“Rockstar”… Angst in the Pants

Posted on November 15, 2011


We’re lucky if we get one grand, eccentric, moody, what-were-they-thinking love story that raises a middle finger to audience attention spans and the whispered wisdom that this is what this star’s fans will pay to see him in – and we thought that Pankaj Kapur’s Mausam, this year, filled that slightly suicidal slot. But here’s Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar, which is so similar in tone and temperament that a time-pressed reviewer need do nothing more than yoke the two in the same sentence. “If you liked Mausam, you will love Rockstar. If you hated Mausam, then stay far, far away.” When we see or read about other people’s love stories, we seek only the highlights: jab they met, how he proposed, when they first did it. “Give us the good parts,” we say. “Leave out the boring bits, where nothing happens.” But from our own love stories, we know that the boring bits are what it’s all about – the restlessness, the annihilating uncertainty, the clock on the wall whose hands refuse to budge as we pace the room and pray to the spirits, awaiting an answer. These boring bits (which may be unendurable for others) are the hellish fires in which a certain kind of love is forged, and Pankaj Kapur and Imtiaz Ali, in their respective films, document this process, this slow process, through which men and women prove themselves transcendentally worthy of love. These films say that you may fall in love easily, but you have to work very hard to earn the happily-ever-after. They are fairy tales with a core of cold steel, as much the stuff of dreams as our worst nightmares.

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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.

The no-pain-no-gain philosophy of attaining love, in Rockstar, extends to Ranbir Kapoor’s music. (He plays an amateur musician named Janardhan who evolves into the snarling titular creature, answering to Jordan.) Janardhan is advised early on, that a real artist makes his art through angst, and it is this pain he seeks when he playfully proclaims his love to the Kashmiri played by newcomer Nargis Fakhri, whose character is named Heer. (As soon as we alight on this name, we realise that the director isn’t after just any love story, but something monumental and mythic. Heer, like her legendary counterpart, comes from a wealthy family, and Janardhan, like Ranjha, plays a musical instrument and falls afoul of his brothers and takes solace, at some point, in spirituality.) Janardhan reasons that Heer will reject him, and, as a result, his ridiculously happy life – whose highlights he enumerates in an amusing monologue – will wince with its first pinch of pain. She rejects him all right, but he doesn’t feel anything because he wasn’t all that invested in her approval in the first place. She was simply a means to an end, and that end was pain. And then, she becomes the end. They gradually drift into love, almost without realising it, and their early happiness recedes into a distant memory. Ali likes to complicate the relationships in his films by having one half of the couple engaged or wedded elsewhere, and here too, Heer is all set to marry someone so smooth-jawed he might be a shaving-cream model. That’s when Janardhan begins to skate on razorblades, really transforming into a lovesick Ranjha.

Rockstar is a sprawling ode to the cliché that we should be careful what we ask the gods for, for they may actually grant us our wish. (In other words, the only thing worse than not getting what you want is getting what you want.) Jordan wants pain in order to create music, and he ends up with so much pain that even when he’s mobbed by fans – which is every musician’s dream, and it certainly was his – all he can think about, talk about is this pain. He is in thrall to this pain; there’s nothing in his life but this pain. And Heer is the ethereal balm. When her mother asks him to step away from her daughter’s side, he doesn’t say “Main nahin jaaoonga” but “Main nahin jaa paaoonga.” This isn’t sullen defiance but abject helplessness, for when she’s not around to alleviate his pain, he goes mad, like an addict denied his fix. He beats up cops. He throws up on the red carpet. He barks at the media. He tears up a contract and showers the pieces of paper like confetti on a music-label executive, chanting wedding incantations. He cancels concerts, preferring to sing along with prostitutes in the midst of a whorehouse. He is unable to function without her, and she is literally unable to survive without him.

Rockstar is perhaps the worst title Imtiaz Ali could have given his film, for it makes us anticipate a blistering saga of a musician and his music, while in actuality, this is the fanciful chronicle of a lover – a morbidly obsessed  romantic who just happens to be a musician. When that music-label executive sacks Jordan because he is unable to pour himself into someone else’s composition, a shehnai maestro (Shammi Kapoor) explains that Jordan is destined for great things, that he is a bada jaanwar who cannot be caged in this chhota pinjra. We think, of course, that he’s talking about Jordan’s music, but this metaphor is equally true about Jordan’s love, which is too big to be bound to this prosaic world, with its frustratingly logical rules. That is why Jordan and Heer need their own world, which springs up around them when they lie in bed, under snow-white covers, oblivious to everything else. (Ali’s ugliest touch in the film is where he labels this sentiment, with a Rumi quote floating across a representation of their togetherness in an Elysian eternity; this visual instantly congeals into calendar-art kitsch.)

