Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (ADHM) is filmmaker Karan Johar’s seventh directorial venture, and according to him, his most personal work yet. His early directorial work, such as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), has been cited as a driving force in making mainstream Bollywood more recognisable within the Indian diaspora globally, and opening up its place in the international market. ADHM, though, is a case of a filmmaker who seems unsure of their own cinematic sensibilities in the changing climate of mainstream Bollywood today.
Ayan Sangar (Ranbir Kapoor) is a shy and self-conscious scion of a UK-based billionaire. He is pursuing an MBA, pressured by his parents, but all he really wants is a career in music. He meets Alizeh (Anushka Sharma) at a party, and after a failed attempt at a make out session which turns into an extended visual gag, they bond over their shared nostalgia for tacky Bollywood music and films. Their blooming friendship is a result of the combination of shared interests and Sangar being incredibly wealthy. It’s because of this that they end up going to Paris on a whim in a private jet. Somewhere along the way, Sangar falls in love with Alizeh, but unfortunately, the one thing he doesn’t have despite having everything else is emotional maturity. More importantly, what does Alizeh want? And where does the other woman in Ayan’s life, Saba Khan (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) fit into this jigsaw puzzle?
ADHM is a film caught between conflicting narrative expectations. In the beginning, Johar is in fine form as he builds upon the personalities of Ayan and Alizeh, and explores how Alizeh helps Ayan embrace the quirkier sides of his personality. Johar is acutely aware of oft-repeated tropes in commercial mainstream Bollywood, hence we get a delightful scene between Ayan and Alizeh as they parody the dream-like and over-the-top song sequences of the genre when they are in Paris. Johar is also not afraid to be tongue-in-cheek about how his cinema is perceived by the wider public. There is a perception that Johar makes films about trivial first world problems of economically well-off Indians. Here, Johar seems to have taken this slight against him to a hilarious absurdity: the male protagonist, Ayan, has a British passport, will inherit a billionaire’s empire and is the sort of person who has a private jet at his disposal. He is as far away from the Indian middle class as you can get.
The biggest strength of ADHM is its characterisation of the three main protagonists. In Ayan Sangar, Johar gives us the perfect antithesis to the alpha-male lead who has dominated the consciousness of mainstream Bollywood audiences for decades.1 Sangar is shy and self-admittedly introverted. He gets emotional and cries unabashedly in front of people. More importantly, he is more than happy to let a strong, female character take the lead in a relationship without feeling that his masculinity may be threatened. These are radically progressive steps for not just a mainstream Bollywood rom-com hero, but also for the image of the mainstream Bollywood hero at large. Blame it on the kind of sexism still prevalent Indian society or institutionalised attitudes toward gender roles, but this kind of strictly gendered approach towards characters – where heroines are presented as the emotional vehicle for the hero while largely being mere placeholders in the narrative – is still the status quo in mainstream Bollywood films.
It is disheartening to realise how quickly the film loses all the goodwill it earned early on as it descends into ostensibly clichéd and trite territory. The problem is that Johar is caught between two radically different worlds. He can’t completely leave behind the blatantly melodramatic and clichéd commercial cinematic sensibilities that he carried with aplomb in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, nor can he fully commit to this radical post-feminist reimagining that he builds up in the first half. Hence, while Sangar happily plays second fiddle in what seems like a fulfilling relationship with an attractive older woman, he still pines for metaphysical concepts like “true love” and realises fantastical Bollywood truisms, like how you can only become a great singer after experiencing heartbreak, which belong more in an Imtiaz Ali film than one from Karan Johar. He has a great sense of setting up scenes with sharp, to-and-fro banter, and a great eye for scale, locations, costuming and the aesthetic look of each character. However, narrative pathos is something he hasn’t quite mastered yet. The absurd, frankly insulting pre-climatic twist is the perfect embodiment of Johar’s sensibilities caught between two very different worlds and expectations.
At its core ADHM is less about unrequited love and more about learning to accept your boundaries when you are around another person. Narratives that openly discuss the tensions between platonic and romantic love in a nuanced manner haven’t found favour from Indian audiences. This issue takes centre stage when you consider the vast history of glorified stalking in mainstream Bollywood narratives. If the female protagonist hates the male protagonist’s guts in the beginning, you can bet that she will come to love him by the end of the film. And this is not just a When Harry Met Sally kind of recycled adage. Mainstream Bollywood’s insistence that a boy and a girl can’t just be friends has deep rooted seeds in the troubling sexist, backward and institutionally patriarchal attitudes that continue to exist today in Indian society. I’m inclined to think that perhaps the over-the-top pre-climactic twist was necessary. Simply put, the dilemma is this. How do you communicate the importance of a woman’s right to her own body to an audience who can’t fully comprehend the socio-cultural impact of the idea? These are difficult issues to represent and the social context of these conversations makes it even more tricky. Dharma tried to walk this tightrope once before with the forgotten Imran Khan vehicle Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (2012). Even Johar’s directorial debut Kuch Kuch Hota Hai rested upon the premise that the first step towards love is friendship.
Ranbir Kapoor is the perfect choice to portray this post-feminist Bollywood rom-com lead as Ayan Sangar. He is restrained in one frame and unabashedly over-the-top in the next, even though his character becomes nothing more than a caricature in the second half. However, the film ably rests on the shoulders on the two female leads – Anushka Sharma and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Sharma as Alizeh carries the film and is the heart of the narrative. Her screen presence makes the first half of the film memorable and perhaps, more of her presence in the second half might have even transcended the banality of the proceedings in the latter half of the film. Bachchan as the sensuous but restrained wordsmith Saba provides a nice contrast to Sharma’s spunkiness. Fawad Khan makes more of an impact with his beard than his performance in a limited role. Shah Rukh Khan’s gem of a cameo is sure to get a few sighs and even a flutter of a heartbeat. However, in all these short cameos, it is Lisa Haydon as a caricatured bimbette who steals the show in the first half.
Anil Mehta’s cinematography is top notch. Mehta’s eye for detail and framing has been in perfect harmony with Johar’s sense of scale right from his directorial debut. Johar and long-time collaborator Niranjan Iyengar have a lot of fun with the dialogues, particularly when it comes to referencing earlier Bollywood songs, films and witty retorts in the first half. This kind of banter was reminiscent of their work together in writing dialogues for Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003). Pritam’s music has already been a hit at the charts and more importantly, the songs aren’t placed as unnecessary breaks in the narrative but move it forward.
ADHM is a film of two disparate halves and a filmmaker caught in two different worlds. It does not work as a cohesive whole. There are flashes of brilliance doused by the disappointment of a missed opportunity. Still, the inevitable development of possible post-feminist lead protagonists must be remembered as important groundwork for future attempts in this direction in mainstream Bollywood.