In Praise Of Karan Johar And 'Ae Dil Hai Mushkil'
Here’s an unpopular opinion that will prompt a number of readers to question my taste and judgment: Karan Johar is a great, significant filmmaker who does not get his due. One might fail to see, given that his movies are conventionally pretty and campily glib, how knotty the lives and loves in these movies are, how steep the price of happy endings are, how lonely amid the loud, vivid singing and dancing and celebrating his protagonists often seem. He makes films about outsiders who seem like insiders, people who may believe or pretend that they belong, but whose relationship to the comfortable worlds they inhabit (marriage with eminently suitable partners, wealthy, loving families, fancy colleges) is tenuous and who are isolated by their otherness until love and friendship sets them free.
Johar sells us his rather melancholy worldview in packaging that is shiny and slathered with cheese (the humor in his movies is often delightfully and sometimes cringe-inducingly corny). His films alienate those who prefer their cinema gritty with the kind of down-and-dirty realism that is, if one really considers it, just as curated as the magazine-ready gorgeousness of Johar’s work. But his films also have heart and ambition and smarts. He makes big, messy, imperfect cinema about attractive, often unlikable adults and their heartsickness at a time when relationship dramas are only fashionable when they are modest and life-sized and indie-minded.
And nice clothes and houses aside, he is an audacious visualist. Think of the cross-cutting in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai between Shah Rukh Khan riding to summer camp in Shimla and Kajol singing a hymn at that camp and how thrillingly fraught it is when they finally come face-to-face after he runs in. Think of the split-screen in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna when Khan’s character sees his wife and mistress walk toward him in the street, unaware of each other. Think of the ridiculous, utterly glamorous shot in Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham in which a whirling Rani Mukerji fades into the propellers of the helicopter that is bringing Khan’s mega-rich character home. These are flashy, fun, memorable screen moments, and Johar is unafraid to go for broke in making his often familiar-seeming stories visually engaging, giving value for money, and delivering a satisfyingly big-screen film experience.
Additionally, he is one of the few directors in Bollywood who knows how to stage a musical number, a feat even the most lauded filmmakers in Hindi cinema struggle to accomplish. (The songs in his latest, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, are pure bliss.) This is because Johar truly loves Bollywood film and its tradition of song and dance, while many of his peers, slightly embarrassed by homegrown populist film culture, seem to only grudgingly stage these numbers. “Bole Chudiya” from 2001’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham holds up beautifully, for example, while “Kaise Hai Yeh Rut” from the same year’s much more critically beloved Dil Chahta Hai is an utter embarrassment.
Filmmakers after Johar may not like to admit the long shadow he has cast, or even be conscious of it, but several modern-day classics, from Jab We Met to Queen, contain his filmic DNA: the sunlit prettiness of frames, the easy, playful banter between lovers-to-be, the meta, self-aware humor, the absence of real villains, the toggling between culled-from-life conversation and high Bollywood melodrama. The relationship, of course, is reciprocal. Johar has worked with and befriended the directors of the cinephile-certified Phantom collective, and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil has a brisk candor and a willingness to go full-tilt ugly, both emotionally and visually, that his cool new buddies would approve of.
His work has also been informed in interesting ways by international film. In Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Anushka Sharma’s character references the French film Priceless in a hysterical scene (with Lisa Haydon doing a delectable Kardashian impression), and that sort of glossy, irreverent caper has almost certainly colored Johar’s aesthetic, as has Richard Linklater’s conversational walk-and-talk-and-love Before trilogy.
Johar’s films frustrate precisely because of how much wit and mastery he exhibits in them. Why, I ask myself when I watch most of his work, is this film not as good in its entirety as its best parts? Why is the writing not more daring, the plotting less contrived? And why does he routinely sell his women short, this filmmaker who makes his female leads look so attractive, gives them such substantive parts and meaty lines? His films can be sneakily progressive and terrifyingly traditionalist at the same time, and the problematic aspects of his work often overshadow subversive choices in it. (The trope of the unruly woman who is feminized and thus rendered desirable and normal was bad enough in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, but when it occurs, albeit in the form of a tertiary character, in Student of The Year, it is enraging.)
I regularly yearn for Johar not to pander, and I don’t mean via his songs and dances, his charged monologues or comic hijinks. Johar’s films are better for their love and understanding of classic Bollywood. Rather, it is the stuff he doesn’t quite seem to believe in or know about or care about - religion, good, virginal girls, inspirational kumbaya-y nonsense (oh, that awful Hurricane Katrina episode in My Name is Khan!) and seems to shoehorn into his films out of a conviction that this stuff will help his bittersweet take on life, equal parts cynicism and romantic certitude, go down easy.
With Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Johar stops pandering almost entirely. This splendid film, both sumptuous and intimate, is Johar’s best, and he leans fully into every one of his preoccupations. His protagonists are as filmi as he is (all their Bollywood fantasies are mine, too, and I identified hardcore with them) and he doesn’t bother to temper their obnoxious wealth with sanskaar or parivaar.
He also finally does his female characters justice, writing two fantastic roles for two very different actors that allow them agency, dignity and nuance. Both Sharma’s Alizeh Khan and Aishwarya Rai’s Saba Taliyar Khan are unapologetic and badass and absent of shame. And Ranbir Kapoor’s Ayaan is awed by these women, as he damn well should be. One of the highlights in Kapoor’s performance, one that dives with alacrity into the character’s neediness and almost total lack of self-control, is his silent reaction shot when he is asked in the film’s opening scene about Alizeh. His face is transparent and protean, joy and sorrow flashing on it all at once. Alizeh is the kind of girl that makes you feel all the feels, and Anushka Sharma, long and easy and uncompromising, her line readings so bracingly ingenuous and free of contrivance, makes her a Hindi film heroine for the ages, right up there with Geet and Anjali and Rani.