When Jordan is with Heer, it’s magic, and when they embrace, he calls it a “magic touch.” (That is why it’s a mistake that, after Jordan visits a bedridden Heer, her mother exults that her blood count is better. Such mundaneness has no business in this realm of magic. Heer has become better simply because Jordan is near her.) Heer, too, is some sort of bada jaanwar – her love for Jordan is so oversized that it transcends the chhota pinjra of her marriage to her shaving-cream-model husband. We don’t judge her when she cheats on this man; we just wonder why she doesn’t drop him, and why she is so invested in keeping up appearances in that clearly broken marriage. In Ali’s eyes, Jordan and Heer appear to be as pure and as single-minded in their desire (and as unconcerned about man-made social norms) as animals, and I think he puts these words in Jordan’s mouth during a concert, where Jordan says that the city came about because a jungle was felled, and he’s still searching for a displaced flock of pigeons, those nadaan parindey, whose shadow falls on both the name of his concert tour (“Wings on Fire”) as well as an early song (Phir se ud chala) where he dreams of flight.

But even if Jordan needn’t have been a musician for this movie to work, his story is undoubtedly charted through AR Rahman’s music, which fits the narrative far better than it serves as a standalone listening experience. (Every time I heard the songs, I had that close-but-no-cigar feeling.) In Imtiaz Ali’s ingenious conceit, the film moves from lightheartedness to heavy-duty angst, and the music correspondingly progresses from the playful Katiya karoon to the questing Kun faaya kun (which leads to the “miracle” of Jordan being signed by a recording label) to the exuberant Hawa hawa to the first stirrings of the much-sought-after pain in Meri bebasi ka bayaan hai to the primal howls of Sadda haq. (And somewhere in between Ali references his own song, Thoda thoda pyaar from Love Aaj Kal, now transformed into a disco-bhajan.) Early on, after being slapped around by cops for playing his soft, gentle music in a public space, Jordan complains to his friends that Jim Morrison raised a middle finger at the audience and was hailed a visionary, while he’s being hauled up for nothing. By the end, as this angry rock star is being led away by cops, he raises a middle finger to the crowds. He has his pain; he’s become his idol.

It is intriguing – and inevitably a comment on our Westernised times – that angst is equated with rock, as if the only accompaniment to a soul in torment is a wailing electric guitar. I kept thinking of homegrown expressions of a turbulent inner life, in songs like Waqt ne kiya and Beshaq mandir masjid todo – but as soon as the thought slipped into my head I realised that that kind of angst has few takers today. You ain’t a broken human being unless you emulate Jim Morrison – and Ranbir Kapoor is exceptionally good as this shattered songster. He probably overdoes the googly-eyed innocence in the early scenes, but his depiction of a singer is one of the truest in the movies. When he strives for a high note, his eyes scrunch up and the cords in his neck jut out like jumper cables. At other times, he delivers a line and then steps back, eyes closed, mimicking an artist who is in the zone, possessed by the music, and sometimes he nods appreciatively, knowing that he’s pulled off something great. He shows us the strain of creating music and then he shows us that he savours it.

His story is narrated in an overlapping structure that goes back and forth in time, with signpost scenes that are repeated in order to guide us, and this looks like a stunt. At first, it appears that this splintered timeline is a function of the journalist named Sheena (Aditi Rao Hydari). After Heer gets married and leaves, Jordan too disappears from the picture, and we see Sheena interviewing his friends and business associates about his whereabouts. At this point, I thought Ali was after something like Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, whose fractured narrative follows from a journalist’s investigation into a rock star’s disappearance (and that structure, of course, harks back to Citizen Kane, the granddaddy of piecing-together-a-life movies). But soon, Sheena drops her investigation – rather, we return to Jordan’s point of view. We no longer need to piece together information about him, and the purpose of this slightly taxing structure is unclear. We are already kept guessing by the short length of the scenes and their truncation before they play out to the point of conventional dramatic satisfaction, and this additional layer of looping-back complexity is not organic. It doesn’t seem to rise from any real narrative need.

But then, what does? Practically nothing in Rockstar is done the way its story synopsis would appear to demand, and this blithe abandonment of convention is what makes this love story sing. The only sustained note of discord is the heroine, who was no doubt chosen because she looks like the Kashmiri that Heer is. She is passable in the early scenes, where she drags Jordan to the decrepit Amar Talkies to watch Jungli Jawani – later, when he remarks that she could have been raped, she jokes that that would have been Jungli Jawani Part 2. And in one of the film’s finest love scenes (and there are many fine, talky love scenes to choose from), she comes close to declaring her feelings for Jordan while dressed up in blood-red bridal finery – he wonders aloud, laughing, if she hasn’t fallen for him, and her eyes mist up as she deflects the question. But as the film becomes mired in its madness, her inadequacies become increasingly apparent. (Though, to be fair, I tried to imagine who else could have played this part, and I couldn’t come up with a name.)  She’s fine as a creamy physical object of desire, but we don’t see her as a woman possessed. As her condition worsens, she keeps fainting daintily, as if auditioning for a remake of The Princess and the Pea. Had her performance matched Ranbir’s, their film might have been as out-of-this-world as their love.

Copyright ©2011 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi