P.S.: It’s been more than a year since the film in question was released. This is more a summary of the emotions the film made me feel than a review, so approach it with the warning that there are spoilers. Rockstar’s titular character Janardhan “Jordan” Jakhar (Ranbir Kapoor) begins the film as an innocent college student aiming to make a career out of music and ends it having achieved that. (The film captures this loss-of-innocence beautifully with two scenes that almost bookend the film. Early on, Janardhan says, “Jim Morrison gave the crowd the middle finger during a concert and was heralded for it.” By the end, he has done the same in expression of his angst.) In his college days, Janardhan asks Khatara (Kumud Mishra), a tea-stall owner, what he needs to become a “true” artist. The latter responds with a variety of words that mean the same thing: anguish, pain, loss, and grief. And tells that seeing as Janardhan has never experienced heartbreak, he wouldn’t know what those words mean. And until he understands that, he will never become the musician he wants to. In order to experience this suffering, Janardhan proposes to Heer Kaul (Nargis Fakhri) who’s top of the college’s chick-list and gets rejected. This is a great little demonstration of his innocence and is followed by a brilliant scene where Khatara tells him off, “You call this pain? You’re sitting here munching samosas and fighting over extra chutney. Is this what you call love?” (Does anybody else get the feeling that this is Imtiaz Ali’s indictment of the flippant treatment of romance in mainstream Indian cinema?) And so he continues his pursuit with more tomfoolery until Heer confronts him and demands that he express himself; he apologizes and walks away, unable to do so.
Later, having noticed his discomfort in her presence, Heer tells him that there’s no need for him to feel as such. The seeds of their romance are sowed in these scenes. He says, “You’re hi-fi. You wouldn’t be right anyway.”, to which she responds, “I am about to watch Jungli Jawaani, care to join me.” By the end of the day, they’ve made a list of all the things she wants to do before she ties the knot. And for the rest of the days leading up to her wedding, they wander the streets of Delhi and Kashmir with reckless abandon. This is “their” world where there’s no wedding, no class difference, no extraneous factors, just the two of them, together. Katiya Karun… perfectly captures the carelessness of their endeavours. But right when you’d expect this to be a typical Indian film, and the wedding to be called off, she gets married and goes to Prague. (And the manner in which it eschewed normal conventions and cliches is one more reason I fell in love with Rockstar.)
That turns out to be an amazing set of events because it forces Janardhan to be kicked out of his home and spend some two months in the Dargah. Why is it amazing? Because it is another subtle indication of the direction Imtiaz Ali is taking this film in, wherein Janardhan’s love is leading him to a better place in his career, only indirectly in this case. In the Dargah, he connects with God. Rahman’s soul-touching Kun Faaya Kun… makes you feel this connection with its lyrics and high notes. With no family, no home and nowhere to go, Janardhan finds solace in God’s hands. And an opportunity at the big-ticket as well. He’s spotted by Ustad Jameel Khan (Shammi Kapoor, in his last film role) who also happens to be a decision-maker at Platinum Records. When he treats his audition casually, Jameel tells the Chairman Dhingra (Piyush Mishra), “Yeh Badaa Jaanwar Hai.” He’s destined for great things. And so he is. Platinum Records agrees to release his first album, and he’s well on his way to achieving his dream. But something is missing. When he gets to know that Platinum is sending out some of its musicians on European tours, more specifically Prague, he makes up with Dhingra for an earlier spat and says, “I’ll sign on any paper you want as long as you send me to Prague.” He has his fame. He has the interviews. But he doesn’t have his love, and he badly needs it for his music.
The Prague sequence is one of the most intense and passionate I’ve seen in any romance in a long time, probably ever. Heer is in pretty bad shape, physically and psychologically. Janardhan’s arrival couldn’t have come at a better time. They begin their usual ritual of roaming the streets. But this time, things are a bit different. She’s married, and there’s a line she shouldn’t cross. He asks, “If this is wrong, why doesn’t it feel that way?” And he couldn’t be more right. They make love, and not even for a moment does it cross our minds that this is a mainstream Indian film where the heroine is guilty of infidelity. However, once again we are taken back to the music. ARR delivers two classics for this sequence. Hawa Hawa… is another subtle hint the director drops that Jordan’s love is making him a better musician. His adventures on the streets of Prague lead him to several roadside musicians from whom he learns so much. Aur Ho… is one of the numbers of the album and one that makes this sequence one of the film’s many highs. “Meri bebaasi ka bayaan hai, Bus chal raha na iss ghadi…” croons Jordan, and you can feel the pain inside him via the music. He really does feel helpless without Heer by his side. He is on-stage to an audience that is swaying to his every emotion, yet he can’t help but look backstage to her. Once he completes this rendition, he drops his guitar, walks backstage and gives her a passionate kiss. (This is another aspect where Rockstar comes up trumps. Why do we feel the need to treat the lip-lock as sacrilegious to our screens? It is such a beautiful and passionate display of love. Treat it as such.) But at some point Heer realizes she’s gone too far, and she unwillingly decides to “do the right thing.”
