When The Doors had their first ever professional photographs taken, to go with their incendiary 1967 debut, frontman James Douglas Morrison consciously chose to leave the smiling out of it. The others occasionally smirked affably enough but Morrison, yearning to showcase his searing intensity as a poet (“a word man, better than a bird man”) stared solemnly into the lens, and thus at all us onlookers, his piercing gaze shoving us toward attention.
Janardan Jakhar, a Delhi collegian enshrining Jim on his wall, stares back at the posters, his reverence surpassed by bewilderment. How to get it, he wonders, when told he doesn’t have what it takes to rock. He works at it, occasionally misguidedly, finds his own trajectory, and in his quest to emulate Morrison, becomes a massively loved, hysteria-inducing performer who never smiles.
For the cameras, that is. Jim’s best photographs are ones shot later, where the mask is off and the grin is wide, loving, Cheshire. The juvenile brooding of apparent depth is replaced by candour, by a real person sometimes having a good time. The finest thing about Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar is that it gives us both, the misguided scowling and the cheeky boyish smiles, and strikes a balance solid enough to make us believe in his flawed but phenomenal protagonist.
Played by Ranbir Kapoor, Jakhar starts out amusingly wrong. Told that great art is born out of pain, he chides his comfortable upbringing and berates himself for never having been in an accident or for having a set of legitimate, alive parents. He hits on a devastatingly pretty Kashmiri girl from Stephens in an attempt to get his heart shattered, but when shot down, his desolate act dissolves when distracted by a passing samosa in the college canteen. He succumbs to the savoury and looks sheepishly on as his talcumnecked mentor, played wonderfully by Kumud Mishra, tells him to go find real hurt.
He does so obediently enough, but JJ, a warmly irresistible hero who mistakes bugger for burger, also seeks out much heart. He befriends the striking Kashmiran — telling her how he slaps alcohol onto his face like cologne and pretends to act sloshed and then gulping submissively when she orders him to drink for real — completely besotted by the unlikely firebrand. Meanwhile, at home he stays away from the family business, and while that is reason enough to be ostracized in most Bollywood films, here the familial fuse erupts when Jakhar lashes out at an overtly affectionate young Bhabhi for being all touchy-feely.
There is much to admire as the film dispenses with linearity, starting with a concert in Rome and then flashing back and forth to fill in the backstory of Jordan — christened thus by his luscious ladylove. It is a simple, unspectacular tale, sometimes even predictable, but Ali masterfully weaves in details that draw us in while his leading man basks magnificently in the glow of a bespoke script.
Ranbir shines through the film, be it on stage tossing his tonsils into the microphone looking like a slightly oriental Frank Zappa in a Sgt Pepper’s jacket, discussing the terms of a kiss in a Czech field, or at a formal dinner dressed in upholstery. It is a performance that breathes life into the character, making us care about his JJ more than the story deserves. He wraps his mouth around Mohit Chauhan’s voice with desperate fervour, flinging out the words as if they were his own. And here again we see a love of nuance. His fingers close concentratedly into mudras as he sits in a recording booth trying to strike the right pitch, and while his guitarwork is unimpressive and often anachronistic to the music, his electric wriggling on stage makes up for it. Once, while in a meeting with a massaged music mogul, he breaks into a guffaw that, in itself, is worth the film.
It’s remarkable how much narrative detail Ali leaves to the asides, to margin notes not underscored and overwhelmed by AR Rahman’s grand, lovely soundtrack. That a character’s marriage is less than ideal is made clear through little revelations, that she has a therapist, and sleeps in a separate bedroom. Neither exposition is lingered on, and the impact is dramatic.
Equally dramatic are the visuals. Not just the gorgeousness of Prague or the motorbike jaunts through snow-capped hills, but the texture visible in the throwaways: Jordan playing guitar at a Mata-ki-chowki isn’t new; Shiv looming overhead looking like a giant blue Rakhee Gulzar, however, is. With this film Imtiaz often makes the ordinary interesting. It’s an assured film that believes in restraint. Drug use, for example, is apparent – Jordan offers his girl a hit of a joint in a longshot, and is clearly sky-high during an indulgent on-stage rant about uprooted birds – but not highlighted.
The rock could have used more attention, however. We don’t once get into what defines Jordan’s music, his creative genesis, his lyrical musing. The film chooses instead to focus on overflowing stadia and albums flying off shelves. For a film called Rockstar, the closest we get is a hero who occasionally slaps photographers. Then again, it is a film about wanting fame, about a easily misled wannabe who misattributes a middle-finger gesture to his idol, about needless defiance and the hollow but burning desire to drive fans crazy. The music is terrific but incidental, but for a kid who doesn’t finger a guitar fluently enough, this is a hero with pluck.
In Nargis Fakhri Imtiaz has an exotically ravishing heroine, one so pretty we forgive her occasionally stilted diction. She is a girl to stare at, and we, knowing her Heer merely as the object of Jordan’s love, gladly believe in his intoxication. The ensemble is fine, especially the actor playing Kapoor’s slap-happy elder brother, with minor niggles (Shernaz Patel laying it on regrettably thick) and a lovely cameo from a legend to make us all smile. We often refer to the late Shammi Kapoor as a rockstar, and his appearance here serves to remind us that the word isn’t about guitars as much as it is about grace.
This is the story of a boy goaded onto glory. He’s naïve, frequently clueless, and hardly ever has the answers. Bad boy image be damned, this is a man-child living in a bubble of denial, who gradually starts seeing his own life in extreme close-up and ultraslowmotion: in music-video images. For a dreamer, life outside the forcefield — even one created fleetingly by love and a bedsheet — can never be perfect.
Rating: Four Stars
First published on Rediff, November 11, 2011