was exactly the person to sing certain songs that would get to the piercing truth of an on-screen moment. Where Rafi, with his superhuman talents, would have transported you to the heavens, Burman would dig his heels in and root you resolutely in this world, of ordinary people like you and me.)
At the point in the film that Tum ho to unfolds, it channels the emotions of a number of people, expressing a number of variants of love. And whether it’s the love of the band’s lead guitarist for his girlfriend, or the love of the lead singer for his most favourite band mate, or simply the love of a musician for music, that ache of not being complete without this love is palpable in Akhtar’s singing. This is an all-or-nothing moment, which needed to work if you needed to walk away from the film on a high – and thanks to Akhtar, it does. (And his performance, in many ways, is like his singing – raw, but just right.)
Rock On is, on the surface, the present-day story of a band – Aditya, Joe (Arjun Rampal), Rob (Luke Kenny), KD (a delightful Purab Kohli) – that seeks to recapture a sliver of past glory, but it’s really one of those white-collar wish-fulfillment fantasies like Shall We Dance, which equates happiness with putting home and career on hold while you go out and follow your heart and your passion. Rock On is built on a similarly spurious philosophy. As the film opens, Rob mopes around despite making good money working for music director Anu Malik (playing himself), Joe mopes around despite being around his beloved guitar all day long, giving lessons to neighbourhood kids, and Aditya mopes around despite being a super-rich investment banker, with a home right out of Architectural Digest and a pretty wife (played with quiet charm by Prachi Desai) who loves him dearly.
Of course, it doesn’t occur to them that they have the lives that many others would kill for – and the implication that a giant soul-sucking blackness looms over their existence simply because their band broke up and they’re no longer on stage comes off as borderline self-absorption. They’d rather look back at what they’ve lost than be grateful for what they’ve got – it’s as if the possibility never occurred to them that they could still jam outside of the professions that life and growing up have saddled them with – and your impatience with their moping assumes new proportions when you run into Joe’s wife, Debbie (Shahana Goswami).
In a marvellous performance that’s easily the life of the film – and one that, in an alternate universe not ruled by the likes of Katrina Kaif, would rightfully make her a star – Goswami embodies a bustling no-nonsense Mother Earth. Debbie wanted to become a fashion designer, but she’s ended up running her husband’s fish business because he’s too busy feeling sorry for himself to get his butt off a chair and actually make a living – and if she’s unhappy about the course her life has taken, she’s not one to complain.
It’s not that she doesn’t want to complain – but she has no time and energy for fussy railings against fate. She has a husband and a son to look after, a business to run, meals to set on the table, a grandmother to take care of, and you see in her all the men and women who are busy with the business of living. They have no time for the past – they have their hands full with the present and the future. Besides, Debbie isn’t just living her life, she’s living her husband’s too – nagging him to go after opportunities, even if that means swallowing some artiste ego. She loves him, nurtures him, protects him from the world he’s too fragile for, and with her practicality and common sense, she’s the glue holding him (and the family) together. Without her, there would be nothing – and when she can shut up and put up, you don’t see why Joe and Aditya and Rob cannot.
But that’s a practical way of looking at life, and Rock On is, above all, a story of dreams and dreamers. It’s the kind of film where even Aditya’s phone message to his wife reflects the repetitions and rhymes of written verse (in other words, underneath those natty suits beats the heart of a poet). Rock On is a repackaging of a beloved Hollywood formula, and it needs these self-indulgent fictions in order to build to its patented uplifting ending – in order to leave us with bleary eyes and a budding resolve to strum our rusty inner guitars.
What’s odd, though, is that, for a story about a rock band, Rock On is curiously uninterested in the actual business of making music. Apart from a brief scene where the band assembles to rehearse – Aditya outlines the lyrics; there’s some chatter about Rob’s inordinate fondness for the D Major chord – there’s little about the actual creative process. Had the film made us care about their music to the same extent that they apparently care about their music, had it shown us how these people met, how they decided to make music together, how they discovered their sound, how their act rose from small-time lounges and clubs and opening acts to the big time – Rock On would have been a different movie altogether, the one that the promos promised, and one that showed how the pursuit of creation and art can fuse together, if only for a brief shining moment, disparate personalities and backgrounds and egos.
