For long, for ages, our mainstream commercial cinema has made us believe that Aal Izz Well with the world.
Or at least, that it will all be well in the end.
And that the entire universe conspires to bring you what you want if you want it real bad.
It probably does but not always the way you want it to happen. As the saying goes: Beware of what you wish for, because it might come true.
Dreams came true as the fantasies of our society played out on screen decade after decade as characters went from rags to riches or from lost to found or from falling in love to happily everafter.
Our films taught us to believe. That there is a system or a God or a hero that makes everything all right or at least delivers poetic justice even in the darkest of tragedies. If we do the right thing.
Our films made us feel good.
But you know what, the world sucks and there is no right thing.
There is no God to make your dream come true.
There is no hero who will save you.
There is a system, of course. But one that tells us how we should lead our lives. That defines the rights and wrongs and judges us on the basis of our behaviour. We are rewarded for conforming and punished for straying out of line.
The more developed our societies got, the more civilized we became, conforming and learning to live orderly in groups.
It’s fascinating how issues in our cinema reflected issues in our society as they trickled down from as big as land (fifties), nation (sixties), society (seventies) to family (eighties) and to identity (nineties when the hero at least temporarily became a non-resident Indian).
But in love stories over decades, there was always a faux morality, a set of rules in the society that kept lovers away – from Devdas to Mughal E Azam to Pyaasa to Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak.
Real life lovers went to the movies to see their fantasies played out and wept when they didn’t work out.
Soon, three young second generation filmmakers Sooraj Barjatya, Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar started negotiating with the family structure. Romance in films started becoming about manufacturing consent from the family system or the head of it – the patriarch who slowly changed from a villain type (Dalip Tahil, Amrish Puri) to a father figure (Amitabh Bachchan, Anupam Kher) type.
And by the end of the nineties, our youth had a mind of their own. It was no longer about land, nation, society, family or even their identity. It was about the self. About what they wanted. About what the heart wanted. Dil Chahta Hai. Parents didn’t stand between lovers anymore.
In spite of all these changes, one thing didn’t quite change. The girl always had to be pure and virginal unless she was playing the other woman, usually a prostitute with a heart of gold pining for a lost hero.
If Kashyap’s Dev D for a first time in ages finally let out all the pent up repressed sexuality from between the scenes, Imtiaz Ali does one better – he makes his hero romance a “neat and clean, hi-fi” married woman, one who is certainly NOT a virgin. Of course, a boy and a girl can be friends. Till they kiss. And it’s never the same after that.
In Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar, the kiss happens right at the halfway point in the film, two full years after the girl has been married, even if not happily.
But let’s rewind a bit to how they got to that point.
She was doing what Simran did in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, having one last blast of fun before her wedding. And he was a happy-go-lucky slacker trying to make it big, just starting his journey from boy to man, being comfortably cocooned in the nest of his family.
She knew when she should take off her leather jacket and ready up for mehndi and He knew that she was off-limits as great as she was. He had to find pain but he was simply incapable of heavy-duty emotions.
He was, as his mentor called him, a “halka aadmi.” A light-hearted dork, a stranger to pain. His life was just perfect. Or so he thought. Just like any of us.
We think our lives are perfect because we conform to a system. Because we have jobs that pay well. Or a loving family. Or at least basic education. We don’t live in the seventies. We aren’t part of any hippie generation either.
What do we have? We have nothing but the boring middle class family values. Janardhan knows that. He probably does not even like the way his name sounds. But when she calls him Jordan out of the blue because she likes how cool it sounds, he’s found a new identity – of a man being somewhere he shouldn’t be doing something he shouldn’t be.
He had to be at an audition for Platinum records and here he was in Kashmir. He had to be chasing his dream of being a pop star and here he was with a girl he liked to spend time with.
Rockstar is about being in that place – where you are not supposed to be, doing what you are not supposed to be. The forbidden.
This was the domain of porn films that slowly crept into the adult films over the last decade as Mallika Sherawat kissed away to fame. And the forbidden has finally found its way into a mainstream film for all audiences.
Indian cinema through Imtiaz Ali’s film has finally found an outlet for all that has been repressed. Romance, sex but most of all, choice. And freedom to do what is best for the self, not family, not society, not nation.
Rock music is not just about drugs or sex. It’s always been about the freedom to express. The rage against the machine. The system.
It’s interesting how Imtiaz Ali ducks the clichés associated with rockstars. Jordan is no Devdas who takes to the bottle nor is he sleeping around with other women.
