Ae Dil Hai Mushkil

 

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You know what you’re going to get with a Karan Johar film and his latest film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil doesn’t contain any surprises. As usual the film is all about unbelievably wealthy characters who look fabulous, live in amazing houses and agonise over simple human relationships the way only the truly idle rich can afford to do. It’s fluff, but beautifully filmed fluff that makes for a reasonable time-pass if you can ignore the few serious flaws that prevent the film from being a total success.

The film follows the antics of Ayan Sanger (Ranbir Kapoor) as he wastes his father’s money while studying an MBA in London and secretly dreaming of becoming a singer. One night he meets Alizeh Khan (Anushka Sharma) another rich kid who doesn’t even get a back story to explain her family wealth or her presence in London. Despite already having a girlfriend (Lisa Haydon), Ayan falls head over heels in love with Alizeh but unfortunately for Ayan, Alizeh is also already in a relationship (although unlike him she has no qualms about a quick one-night stand) and has no interest in anything other than friendship. Alizeh still has feeling for her ex – a DJ with a roving eye (Fawad Khan) and there is no room in her heart for anyone else.

It’s a wafer thin story and the theme of unrequited love is one that’s been told many times before, but that’s not the problem with the film. The biggest flaw here is Ranbir’s character Ayan who seems to be the worst possible reprise of almost every role Ranbir has played to date. Ayan is an overly emotional man-child with anger management issues who depends on his partner’s maturity and tolerance to solve all his problems for him. Like JJ in Rockstar, Ayan blames the object of his unrequited love for his issues and totally fails to see that only he can take responsibility for his own emotions. It’s hard to feel any empathy for such a self-centred character, particularly when he behaves like a five-year-old, bawling his eyes out when his girlfriend leaves him and pushing Alizeh around when she doesn’t fall into line. At least Alizeh pushes back, but this kind of violence without repercussions is just not acceptable and has no place in any film that purports to be a ‘romance’. Ranbir puts in a good performance, possibly no-one can pull off bratty man-child as well as he can, but his character here is too obnoxious for me and I seriously questioned Alizeh’s judgement when she decided that Ayan was her BFF.

My other big issue is the dreadful cliché used to resolve Ayan’s emotional immaturity at the end of the film. It’s such a let-down and a weak finale, especially when Ayan’s behaviour becomes even more appallingly self-centred and he is quite brutal in his treatment of Alizeh.  It’s disappointing as there are plenty of good points to the film too, but with the end such a let-down the overall feeling on leaving the cinema is one of dissatisfaction.

It’s not all bad though and the first half in particular has plenty to enjoy. Thankfully, apart from her poor friend choice, Anushka Sharma’s Alizeh is a more sympathetic character and appears charming and likeable, even in her loyalty to her philandering boyfriend. Her decision to marry DJ Ali despite her awareness of his indiscretions rings true to real life relationships, and the mistaken but frequent belief in marriage as a cure for infidelity. As if! Alas, Alizeh’s love for Ali seems much greater than Ali’s love for Alizeh and both Anushka Sharma and Fawad Khan are excellent in their portrayals of this mismatched couple in a seemingly doomed relationship.

What also works well is the friendship between Ayan and Alizeh, which sparkles off the screen in the first half. I love that they have a shared love of old cheesy Bollywood songs (after all, who doesn’t!) and that they re-enact them on the snowy slopes of Europe. As someone who has run around Golkonda in Hyderabad trailing a scarf and singing the songs from Magadheera, I have immediate rapport with anyone attempting the same thing, especially when they take the time to dress appropriately for the occasion! There are a few glimpses as flashbacks in the song below but this scene is definitely worth catching in the cinema and for me was totally worth the price of admission alone.

Anushka Sharma is the best thing about the film and her portrayal of Alizeh’s down to earth pragmatism and sheer common sense ensure she is the most relatable character on-screen. She looks great and gives Alizeh plenty of pep and personality to counteract frequently Ranbir’s snivelling Ayan. It’s not that Ranbir doesn’t put in a good performance – he does – but his character is nothing he hasn’t done before and in this instance his immaturity is particularly annoying when compared to the other characters in the film.

Also excellent is Aishwarya Rai Bachchan who appears in the second half as a divorced poet Saba Khan. Saba begins a love affair with Ayan just as his heart is broken by Alizeh’s marriage and the two have an interesting relationship.  Ayan is as callous and immature as ever, but hs a genuine affection for Saba, while she is mature enough to revel in a love affair that has no expectations. Aishwarya is stunningly beautiful and gracefully elegant as she swans around her amazing apartment in Vienna, again with no indication of how a supposedly struggling poet could afford to live somewhere quite so spectacular and expensively furnished. Of course there is her ex-husband (Shah Rukh Khan in a brief cameo) who is supposedly a successful artist, and is still in love with his ex-wife so perhaps he is happy to fund her wealthy lifestyle. The relationship between Ayan and Saba is much better realised than that of Ayan and Alizeh, and here the contrast between Saba’s maturity and Ayan’s self-centred youth makes for a more plausible relationship. Even the way it ends is well written and perfectly acted by Ranbir and Aishwarya, something that makes the final scenes even more disappointing in comparison. After all if K-Jo could write this part of the story so well, why not have such a satisfying conclusion to the main relationship too?

I wanted to like As Dil Hai Mushkil more as there are some very funny moments and clever situations in the first half that work really well. The songs are good, the sets spectacular and all the actors perform well. But no matter how much I enjoyed the friendship between Ayan and Alizeh, or the relationship between Ayan and Saba, it’s all overshadowed by the clichéd ending and the general unpleasantness of Ayan’s character. Worth watching for Aishwarya and Anushka and the wonderful re-enactment in the snow but be prepared for the banality of the ending and seen-it-all-before sameness of  Ranbir’s character.

