The Punjabi-versus-Bengali debate was summarised in two sentences by Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001). As the film’s writer, Sabrina Dhawan, succinctly put it:

The Bengali: “In my opinion, you Punjabis are way too ostentatious.”

The Punjabi: “In my opinion, you Bengalis are way too pretentious.”

Karan Johar has extracted a whole movie out of this purported civilisational clash. In Rocky Rani Kii Prem Kaahani, the differing value systems of two families are blamed on their cultural background.

Johar’s first directorial effort since Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016) revisits his back catalogue, cleaving most closely to Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001). Johar and writers Ishita Moitra, Sumit Roy and Shashank Khaitan also offer hat-tips to Khoobsurat (1980), Yash Chopra’s romances and the Telugu movie Bommarillu (2006).

We’re in Delhi, in the present, in a massive mansion where you could stash a pile of bodies in a corner and they would remain out of sight for decades. All that is missing is a patriarch in a velvet robe.

Rocky’s grandfather Kanwal Randhawa (Dharmendra) wants to meet his former lover Jamini Chatterjee again. Rocky (Ranveer Singh) enthusiastically sets out to fulfil Kanwal’s wish. That Jamini (Shabana Azmi) has a knockout granddaughter, Rani (Alia Bhatt), is a bonus.

There is the small matter of Kanwal’s wife Dhanlaxmi (Jaya Bachchan). Any hurt felt by Dhanlaxmi is obviated by her personality. A relentlessly dour martinet who most likely laces her morning tea with castor oil, Dhanalaxmi is a worthy candidate for betrayal.

The screenplay makes the most of the cavorting oldies and the lusty youngsters who, in the process of playing Cupid, have themselves been targeted by love’s arrows. Rocky and Rani are a match in movie heaven while being poles apart in manner.

Tum Kya Mile, Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani (2023).

He is proudly loud, mangles his English, and fond of blingy shirts unbuttoned to the navel. She is sophisticated, progressive and has a wardrobe of elegant saris with artfully mismatched blouses. Their passion, which is the source of the film’s title, is also the best thing about it. Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt, electric in Gully Boy (2019), are on fire in Rocky Rani Kii Prem Kaahani, entirely believable in their ardour and agony at being apart.

But screenwriting formulas demands googlies to keep the game going. If the first half is a rumbustious Mars-Venus coupling, the post-interval section runs through a list of Worthy Causes. Conventional masculinity, stifled housewives, neglected daughters, repressed sons – the patriarchy gets a takedown that is about as believable as an attempt to embrace imperfection in a landscape where no impeccably styled character ever repeats a costume.

Pritam’s soundtrack yields only one worthy song. Tum Kya Mile has heavy-duty packaging – it’s sung by Arijit Singh and Shreya Ghoshal, written by Amitabh Bhattacharya, and filmed in snow-covered Kashmir – but just about manages to stand out in a movie that has a sharper conversation going on with classic Hindi film music.

Just like the Rocky-Rani romance blossoms in the shade cast by the Kanwal-Jamini pairing, Johar’s film too basks in the reflected glory of bygone melodies. Such tunes as Abhi Na Jao Chhod Kar, Aap Jaisa Koi and Aaj Phir Jeena Ki Tamanna Hai are cleverly used to express the eternal nature of longing. Their placement is more organic to the narrative than the contemporary update of Dola Re Dola.

Rani’s sharpest observation doesn’t have to do with Women’s Lib or individual autonomy, but with the reason we still get misty-eyed about old Hindi film songs. These tunes prove that the filmmakers of the past had a better hold on emotion than creators in the present.

Johar too has a firmer grip on the old-fashioned premise that undergirds his latest movie. The 168-minute film ends up being ostentatious (Rocky’s flamboyant threads match his aggressively gilt-toned manor) as well as pretentious (Rani is a junior college sociology lecturer passing herself off as a television journalist). The conventional core of the contrived war between Mammon and Marx – it’s still all about loving your family – is the most honest aspect of an overly long, tonally jittery, and stereotype-filled narrative.

Apart from the leads, there are noteworthy turns by Aamir Bashir as Rocky’s stern father and Kshitee Jog as Rocky’s long-suffering mother. Dharmendra, one of Indian cinema’s most handsome actors, is a worrying shell of himself. Jaya Bachchan, playing the female counterpart of Amitabh Bachchan’s unyielding pater familias in Mohabbatein (2000) and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, carries on with such severity that you worry about her too.

Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani (2023).