We first meet her at a party where she proceeds to try and hook up with Ayaan, laugh at his technique, leave him hanging, and then spend the night drinking, laughing, and sharing with him. The scenes of these two hanging out, shooting the shit, shifting seamlessly between Bollywood references, mutual leg-pulling, and soul-baring, felt joltingly authentic to me, sounded just like the conversations I’ve had with my friends (the soulmate ones, the kindred spirit ones). These scenes are filmed with Anil Mehta’s famed eye for glowing, enviable loveliness, but they have a loose, shaggy rhythm to them that gives them life. When Ayaan tells Alizeh that he’d saved all the best parts of himself for someone who would truly see him, I wanted to both cry and laugh at how true-to-life this admission felt to me. The truth in Johar’s films is that his people want someone to see them, to get them, despite their concealed-in-Burberry brokenness, their otherness.
The film’s central, fairly unconventional conviction is Alizeh’s; she remains unshaken in her belief that her friendship with Ayaan is her big love, more important than the romantic love she has shared with other men and been devastated by. Her mind remains unchanged even when Ayaan takes care of her in her dying days; in a different film, she would have been converted by his devotion in the face of what we’d be told is her reduced worth and her ugliness. (This section of the film is perhaps its most uncertain, overall, and I wish Johar had gone with a trope other than Ye Olde Cancer, but Alizeh’s refusal to fall for Ayaan and Ayaan’s selfishness and lack of chill keep things from getting trite or predictable for the most part.)
Alizeh’s self-confidence crosses into arrogance fairly often; she is always right, even about how others are feeling, and she’ll tell you what you ought to be doing with your life with zero compunctions. But unlike, say, Shah Rukh Khan’s jerk of a character in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna or Amitabh Bachchan’s jerk of a character in Kabhi Khushie Kabhie Gham, Ayaan and Alizeh don’t repulse us completely with their sporadic awfulness. (These are, after all, people introduced to us as they are about to cheat on their partners.) They can be toxic for each other, other folks, and themselves, but in a way that feels familiar. Their ugly feelings and ugly words are of a piece with the bitter, lovely mess that results from living and loving vividly, fully, on a collision course with one another, and I high-key bought their dynamic.
There is no ugliness in Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s Saba Taliyar Khan, and this isn’t only because Rai Bachchan is India’s byword for otherworldly beauty and has clearly been lit and costumed in this film by adoring worshippers at her altar. Saba is a grown-ass, self-aware woman, unlike Ayaan and Alizeh, who are, from time to time, basically rude, annoying kids. (They even fight like children, yelling and shoving and slapping.) She is a Vienna-based Urdu poet, but she knows she isn’t particularly respected for her work. She makes the first move on Ayaan, seduces him at a nightclub (in a magnificently erotic set piece scored by the classic ghazal, “Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo”), and takes him home. She doesn’t flatter herself about his feelings for her even as she graciously allows everyone who sees her to praise her. Ayaan and Alizeh brag about their heartbreak, she looks hers.
To Ayaan, she is a symbol more than a person. She represents to him a deliberate choice to move on, to disengage from his bruised heart, and to be with the sort of woman who will induce envy even in Alizeh. Rai Bachchan is thus an inspired casting choice. Here is a woman on whom the audience for India’s popular culture has projected its desire, its insecurities, its anxieties, and its ire for two decades now. Rai Bachchan carries the role off with the sort of old-fashioned, time-stopping screen presence that one almost never sees in cinema these days. Her mannered, dancerly, self-conscious style of performance is a marvelous fit for Saba, who keeps herself together as consistently as Ayaan and Alizeh fall apart. (How unfortunate it is that critics, in their myopic call for naturalism always, fail to see the rare sorcery in acting like this.)
Saba is a fascinating female character. She is both a throwback, with her Urdu poetry and her measured, meaningful gaze, and an advance, in that she has complete sexual, financial, and emotional agency. She is also the one, instead of the younger Ayaan and Alizeh, whose beauty and sexual desirability are never in question. It is sad that all of this feels so unusual for a forty-something female actor, but there you are.
Saba’s section in the film is serene, almost strange in a way that is quite the tonal shift from the breezy, screwball first half, but it gives the film a weird, serious beauty that it wouldn’t have if it were only the Ayaan-and-Alizeh stuff. Indeed, the writing here is so elegant (and I’m not speaking of the deliberately daft poetry), the big emotional beats so fraught with tension, that the film’s closing chapter feels, despite its own charms, feels like more of a retread in comparison. Nothing about the film’s ending portions feels quite as sad or beautiful as when Saba bids Ayaan goodbye, and the bits where Ayaan and Alizeh do bucket-list things while singing old Bollywood hits is nowhere as sublime as the scene where Shah Rukh Khan, doing his best Jack Nicholson-meets-Dilip Kumar, flirts and parries with Rai Bachchan.
But I shan’t dwell too much on the film’s minor missteps when it does so much well. Instead, I shall give Ae Dil Hai Mushkil a ringing endorsement for its feast of bittersweet pleasures. More of this, please, Karan.