But, slowly, it becomes clear that Rock On isn’t so much a rock movie as a movie in which rock just happens to play a part. (It could just as easily have been… Write On, except that clacking away at a keyboard isn’t quite as exciting as performing on stage.) It’s content to paint, in broad brush strokes, the general feeling of being around a band – as in the beautiful scene where the band reunites (in a cobwebbed rehearsal space, struggling to catch the notes that were so effortless all those years ago) or in the hilariously heartfelt moment that underscores the high of being on stage (when KD launches into an impromptu drums solo). Besides the song sequences, the vibe of the music is dispensed with a few carefully chosen details – a Jim Morrison T-shirt here, a poster of Led Zeppelin’s Mothership there (somewhat anachronistic for the time period). Even the band’s name – Magik – appears watered-down, all touchy-feely and non-threatening to an audience that may not be into rock. (Oh, come on, the odds of a rock band naming itself Magik are about the same as a post-punk group calling itself Barbie.)
Even the relationships don’t exactly revolve around rock – they’re rather generic constructs. The film tells us that Joe (Rampal is very effectively muted to the point of catatonia) and Aditya are great friends because they embrace on stage after wrapping up a number, and because Joe beats up someone who insults Aditya backstage, and because when Joe writes a song, the opinions of the other band members don’t matter as much as Aditya’s. But imagine if this friendship had been forged over the creation of music, and imagine if their eventual falling apart had to do with, say, the McCartney-Lennon dynamics of differing temperaments wanting to head in different directions.
Rock On, instead, spins the romantic notion that the band split up because of having to compromise, because Evil Recording Company Executives (whose uncouth heinousness is underlined by the fact that they pepper their speech with “darling” and “meri jaan”) laid their grubby hands all over the group’s vision. The fact that seven of the band’s songs are going to find their way into the debut album, with only the eighth number being a commercial compromise, is presented to us as a monstrous deal-breaker, when, in reality, aspiring rock groups would be happy if they got to put out a single. Creative types can be painful prima donnas, sure, but these portions are so simplistic (and, frankly, silly), you begin to wonder if Akhtar (who produced the film) is some sort of compulsive compensator – for every step forward he takes our cinema, he just has to take one backwards.
And, at least, if the film dealt honestly with the implications of these contrivances, we might have had something – but Kapoor’s direction takes its cues from the Farhan Akhtar School of Arty Disaffection, where being subtle appears to be the same as being scared to disrupt the clean composition of a scene with messy emotion. At times, this results in frames so lifeless, so juiceless, you’re not sure if you’re watching direction or art direction – a series of still lifes of Akhtar at home, Joe at the dining table, and so on. Perhaps the attempt was to contrast the boisterousness of the past (when they had music in their lives) with the boring present, but there are moments you come dangerously close to not caring.
But like Akhtar’s other productions, if you overlook the annoyances and the could-have-beens – a ridiculously manipulative plot point about a deadly medical condition; the heavy-duty irony of Aditya belonging to a band that sneered at Hindi film music, and now ending up with a wife who knows nothing but Hindi film music – it’s because there are countless little details to savour: the peerless deadpan humour (resulting the funniest moment of the year, where the band sells its soul in order to raise money for equipment), the uncomfortably truthful insights into friendships (reuniting with Rob and KD after years, Aditya feels no warm rush of emotion; all he can say is that they are strangers, “Ab main unhe nahin jaanta,” which is so flippantly casual as to sound cruel), and the lovely detailing of modern-day relationships (the scene where Aditya runs into his ex, while his wife is beside him, is a gem).
And the big details, of course, are the songs themselves, which are rousingly staged. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy appropriate elements of rock into the traditional outlines of film music – and if it’s a soundtrack that’s less Black Sabbath than Bryan Adams, it still leaves you with the buzz of a great concert. Rock On may not be interested in how music is created, but at least it’s not shy about showing us how music is communally experienced. When Magik goes up on stage, during a contest, Aditya gets the crowd chanting – na na na na – and the song he subsequently sings (Pichle saat dino mein) bounces so enjoyably off this rhythm and draws so satisfyingly from this energy, it’s sheer… magik.
FOR THOSE OF US WHO FEEL we see far too less of the lovely Raima Sen on screen, Sachin Yardi’s C Kkompany is both a blessing and a curse. The film does offer the attraction of the first Sen sighting since Manorama Six Feet Under – but at the cost of cringing at what an actor has to do, sometimes, to keep up with the rising cost of living. At one point, Sen walks into a party filled with television stars, and when asked if she’s a fan of serials, she smiles and nods. And after a suitable pause, she tosses off what’s intended as a rimshot repartee, “Cereals and pulses.” The humour in the rest of this film – about losers (Tusshar Kapoor, Anupam Kher, Rajpal Yadav) who pretend to be an underworld gang – isn’t much better, and it makes you wonder if it isn’t time to declare a moratorium on comedies unless they actually have the potential to make you, you know, laugh.
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