He hates the taste of alcohol. He finds his moment of truth at the dargah of Hazrat Nizammuddin. Heer is not his muse. God is. He finds God in him during his journey (if you listen to the lyrics of Kun Faya carefully) and heads back home to channel that God through his music. He completely surrenders to it and where it takes him. He settles down and tries to conform to the way of single life in the big city, pretending to get drunk and dance away his blues.
He’s almost made his peace with his situation of being estranged from his parents and the girl he strangely misses when he finds an opportunity to go to Prague. But he’s already pissed off the system by laughing at it. It just came to him naturally. He didn’t want to laugh at it. And the only way he can go Prague is by selling his soul to the Devil. The Special Contract. He just does not care. He wants her.
Raj in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge went from Europe to the bride’s home in India to get his girl. Here, Jordan goes from India to Europe to another man’s wife’s home to get her. Together, they tick off everything that’s forbidden there – the underbelly of Prague, the seedy strip clubs, gay bars and discos with neon lights. More importantly, they kiss.
Aditya Chopra was manufacturing parental consent. Imtiaz Ali is violating moral codes.
It’s a kiss that triggers off years of pent up repressed emotion and sexuality. Not just in Rockstar but in all of Hindi cinema.
Raj and Simran stayed all night in a hotel room (DDLJ) and he didn’t even kiss her because he’s Hindustani and a Hindustani boy will NEVER do that to a Hindustani girl, we are told. But here, they talk about it first. He kisses her. She resists, scolds him and then changes her mind and kisses him passionately. Beautifully done.
This is that halfway point where our hero and heroine stop being the typical hero and heroine because they “cross the line”. They go all the way and do it. (Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna had the perfect opportunity for this moment when he makes love to another man’s wife but squandered it by making it look like they were killing an infant – with that much guilt writ on their faces, it seemed like Rani and SRK were undergoing punishment than having sex there!)
Here, as much as Heer tries to run back to her city (the leitmotif in the film for orderly life), her home, she finds herself stopping halfway on the bridge between home and her lover.
The moment he breaks into her house, he’s crossed a threshold, a point of no return from the law, the system and the society. And the musician becomes a rockstar craving for freedom to do what he really wants to do.
From a pop talent behind an album poetically called Sheher (City, the leitmotif and metaphor for the phase of his life where he conformed to the way of life) to a criminal behind bars during the launch of his album Negative (He stops in between Sadda Haq to tell us that he is searching for those wild pigeons that used to be where the City today is) to a true-blue rockstar who has given the society the finger, signed on by a bigger evil foreign company, endorsing a perfume called Noir (the name once again serving as a metaphor for that phase of his life where he has sold his soul), Ranbir delivers the performance of a lifetime, always uncomfortable with structures as Jordan, even before he knew he was. He’s winning every single Best Actor award next year.
At an audition earlier, we see Jordan unable to get in tune with someone else’s composition. “He is a different jaanwar (beast). He won’t stay in your cage,” as Shammi Kapoor (RIP, God bless Hindi cinema’s original rockstar) tells the head of the label despite the boy admitting to the shehnaii maestro that he really didn’t understand classical music. Here was a boy who didn’t like anything rigid or structured. He was naturally drawn towards the improvisational, free-flowing riffs of the guitar.
The beauty of it is that Jordan has no idea why he does things he does. He is not doing it to be a bad boy. He just finds himself at home jamming “Dum Maaro Dum” with prostitutes (He sings the ‘Duniya Ne Hum Ko Diya Kya’ bit) than an evening with his old friends. When his mentor screams at him in the middle of the road for his rash unpredictable behaviour, he confesses that he does not know why. He says he’s burning from within and he feels like worms are eating him from inside. His angst grew stronger every day and he felt more and more alienated from society.
She didn’t know it either. Heer is such a triumph of characterization that I will totally forgive Imtiaz for casting Nargis Fakhri, the only jarring note in this soulful rock opera.
Heer didn’t plan to fall in love with him. She didn’t plan to sleep him with. She didn’t even know that she was depressed and needed psychiatric counseling because she missed him. From being mentally unwell, she was becoming physically sick because she was infected by his presence in her life. She needed his touch to feel better and the longer the doses, the more dependent she became. They needed each other but it was forbidden. She had become Satine from Moulin Rouge.
But here again, it takes two-thirds of the film and about four and a half years for him to understand the connection they shared. “Main Sirf Tere Saath Hi Set Hoon, Yaar.” That one line sums up Imtiaz Ali’s brand of romance perfectly. A late realisation of love, a sense of settlement, with an old friend.
This is the feeling he has been fighting throughout the film.
On returning from Kashmir, he tries to find escape in videogames.
After being thrown out of home, he tries to find his peace through God.
After coming back from Prague, he tries to find his soul through his music.
