1 November 2016

DJs, poets, dramatic desi loves

My Mirror column:

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil falls flat when it aims for high romance. So do any of our old languages of love survive?

In many ways, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is a fairly standard-issue Karan Johar movie. First, it is a soppy romance about people who’re confused between love and friendship (and trying hard to sacrifice their feelings for the blissfully unknowing beloved) -- think back to Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, or Saif Ali Khan, Preity Zinta and SRK in Kal Ho Na Ho. Second, it contains that classic K-Jo cocktail of oblivious upper-class-ness and self-conscious Indian-ness that emerges in full measure only when the protagonists are ‘abroad’. The first purpose served by this is in the aesthetic-emotional register: supremely well-off, well-dressed desis get to play out their overheated romances in picturesque cold countries. The second purpose is what we might as well call political: it is no accident that Johar has been among Bollywood’s pioneers of desi coolth, given his originary adeptness at turning not just firang locations but firangs themselves into mere backdrops for our Empire-writes-back moments.

Nowadays, Johar seems to have stopped enjoying making British characters stand for the Indian national anthem, and no longer even seems to get off having rude Hindi remarks made in front of foreigners who can’t understand them (admittedly, Kajol managed to make this reverse racism seem very funny in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham). What ADHM offers instead, is a breezy world-is-our-oyster feel, in which South Asians on private jet vacations can bump into [also South Asian] ex-boyfriends DJ-ing at French discotheques (And just in case you were wondering about such prosaic things as visas, the film throws in two separate mentions of characters having British passports.) The resultant air of bonhomie is aided by the Empire choosing, whenever in doubt, to sing back: the oddly patriotic pleasure of watching white people sway to Hindi/Punjabi songs is amplified particularly in ADHM by having Parisians galvanised by the corny energy of Mohammad Rafi’s 1967 chartbuster An Evening in Paris.

Most of Johar’s romantic messaging is pretty spelt out in the film: such as Alizeh’s rather programmatic declaration, “Pyaar mein junoon hai, dosti mein sukoon hai (Love has madness, friendship has peace)or her insistent idea (pretty much taken from Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar) that only a broken heart can produce good art. Or the film’s avowed thesis, that unrequited love can be more powerful than a relationship: “you have full control over it... because you don’t have to share it with anyone”. How much any of these statements affects you depends partly on your mood at the moment you watch it spoken on screen, partly on who speaks it (Ranbir does best), and partly on your general propensity for dramebaaz mohabbat.

But it is more interesting to read 
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil for the things it does not spell out. 
Many of those filter through to us via language. The film seems, for instance, an expression of Johar’s desire to unite two very different landscapes of romance that I will go out on a limb and suggest he personally inhabits: the thumping rhythms of smoky nightclubs on the one hand, and the mellifluous Urdu that was for years the language of high romance in Hindi films. The film’s dialogue (by Johar and his long-time collaborator Niranjan Iyengar) moves constantly between a conversational Hindi peppered with English words — eg. “Tum mujhe seriously nahi le rahi, lekin yeh mera God’s gift hai” — and a high-faluting Urdu/Hindustani that is largely expressed in dubious ‘philosophical’ statements that neither Anushka Sharma nor Aishwarya Rai can carry off.

Rai, in particular, is saddled with the impossible task of playing what Johar in all seriousness calls a ‘shaaira’. The Urdu word for poetess is one I last heard in the 1994 film Muhafiz, in which too it was used as a self-descriptor – but it came accompanied by the devastating force of Shabana Azmi’s hauteur and pronunciation, and the context was mid-twentieth century Delhi. Having Rai, in a white airport lounge somewhere between London and Vienna, introduce herself as “Main shaaira hoon” elicits a hilarious but apt response from Kapoor’s Ayaan, who assumes that Shaaira is her name. “Main shaaira hoon, mera naam Saba hai,” says Rai, her eyes glinting dangerously.

The moment is, sadly, one of the very few in which the film takes on board the hilarious unbelievability of this uber-posh, uber-glamorous Vienna-based character being an Urdu poet. But at least Saba is meant to be a poet. For Alizeh, a hyperactive London-based dilettante recovering from her break-up with a Sufiyana DJ, the Urdu she speaks makes even less sense. The only way we can make sense of Alizeh’s language (and her 80s film obsession and her kurta-clad entry into clubs) is if we replace her supposed Lucknow origins with Lahore. Given just how much political fracas has been caused by the mere presence of a Pakistani actor (Fawad Khan in a thankless role as the DJ), I suppose it is not surprising that Johar decided to keep Alizeh’s real origins — like her legs —covered up.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 30th Oct 2016.

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