Unpacking the delights of Karan Johar’s Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani
From how it shows a rarely seen, gentler side of masculinity to getting the ‘rom-com’ right, there is a lot to love in Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani.
Spoilers ahead for Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani
There’s nothing quite like the grand, large-hearted Bollywood movie done right. Karan Johar’s Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani is not just that, it’s also an ode to mainstream Hindi cinema. Like Pathaan, it’s been a while since it felt like blockbuster Bollywood’s definition of cool (and in this case, comedy) synced up with our own. Like Pathaan, Rocky Aur Rani brings the masala back to our movies. And it's an incredibly tricky balancing act - between unapologetic, earnest conviction to outsized masala cinema whilst also being cheeky, self-aware, and irreverent. A delicate dance which, at their best, both crowd-pleasing bangers get right. The movies are back. Love stories are back. KJo is back.
The gloriously vibrant first half of Rocky Aur Rani is a near-perfect rom-com. No notes. A delightful blend of both rom and com, it’s some of the most fun I’ve had at the movies in recent memory. With its genre pivot toward family drama, the shakier, more uneven second half brings with it a tonal shift toward melodrama. Some of it effective, some of it less so. But more on that later. For now, let's meet our lovers.
What's not to love about Ranveer/Rocky
First up, there’s entitled, spoilt, Dilhi ka launda gym bro Rocky Randhawa (armed with his born-for-the-movies charisma, Ranveer Singh is in such fine form, he threatens to steal the film). A self-proclaimed ‘Crazy Rich Indian’ and heir to the 2000 crore Dhanlakshmi Sweets empire, Rocky is the lovable Funjabi hailing from a stern, conservative family that expects him to fall in line and keep his extravagance in check. Hardly an easy task considering he’s a protein-shake-swigging, body-flaunting, 22-karat-gold-plated-business-card-holding, lovably cocky ball of energy who doesn’t English so good (And how nice of them to let Ranveer wear his own clothes). Not to take away from dialogue writer Ishita Moitra’s work, but it’s hard not to wonder how much of the delicious one-liners and winning pop culture references came from Ranveer.
And then there’s self-assured, headstrong Faye D’Sourza-esque news anchor Rani Chatterjee (Alia Bhatt) who comes from a more open-minded, artsy background. A result of belonging to the Bengaliest of Bengali families. But the film isn’t all that interested in Rani’s career beyond the first few scenes. She’s more the concept and idea of a badass boss lady.
Unlike Rocky (who has a loyal, chicken-breast-for-brains best friend/personal trainer in Vicky played by Abhinav Sharma), Rani isn't awarded any friends or sense of a social life, even though she’s something of a public figure. Her whole existence appears to be her work and family. When Rani needs a drink and a shoulder to cry on while trying to process her feelings for Rocky, she turns to her colleague/ex who's forever after her, Somen (Shomen, Sonam?), played by a wonderfully amusing Namit Das.
What Rani gets that Rocky doesn’t, however, is a love life and a past. She mentions her various exes - ranging from investment bankers to curers of cancer. Rocky gets no such romantic history. Despite his obsession with his looks and physique, lavish lifestyle, and killer confidence with women, we’re made to believe that he only wants to get married and settle down. He’s only made for love, the film seems to say.
The paradox of ‘players’ wanting to 'settle down'
It’s something I was equally distracted by in Luv Ranjan’s Tu Jhooti Main Makkar which similarly gave us a rich Delhi boy who only seemed to want to settle down. I’m sure that brand of family-loving mama’s boy in search of a wife may well exist, but the leading men of both films walk, talk, act, and operate like f**kboys. The way they hit on women suggests this isn't their first rodeo. Unless we’re supposed to believe that these specific women are the turning points for these men which I’m willing to buy but neither film seems to suggest that. But, of course, this school of aspirational hero is to be expected from the Karan Johar cinematic universe. And what a charmingly heightened fairytale universe it is. The lavish sets, clothes, and characters all enjoyably animated, soaked in stereotypes, and drenched in delightful excess.
The movie’s other key romantic arc - the one that first ignites Rocky and Rani’s own love story - is the one between their grandparents: Bade Papa AKA Boodho Ka Emraan Hashmi (an adorable Dharmendra) and Jamini Chatterjee (Shabana Azmi). I loved the dignity and grace with which their story is handled, not to mention an onscreen kiss for the ages. Theirs is a swooning love steeped in nostalgia that comes close to being the beating heart of the film were it not sidelined after a point. I wish we got more of them.
The gentle masculinity
What Karan Johar, along with writers Shashank Khaitan, Sumit Roy, and Ishita Moitra do beautifully through Bade Papa, along with Rani’s Kathak-teaching father (Tota Roy Chowdhury), is champion a gentler, softer brand of masculinity to counter the onslaught of testosterone we see week in, week out. It’s an idea that reaches its grand crescendo in the movie’s most rousing song sequence - the Dola Re double act. The stirring performance is a testament to the fact that the dance set pieces of Rocky Aur Roni are at their most affecting when they’re at their smallest and most intimate. Take the heartwarming Aap Jaisa Koi scene in which Rani walks in on mother and daughter eating cake late at night. It’s the one time of day the two women can steal quiet freedoms and grab a chance to breathe and cut loose while their oppressive family is asleep. A time to eat freely. To sing. To dance. To be.
Post interval, when they trade families, for Rocky it’s about learning and growing beyond the silver spoon he was born with. For Rani, it’s about teaching and helping the women of the Randhawa household wake up and smell the injustice and stand up for themselves. Rocky might get the huggable moments of heart but Rani gets the thunderous moments of domestic swag (the ladoo-making face-off with Jaya Bachchan's tyrannical Dadiji, for example). A classic Alia Bhatt takedown of schooling regressive minds is becoming a bit of a thing - think 2 States' fun takedown of the mama’s boy groom demanding dowry.
But the narrative in the second half is less effective when it steps away from the cushy comforts of using humour to make the melodrama and messaging more digestible. Take the bra shopping scene which becomes fodder for a lecture about why men shy away from women’s underwear. It’s on the nose but it holds because it’s laced (pun not intended) with humour (an uncomfortable Rocky being made to try on a bra). Compare that to Rani schooling the sexist politician in one of the earliest scenes - a loud sequence that, well-intentioned as it is, takes you out of the movie.
Even the more crushing moments of emotion go down smoother when accompanied by gentle laughs. After Rani’s father is shamed on stage, he tells Rocky about how he was bullied as a child for his love of Kathak. It inspires Rocky’s own ‘cancel culture’ speech about how he’s judged and belittled for his English and how he comes across (it reminded me of that great Ted Lasso line ‘Be curious, not judgemental”). Rocky’s monologue is heartfelt and poignant but still has undercurrents of humour.
No redemption for old women
It’s why things get shaky in its final stretch when the narrative steps away from the laughs, post-Bade Pap’s sudden death. For one, we get the 180-degree transformation in Rocky’s growling father Tijori (a well-cast Aamir Bashir) after a single dramatic showdown. I liked that, as with Badrinath Ki Dulhania, this movie makes a case that some men can be rescued from their conditioning. But here it feels drastic and unearnt. In contrast, in the film’s bravest move, Jaya Bachchan’s Dadiji (a great piece of casting - to have her switch tracks to play a version of K3G’s Yash Raichand if he was too far gone) is awarded no such redemption. She remains the ‘villain’ making an important statement - some people can’t, or won’t, see beyond their limited worldview and upbringing, regardless of what it might cost them.
In its closing moments, Rocky Aur Rani plays it safe and steers clear of clarifying how things end up for the family. Do they move out of the White House? Is Dadiji truly alone? More importantly, where are Rocky and Rani living? In neither household, I hope. Either way, the message remains clear. You know how the saying goes. It’s all about standing up to the misogyny within your family.
I found out earlier today that Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani is an almost three hour film. I’ve watched it twice and have been dwelling on it for several days since its release and not once did it occur to me that the film was that long. Despite its missteps, I never felt the duration. Instead, it left me feeling full, with a bounce in my step and a goofy smile on my face. The kind that can only be granted by a great time at the movies. Obvio.