Queen (2014)

Queen

It’s heartening that the Indian Film Industry is producing more female-centric movies with the last few years having seen an increasing number of releases featuring a woman as the main lead. Even better, these are strong and independent women who don’t need to be rescued by a hero and can solve their problems by themselves, thank you very much. Queen is another film to add to the list, and a very worthy entrant it is too. In a somewhat similar vein to English Vinglish, Queen tells a story of self-discovery, but in this instance the protagonist is a young bride, jilted just before her wedding. Rather than bemoan her fate, Rani (Kangana Ranaut) packs her bags and heads off to Europe on her honeymoon by herself. It’s a charming look at Rani’s journey, both the physical trip and the metaphorical voyage, that doesn’t follow the expected path despite a number of frustratingly stereotypical characters along the way. I loved Kangana’s quirky take on an innocent abroad and her coming of age story is endearing and at times familiar as she negotiates her  way through the streets of Paris and Amsterdam.

The film opens with the preparations for Rani’s wedding to Vijay (Rajkummar Rao), a rather smarmy and chauvinistic engineer who met Rani in Delhi but is now living and working in London. The initial voice-over, filled with inanities from Rani as she contemplates the celebrations, her family and her approaching first night, is an excellent introduction to her character and is so very common place and normal that straight away you are drawn into her world. Vikas Bahl perfectly captures the excitement, apprehension and happiness of the occasion, and the first song is a lively and appropriate accompaniment to the celebrations.

When Rani is jilted, her family rallies round and is supportive of her decision to go to Europe alone. I was expecting some parental opposition but everyone seems happy to let Rani go, even though she has spent the previous 24 hours hiding and crying in her room.

What wouldn’t be a big deal to anyone else is a huge adventure for Rani and her amazement at the sights of Paris and Amsterdam is infectious, although I did have to wonder that a resident of Delhi had issues crossing a road in Paris. India is a much more confronting place as far as traffic goes!

In Paris Rani meets a young French woman Vijayalakshmi (Lisa Haydon) who introduces her to Paris nightlife and starts to open her eyes to the possibilities of a more independent life. Lisa Haydon is excellent, although her introduction scene is rather more dubious. However, just when you think the film is about to tread a well worth path featuring a shameless Frenchwoman and loud scenes of intercourse, the film switches direction and Vijayalakshmi turns out to be a more interesting character than first impressions would suggest. Of course there is still the stereotypical portrayal of her European loose morals, since she is an unmarried mother who likes to go out clubbing, but Lisa Haydon gives her character plenty of soul and a caring nature, which helps win over Rani’s initial mistrust.

The relationship between the two young women evolves very naturally and doesn’t fall into the plot pitfalls that loom once Vijayalakshmi takes Rani out drinking. My favourite moment is when Rani climbs up onto the bar to dance, and after twirling her cardigan striptease style, rather than toss it away, she stuffs it into her bag instead. Then dances manically to the strains of a remixed Hungama Ho Gaya. It’s such a classic moment and I totally understand what was going through her head right at that moment! It’s a major strength of the film that Kangana is completely immersed in her character and is such a ‘normal girl on her first adventure away from home’, making it easy to relate to her experiences and understand her reactions. It’s not flawless but it feels genuine and Kangana captures that mix of wonderment, elation and confusion perfectly.

Rani moves on to Amsterdam and therefore there are the expected scenes in a sex shop and with a prostitute who of course is working to send money home to her family. But in contrast to these clichéd moments, the developing friendship between Rani and her three hostel roommates is fresh and unexpected, particularly since all three are male! Mish Boyko as Russian Oleksander, Jeffrey Ho as Taka and Joseph Guithob as Tim are an unlikely trio of friends, but they help Rani discover her self-confidence, and support her new-found independence without any schmaltzy romance or unnecessary posturing. I love the interactions between the three as none of them speak each other’s language and also struggle with English, which reminds me of so many incidents in my own travels and keeps the film moving in unexpected directions. The characterisations do threaten to fall into very well-worn stereotypes, but they are spared by the spontaneous feel of the dialogue, and if nothing else, at least they are a hundred times better than the usual portrayal of foreigners in Indian films.

The support cast is excellent, particularly Rani’s family in India (Yogendra Tiku as her father, Alka Badola Kaushal as her mother and Chinmaya Agrawal as her younger brother) but the star here is Kangana, who completely sheds her neurotic persona perfected in previous films. She appears very genuine and natural throughout, with no sense of artificiality in her gradual shedding of inhibitions and development of confidence. The development of Rani’s self-awareness is well written but comes to joyful life with Kangana’s portrayal. She also is credited with writing some of her own dialogues, which, even with subtitles, are encouragingly realistic and non-filmi. Kudos too to Rajkummar Rao who is perfectly shallow, petty and immature in the role of Rani’s ex-fiancé and maintains his obnoxious personality right to the very end.   The music by Amit Trividi is also excellent and the songs are well placed in the narrative, keeping the flow and adding more layers to the story. The late Bobby Singh has also expertly capture of  the streets of Paris and Amsterdam in beautiful detail, although the cities did seem rather sanitised in comparison to my own experiences. Not too sure about the boots with this dress, but this is a beautiful song, and I love the expressions on Rani’s face as she meets and then farewells her friends – perfect!

Queen is a film with much to enjoy, most of it due to Kangana’s portrayal and her character’s travels through Europe, although the writing, direction and editing all perfectly align with the superb cast. The emotional journey is just as entertaining as the physical one, and I love the optimistic and up-beat ending.  Definitely one to watch with girl-friends, but Queen is much more than a chick-flick and I recommend it to everyone who wants to see something a little different. 4 ½ stars.