The way we speak in real life, that’s conversation. The way people in a certain kind of movie speak, that’s dialogue. Both kinds of exchange are present in Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushil. The film opens with a gun-to-the-head dedication to the army that doesn’t feel all that misplaced. Romance, after all, is its own kind of war. Borders are breached. The heart mounts a defence. There’s the scoping out of territory, which is what the Urdu-couplet-spouting poet Saba (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, looking like an Urdu couplet herself) does with wounded-in-love Ayan (Ranbir Kapoor). The conversation version of the scene would go like this. She’d give him her number. She’d say, “Give me a call sometime.” Johar gives us the dialogue version. Saba hands Ayan a book of her poetry. She’s scrawled her number on the title page. As she leaves, she says, “Agar alfaaz kaam na aaye to number istemaal kar lena.” Translation: Stop moping. Buck up and soldier on.
In Johar’s world, as in the world of an older Hindi cinema, love takes the form of dialogue. Here’s what Ayan says when he lands up in Vienna, where Saba lives: ‘Aap’ ko ‘tum’ banane aaya hoon. Here’s what Alizeh (Anushka Sharma) says when she refers to her girl-hopping ex, Ali (extremely good-looking star from a neighbouring country who cannot be named here because I do not have Rs. 5 crore to spare): Woh meri mohabbat tha aur main uski aadat. Here’s how Ayan justifies his adamant pursuit of Alizeh, who just wants to be friends: Zid meri hai kyonki dil mera hai. Friendship, on the other hand, takes the form of conversation – it sounds less like Hindi cinema, more like Bollywood. Consider the early scene with Ayan and his ditz of a girlfriend (a delightful Lisa Haydon, thanks to whom I will never hear the word “vatavaran” the same way again). They’re just together. They’re not really in love. She complains that he doesn’t take her side when she’s teased. He says, with a barely concealed grin, “I always stand up for you.” This is conversation. It’s also the first erection joke in Johar’s cinema, which usually targets glands further up north: It’s all about loving your tear ducts. Ae Dil sees a very different Johar – or at least, the Johar we haven’t seen since Kal Ho Naa Ho. It’s melodrama with zing. It’s melodrama that keeps you smiling.
The film is about one-sided love that’s four-sided – we see the flame burning in Saba’s ex-husband, in Alizeh, in Saba herself, and, of course, in Ayan. It’s about houses that look like Macy’s windows during Christmas-time, but with darker tints in the corners. It’s about the kind of possessiveness that makes men ask “Did you have sex with him?” before asking “Are you in love with him?” It’s about being with someone who inspires you enough to sing your heart out, and then discovering, at the end of the song, that your heart lies with someone else. It’s about love being a literal weight on the chest (“dil ka bojh,” as our older films used to say) – this thought is shaped into a pair of magnificent echo moments. It’s about men as children, men who, instead of consoling someone with a life-threatening illness, end up needing to be consoled. It’s about good looks coming in the way of being taken seriously, something that Karan Johar’s cinema knows almost as well as Aishwarya Rai, whose character admits, touchingly, that she doesn’t get much respect from the literary establishment. (Aishwarya plays this sophisticated creature beautifully, with a series of perfectly judged looks and glances.) It’s about Ayan learning about heartbreak. After an early breakup, he simply cries like a kid whose toy has been snatched away. Later, he’ll weep so hard, he won’t be able to breathe.
Ae Dil is something of a belated experiment. It sees Johar stepping into Imtiaz Ali’s laboratory where free-spirited women catalyse the transformation of boys into men. The bit from Rockstar about how you have to experience pain in order to become a good musician (Ayan aspires to become a singer; his last name is Sanger), the bit from Love Aaj Kal where a man spills out that he’s truly-madly-deeply in love only when the woman is getting married – that’s all here. But there’s also a different kind of experimentation, where Johar is asking, “How much of the Hindi cinema that some of us adore can I still hold on to while making movies for audiences that prefer Bollywood?” Put differently, how does one take Daag to viewers to whom Yash Raj is synonymous with Dhoom? How does one embrace Noorjehan and Farida Khanum as well as The Breakup Song and Cutiepie in Pritam’s blockbuster soundtrack? How do you dish out heartfelt, carefully sculpted dialogue in a world where ppl converse casually in 140 chrctrs?
