Review: Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil

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The film opens with Ranbir Kapoor’s character, Ayan, talking to an interviewer. She commends the singer on the fact that he’s broken through and found a foothold in music, “that too non-film,” and in a couple of lines, he calls his love “aamir” — which is to say the kind that cannot die. It is an atypical choice of word, and a couple of seconds later when we meet young Ayan fumbling around and proving to be a feeble kisser, it is clear that the nuanced usage of the word, the Persian use over the Urdu use, isn’t a part of his vocabulary. At least not yet. Over the course of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, this character learns to feel, to address, and to speak.

Karan Johar’s new film casts Kapoor in that clueless persona the actor has often inhabited, but chooses to hand the reigns of the narrative — and, indeed, of the young man’s heart — to Anushka Sharma, who delivers a performance effervescent enough to win over cynics and yank at their kerchiefs. In fact, between Sharma’s electrifying and unapologetic Alizeh and Aishwarya Rai’s quip-carrying poetess Saba, Johar makes sure we know his women know better. And yet they may not be the better off for it.

This is a mature, relatively intense film and, in many ways, Karan’s least compromised work. There is something humane and naked about the sentiment expressed here, despite the glitz, and it throbs with palpable intensity. It is an emotionally bare film about an entirely unprepared young lover, and the vulnerability feels disarmingly real. It feels almost personal. Karan introduces us to his loquacious leads and lets them do the talking — an awful lot of talking — without feeling the need for extraneous comedy or even supporting characters who aren’t germane to the affairs in the middle. Karan Johar has finally cut loose the extended familial ties; this one is all about loving.

Ayan is a rake, a blissful wastrel with a private jet and little to do, and an eye that sees him impulsively tail women who catch his fancy. He sees Alizeh vogueing energetically on a dancefloor and — after she takes charge, paying for drinks and overhauling his plans — finds himself immediately, understandably besotted. The two are Bollywood-referencing bewaqoof younglings, after all, wealthy beyond worry and drawn to each other’s brand of mad energy. She proclaims that she, like raita, lays herself out because that’s just who she is, and he, perhaps like paapad, has dipped into her lunacy and now longs to dive in.

Both actors are on fire from the start. Kapoor plays the brat brilliantly, his Ayan restless and fitful with misplaced anger and misguided affection. His mask of coolness slips early on — even MDMA makes him wail like a hurt baby — and Sharma’s beguiling Alizeh takes charge, deciding what and where they’ll do. The two have an infectiously giddy dynamic, an immediately crackling chemistry that can’t be denied. It is, thus, a shame that Johar chooses to drown their bubbly banality with an incessant background score that makes it sound like someone in the theatre has left their phone on.

As with all immediately heady chemistry, things get sticky. The two come closer but then we meet Alizeh’s eye-wideningly handsome paramour, which sends Ayan’s world careening into the worst kind of spiral. That said, stomping around an airport after a wedding, looking like Mogambo with a rucksack, Ayan encounters a woman who immediately takes his breath away. This woman, Saba, proceeds to smash back his verbal lobs with practiced ease while he keeps talking about blushing — even when he isn’t.

It is, then, a love rectangle. It just feels more personal. When a cleanly shaved Kapoor preens in front of a mirror, mehndi on his hands and a smile exulting in his own prettiness — with concealer, just this once, masking that scar under his right cheek we see all the time — he looks freshly plucked, stripped by love and utterly open to the guillotine. His optimism feels frightening. On one end is a girl who revels in passing judgement and on the other, a woman so used to compliments that she doesn’t feel the need to acknowledge them, or to be falsely modest. As you might have surmised, he’s hurtling head first into disaster, but we can’t look away.

Johar has improved massively as a storyteller, this film more polished and assured than anything he’s done before. Sure, this is a highly glossy film — and only in a Johar production will people at a headphone party dance in choreographed fashion to the same damn song, and a bag from Shakespeare & Co contain clothes instead of books — but the gloss, like foundational makeup, is there to hold these excruciatingly attractive people and their excruciating problems in place. It suits the world instead of dictating it, and the film looks terrific.

As the princely DJ, Fawad Khan has far too little to do in this film — though even a role with him on-screen throughout the film wouldn’t have justified the ridiculous kerfuffle his casting has caused — but looks perfect for the part. Aishwarya Rai looks stunning as well, but is markedly ill at ease handling unwieldy urdu couplets. Her eyes have helplessness and longing but she lets down well-conceived lines that deserved far better. This is a Julia Roberts type of role, and Ms Rai emerges this film’s feeblest link.

