Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is Bollywood bricolage by one of the cinema’s most proficient builders. Karan Johar’s latest film is a best hits compilation of characters and moments from his older productions as well as a tribute to the Bollywood idiom of romance. Some things have changed since Johar made his debut in 1998 with Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. The characters in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil are less loud and cloying, the acting is refreshingly naturalistic, the songs are woven more dextrously into the narrative, and the overall tone is more sombre and, in fleeting moments, even despairing. The movie has the flavour of Yash Chopra, but also of Imtiaz Ali.
Nearly everything else stays the same. Friendship, one of the cornerstones of Johar’s cinema, is still incompatible with romance. Sex remains a minefield, and monogamy the ideal. The first love is the only real one and can never be replicated. Ardour leads to an effusion of poetic feeling, and it is declared that heartbreak is mandatory in order to be a truly effective singer. The characters declare their desi loyalty despite being citizens of a foreign country (the United Kingdom in this case), and disdain electronic dance music and other such popular forms of Western culture for bhangra beats and Bollywood dancing. The characters are played by screen gods trying to pass themselves off as mortals, the costumes are gorgeous in a chic fashion catalogue way, the hair and make-up are perfect, and the homes look like seven-star suites.
The 158-minute movie is set is a familiar world of non-resident Indians who have slipped off the chains of caste, family, community and religion, but have retained their class affiliations. Cocooned from identity politics and financial worries in Brexit-immune London, these post-feudal and transnational lovelies have the luxury of pursing lives dedicated to romance, poetry, Urdu and Hindi film nostalgia. Love is depicted as an end in itself, as high-minded as efforts for world peace, and just as difficult.
Ayan (Ranbir Kapoor) is a billionaire’s scion with an airplane at his disposal and dreams of being a singer. Ayan is pretending to take a business administration course when he meets Alizeh (Anushka Sharma) at a nightclub. They click instantly, but Alizeh is still pining for her one true love, Ali (Fawad Khan in a minor role). Alizeh wants a friend without benefits, and Ayan is happy to play along. Together, they revisit their shared love for Hindi cinema and its music, attempt to recreate the song Mitwa from Yash Chopra’s Chandni on a hilltop, and behave exactly like a normal young couple except for that one thing.
However, even private jets experience turbulence. After Alizeh reunites with Ali, a heartbroken Ayan tumbles into bed with Saba (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), an older poet whose dimestore verse masks maturity and insights into the human condition. Ayan has something of an adult relationship with Saba, but he has not forgotten Alizeh. In one of the movie’s best scenes, three pegs of the love quadrangle meet for dinner and realise that for all the Bohemian posturing, the heart is truly Bollywood. It can throb only once and has no room for complexity, a change of direction, and second chances.
Despite its banal subject matter and often trite dialogue (by Johar and longtime collaborator Niranjan Iyengar), the movie is held together by its performances. Ranbir Kapoor is back in the saddle as a diehard romantic who suffers for love, and even though he has been on this ride before in Rockstar and Tamasha, he delivers a superbly judged performance that is equal parts charming and moving. Anushka Sharma brings her customary clinical efficiency to her role, but some of her thunder is stolen by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, she of the flaming red lipstick, wardrobe that would be the envy of any poetry circle, and ability to depict heartache in a single look. Of all the estimable songs by Pritam, including the title track, the one that lingers in memory is a remixed version of Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo, which plays in the background as Ayan and Saba silently and gracefully move from the nightclub to the bedroom.
The movie’s self-conscious and almost apologetic sober approach, muted shades (the cinematography is by Anil Mehta), and grown-up acting persists all the way till the ridiculous pre-climax twist. Alizeh declares soon after meeting Ayan that some boyfriends are like films – either time passers or blockbusters. Johar’s latest movie is somewhere in between. He is trying to move away from the large-canvas romances on which he has built his career, but his foundation remains the popular Hindi film idiom, especially Yash Chopra’s cinema. At times, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil feels less like a Karan Johar production and more like a tortured Imtiaz Ali drama, almost as if to show that even Johar, the king of the clotheshorses-with-feelings production, is ready to tackle the untidiness of love. And yet, like Ali, Johar too is limited by the conventional boy-meets-girl dynamic. Ayan and Alizeh frequently fall back on the alleged wisdom of Hindi film dialogue and song lyrics to solve the world’s problems, and their inability to treat each other as adults with libidos restricts the scope of their relationship.
Would the movie have been more effective if it had been released as intended? The characters of Alizeh, Saba and Ali were meant to be Pakistani, until protests by right-wing nationalists against the presence of Fawad Khan in the cast forced Johar to redub the dialogue. The Muslim characters in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil are now Lucknowi rather than Lahori. The original story seems to have been about Indians and Pakistanis meeting in the capital of their former coloniser, only to find that in this post-nationalist space, the heart is the real adversary. It might not have been enough to save the movie from its limitations, but the original attempt to convey the challenges of internal border crossings would have made Ae Dil Hai Mushkil less pat and more genuinely difficult.