Johar’s formula is 50% sincerity, 50% self-aware winking. And wanking. Ae Dil is practically antakshari for lovers of Hindi cinema, but it isn’t the empty referencing from Johar’s earlier cinema. Both Alizeh and Ayan are fans of movies from a different era. (As for Saba, she is from the movies of a different era, though far more sexually liberated.) Ae Dil keeps thinking of ways to weave these references into the narrative. A nod to Dev Anand’s character in Guide pops up as Alizeh offers to guide Ayan through the dating scene. A verse from the drug-addled Jai jai Shivshankar becomes the backdrop for a scene in a cancer-treatment ward. Imtiaz Ali may have referenced Don in Tamasha, but Johar smacks his lips and digs deeper, all the way to the bottom of the barrel, all the way to the Padmalaya films. A number from Tohfa segues into a line about a gift. Ranbir Kapoor doffs a hat to his father (“Main shayar to nahin”) and himself (the “okkeh bye” from Saawariya). Seen in this light, Johar’s self-referencing doesn’t seem so masturbatory. We get the moment from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai where Shah Rukh plays an invisible piano, and a nod to the “be-inteha mohabbat” in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna. But it blends into the landscape where everyone is getting off on cinema, for this kind of filmmaking isn’t about the reality we know from the world as much as the reality we know from the movies. Even the conversations aren’t exactly what we’d say. They’re not “That felt good.” They’re more like “Dil ka pet bhar gaya.”
Johar hasn’t invented this kind of movie-making. It was always there, not just in older Hindi cinema, but in older Hollywood as well. Casablanca knew it was a groan-inducing coincidence that Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart just happened to end up exactly in the same place, many moons after they parted. Hence this dialogue from Bogart, who now runs a nightclub: “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.” We laugh not just because it’s a great line. We also laugh because the film is aware that we are aware of the contrivance. And it’s nice to see this kind of film back on the big screen –in a form that’s more appealing to the modern-day audience, but without the sense of mockery in other films that play with older tropes. We get the airport climax – but with an ambulance. We get the chiffon-sari moment in the Alps – but with a dash of hypothermia. We get the moment where the hero talks about his mother – but she ran away when he was two. We get Gaata rahe mera dil – but with a scandalous diss to Rafi, who’s dismissed as a crybaby. Where Yash Chopra led us through fields of flowers, Johar hands us a cactus. Literally. That’s what Alizeh’s tohfa to Ayan is.
Some of this is hard to take seriously. There’s a gag early on where Ayan and Alizeh compete with each other to prove how hot their respective partners are – and later, after getting together with Saba, Ayan keeps clicking pictures of her, so he can send them to Alizeh and prove he’s hit the jackpot. These points about looks are meaningless in a film in which the less-attractive option looks like Anushka Sharma. But my only real quibble was that the film doesn’t cut as deep as I’d have liked – perhaps Ranbir Kapoor has played this part a few too many times. His instincts are extraordinary (watch him look into a mirror and admit he wants to be with Alizeh) and there’s no other actor as much at ease with his feminine side, which makes his line readings off-the-charts unpredictable. But it’s time to retire this man-child. It helps that he’s paired with Anushka Sharma. What he shared with Deepika Padukone in Tamasha was chemistry. This is electricity, two young people juiced up by the prospect of hanging out. Their appropriation of Lag jaa gale is the best old-song-in-a-new-movie moment since Abhi na jaao in Mausam. Again, it’s not just simple Hindi-film nostalgia. It’s about the words and how, sometimes, lyrics and music make it far easier to put across a sentiment like “Maybe we’ll never meet again in this lifetime.”
This moony-eyed romance is surprisingly tinged with unapologetic sex. There’s a fascinating scene – a first in Hindi cinema – where a man acknowledges that his former wife is now having sex with a younger man, but he’s such a romantic that he wants the new lover to let her sleep for at least a bit, so he can enter her dreams. Is your response a sigh? A roll of the eye? But there’s no question Johar has turned a corner. In Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, you sensed his fear. He made the union look less like the meeting of hearts than the fruit of a decade-long penance. (Some of the scenes really seemed to go on that long.) Ae Dil runs about two-and-a-half hours, but there’s very little padding or pandering – it zips along. You sense confidence. You sense freedom. You sense a bit of the raised middle finger Ayan shows Alizeh. For the first time, Karan Johar comes across like a filmmaker who’s going to end up making love stories with a happily-never-after.
- Ae Dil Hai Mushkil = love is complicated
- “Agar alfaaz kaam na aaye to number istemaal kar lena.” = If these words don’t help, use this number.
- ‘Aap’ ko ‘tum’ banane aaya hoon. = I’ve come here to know you better.
- Woh meri mohabbat tha aur main uski aadat. = He was my love. I was just his habit.
- Zid meri hai kyonki dil mera hai. = It’s my heart. It can be as stubborn as I want.
- vatavaran = aura, milieu
- Rockstar = see here
- Love Aaj Kal = see here
- Daag = see here
- Dhoom = see here. and here
- antakshari = see here
- Tamasha = see here
- Saawariya = see here
- “be-inteha mohabbat” = limitless love
- Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna = see here
- “Dil ka pet bhar gaya.” = That felt good.
- tohfa = gift
- Mausam = see here
Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.