Kapoor is super at being charming but has developed a specialisation in cluelessness, and both sides shine through in this winning, woeful performance. Playing a singer, he embraces syncing mannerisms beautifully — the guy would rule at Dubsmash — and it’s lovely to watch him play off Sharma. He lights up for her, he powers down for her, and the film belongs to the actress who strikingly, come what may, sticks to her guns. Even if all she’s doing is patiently let a weeping boy kiss her on the head. At one point, as he tries inexpertly to drape a saree around her (so that they can roleplay Yashraj-Yashraj) she looks at him wistfully, overcome by a love that is both too strong and yet not strong enough.

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is a film about ‘tedha love’ — crooked love, love that refuses to stay straight — and about the unshared, pure potency of unrequited passion. It is a film about words long and sharp, elaborate and precise, and about the way we muck up and often manage to slip — inadequately and without definition — between them and between the lines. The heart wants what it wants, and sometimes all we need is a compelling reason to cry. Thank you, Karan Johar. For this film feels like a sob.

Rating: 4 stars

~

First published Rediff, October 28, 2016

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “Review: Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil

  1. Ivy

    So beautifully written. So moving. The film seems almost incidental. Thank you.

  2. lucy

    This is the first time I feel differently from your review. It is well written as always – but ….The movie has many gaping holes and only the superb performance of Ranbir Kapoor to recommend. He once again proves that he is the finest actor in Bollywood today.

  3. Malini

    I am eagerly waiting for your Shivaay review :D

    • Girish Arora

      Only the problem of ths film I found was background music..where with such a vow full performance by Ranbir and Anushka in some scenes..the music lack somewhere at that point of time otherwise Karan hats off..

  4. Written beautifully as always but this is the first review of yours that I don’t agree with. It is the weakest Kjo movie after SOTY. 1st half was so frivolous that 2nd half felt more convoluted. So much so that even the ending didn’t invoke any tears :)

  5. RandomDev

    This is the first time I totally disagree with your interpretation/assessment of a film Mr Sen! Ae Dil Hai Mushkil can be best described as a bunch of gags and cliched emotional plot points held together by a pack of elaborately shot songs and some of the most poorly written characters ever by a writer/director of some repute.
    Ayaan (Ranbir) is an over-entitled brat of a crybaby with the emotional intelligence of a 4 year old and the hormonal rage of a 14 year old. He can’t hack it that Alizeh (Anushka) does not reciprocate his advances. Alizeh has made it very clear that she is in love with Ali (Fawad) and intends to marry him. What does our hero do? He goes onto manhandle her at her own wedding and walks off showing her not one but two middle fingers! How on earth am I supposed to feel anything for this rude, misogynistic, selfish cry baby of a man-child?
    Now coming to Alizeh, she and Ayaan were seen tearing away at each other with the carnal compulsion and haste that would put rabbits in heat to shame in the opening moments of the film. Mind you, they are both cheating on their partners while doing so. Only to climb high on their moral high horse in the following scenes upon discovering their respective partners cheating on them! Tch tch…No sympathies again.
    I can go on and on but I guess you get the picture.
    There definitely are some funny moments and some heartwarming lines no doubt. But that alone in isolation does not a movie make!
    Anyways, when characters with low emotional quotient are seen mouthing profound lines that are non commensurate with their visible character traits, it looks like a 5 year old lecturing on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. A copy paste job from a quotable quotes or word-porn collection at best.

    The film is pretentious, tasteless, self-congratulatory and very poorly written.

    PS: Can we please get over swooning over the good looks of actors. I mean these are obvious observations visible to all. Can critiquing focus more on revealing the layers and subtext of films that may not be immediately visible to the average viewer and orientation in the same may help him or her in enjoying the film even more.

  6. Halak

    The first time we were disappointed by your review of a Hindi movie.The movie seemed to drag on interminably with no relatable characters, no humour , no pathos and absolutely no sense.

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  9. Mr. Sen, I think, you gave 4 stars to this movie, because you were sympathetic to what happened with Karan Johar (with the ban on Pak artists and so on). But according to me, the was movie was a disaster at all levels. Horribly written dialogues, screenplay was pathetic and more importantly, there were no clear plot lines. Btw, what irked me is, Karan Johar, with all his new found wisdom, seems to have not learned anything. Cliched plots, exotic locales, don’t make a great movie. The protagonist, Ayan Sanger (played by Ranbir Kapoor), is a super rich kid (and owns a private jet plane), Cmon. Give us a break, here. All your characters in all your movies, are super rich. What is with the surname, Sanger. Do you even know what that means? Sanger is a germanic surname (Sänger), what didn’t you keep a more Indian sounding name. Who did you make this movie for ? Rich kids in South Bombay? This movie was the biggest joke of 2016. I seriously, urge Karan Johar to grow up and make meaningful (if not meaningful, at least entertaining) cinema. This movie was plain bore and a big yawn.

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