He doesn’t care about Tibet. He cares about freedom when he’s singing Sadda Haq. All those cribbing about Imtiaz Ali blurring Free Tibet, if you knew enough about Tibet, you would recognise the Free Tibet flag shown in pretty much every frame of the concert shots throughout the film. It’s a part of his costume. Good thing the idiots censoring it couldn’t recognise the flag in half the film.
Very rarely has an Indian film succeeded in crafting a cohesive musical narrative where the lyrics are an integral part of the storytelling. Why is it that we have lost the ability to listen to the words and soak in the meaning? They tell us everything we need to know about the characters, their conflicts, their state of mind and the angst.
A film mounted on a scale as big as Rockstar needed the music that would make it wholly believable that a stadium in Europe would go crazy for an Indian musician. And who better than the man with two Oscars and a worldwide cult following to provide music that is not just credible but also a soul-stirring quality. If you have to buy one audio CD this year, go pick this one up.
Ranbir’s powerhouse presence, Mohit Chauhan’s vocals, Rahman’s music, Irshad Kamil’s lyrics, Anil Mehta’s cinematography, Aarti Bajaj’s editing and Imtiaz Ali’s vision make Rockstar a compelling biopic of a fictitious rebel without a cause. Loved how it unfolds as a jigsaw puzzle with bits of documentary footage of an enigmatic persona as we piece together his story in an effort to understand him and his pain.
The angst here is the driving force, the engine and the heartbeat of Rockstar and is something you will appreciate more if you’ve been an artist yourself. If you’ve experienced unrelenting pain, prolonged frustration and pounding heartaches, and channeled that choking feeling into a creative process as a cathartic outlet for your emotions.
Rockstar is the journey of every artist who has refused to conform to a system, to a structure, to a society, to a set-path or process not because he thought it was cool but because that’s who he is. It’s a journey of a never-ending search of that elusive peace, truth, happiness and freedom.
Art is all about the depth of that journey of self-discovery and Rockstar does full justice to that. It’s not about “Oh look, she’s walking, she’s cured! What a Bollywood film!”
She’s never cured completely. When the mother rejoices that her daughter was able to get out of bed, the doctor quickly acts as the reality check and tells her: Woh Aisi Hi Hai (She is just as she was.) When the mother is later ecstatic that her blood count has increased, the doctor is still skeptical (He’s not saying: Wow, it’s a medical miracle!) and tells her: Be logical.
And the answer she gives the Dr. Animesh should shut every critic up.
“We think we know life. But it surprises us. Stranger things have happened.”
I was in Auroville a few weeks ago for a film festival when I met this man with a hole at the bottom of his neck. He had lost all his hair, had no eyebrows and had lined up his eyes with kohl. I instantly knew he was a cancer patient. But here, he was dancing around, blowing bubbles for children and giving flowers to women. The doctors had given him three weeks to live. He got sick of chemotherapy, told them he wanted to die in peace and left for home. That was over two years ago. He healed himself. Or maybe he will die next week, we don’t know! That is life but the only truth is that he is alive today.
Even after that explanation about the mysteries of life, Imtiaz does what he must – pulls the plug on the happy ending and proves beyond doubt that Jordan’s “magic touch” was not her cure. It was her disease.
Imtiaz had to leave the artist with all the fame in the world and yet experience an empty void of nothingness. That was the point of it all.
“Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaaye Toh Kya Hai” (as the lines from Pyaasa go). Rockstar is also the exact antithesis to Pyaasa in the sense that there Vijay renounces the world, his identity and disappears into anonymity, frustrated with the society but no such happy ending for Jordan here. He does not find himself at the doorway of the auditorium where no one recognises him. He finds himself on the stage under the spotlight where there is no escape from all that he once wanted as he looks away at the doorway – the common motif in endings of both films.
Nothing is private anymore. Not even his emotions. His screams of pain had become art. Part of the music they were swaying to.
He’s an empty man feeling nothing looking at the sea of people cheering for him. He’s just standing there wishing he was under that bed-sheet with the girl he loved and there’s no one around. His process of alienation is complete. Jordan has to live like that because he had sold his soul to the devil, to the system, to a company.
There is nothing more tragic than a man still in search of what is long gone.
And once you’ve seen life through his eyes, you will just laugh at the next person who tells you: Aal izz Well.
Yes, the world sucks. So does this business of art, music and entertainment manufacturing feel good, faux morality and happy endings.
Good to see someone showed it the finger.
Imtiaz Ali, A.R. Rahman and Ranbir Kapoor have given us that rare film that’s true to everything rock music once stood for. The angst. The pain. The rage.
Rock is not dead. And all’s not well with the world.