Finally, Jordan is truly heartbroken. What started of as an innocent little quest for better music has left him in tatters. He gets arrested by the Prague police, deported to India, and labelled as a maniac by the press. A R Rahman saves his best for this sequence by delivering the album’s most famous song, one that has become a youth anthem, Sadda Haq… It is interesting to note that when I watched the film, I thought, “The lyrics don’t make much sense.” Jordan is in angst obviously. He’s enraged at his broken heart, but how exactly does that translate to lyrics that demonize our bureaucracy. Then I came to my senses. Musicians find things to write about in their anguish. Jordan needs “something” to vent his frustrations at. He chooses society because it is as good a target as any. From the moment Jordan’s heart is broken to his screams of pain and anguish, this is an inspired sequence of film-making, and it stands out because of that. Has there ever been a more perfect on-screen display of rockstar angst?
Jordan slowly begins to lose control of himself, missing concerts, wandering the streets aimlessly, and playing music to random strangers. He says, “I know what I am doing is wrong. I am not able to help it. Do you think I like myself like this?”, to Khatara, who is now his manager. We all know what he’s searching for though. And sure enough, Heer returns to India, but she’s again the one in need of help. She’s losing her health, and the doctors haven’t given her long to live. He checks up on her, but her mother forbids him to ever visit her again. He says, “I couldn’t stay away from her even if I wanted to.” And we know he can’t. She begins to feel better, much to her mother’s disbelief. Some people may call this cinematic. I call it poetic. She makes the call to go on-tour with him because that’s the only way he’s going to go on-tour. They do something wrong, and her condition worsens. And it is to Imitiaz Ali’s immense credit that even though Rockstar leaves us without a “complete” resolution, we feel fulfilled and satisfied; Rahman’s Nadaan Parindey… and The Meeting Place… providing us with the closure we’re craving.
Rockstar is a lifetime performance from Ranbir Kapoor; admittedly, an actor I was dismissive of after Saawariya. No matter how many great roles he plays for the rest of his, what one hopes will be, considerably long career, he’ll forever be associated with Jordan. I don’t think there are a lot of superlatives in the English language that can do this performance justice. It is to his credit that he followed this up with a film like Barfi where he plays the polar opposite of Jordan. You want attention to detail, focus on Ranbir’s fingers as he slams into his guitar to A R Rahman’s riffs, never going out-of-note. Apparently, he learnt to play guitar for this role. Dedication is the word I’m looking for. You want body language. Notice how he grows from the innocent, shy Janardhan to the bold, expressive, scenery-chewing Jordan; notice how he exits from each of his performances, his broad shouldered walk and intense face suggesting his every emotion; and notice how the veins on his neck come bursting out as he screams during Sadda Haq… I swear it almost felt as if my vocal chords were about to burst. But, oh no, you want your actors to emote using “only” their face. Ranbir’s got that covered too. Notice the pain on his face in Aur Ho… as he gives a fleeting look to Nargis Fakhri or his emotionally exhausted face that almost serves as the film’s closing shot. This isn’t a case of an actor just playing the role; this is a case of an actor becoming the character.
Nargis Fakhri’s Heer is a bystander in comparison. She’s easy on the eye certainly, and she convincingly pulls off the “elite-girl wanting to have some fun before her wedding” part. But as the film goes on and she’s expected to produce the goods, she falters. Of course, this is not really her fault since this was her debut, and she’s average enough. But even in scenes where she has the showier, juicier lines, you simply cannot take your eyes off of Ranbir Kapoor. The film is terrific as it is, but – and I say this with all possible respect towards a newcomer like Nargis – you just get the feeling that it might’ve been a touch higher if a more emotive actress had gotten hold of the part.
My only exposure to Imtiaz Ali before this was Jab We Met. And every time that film won a major award, I was left feeling bemused. It was certainly a very good film. But it was also a romantic comedy of the sort that Hollywood produces by the hundreds on an almost yearly basis. Why all the fuss? I skipped over Love Aaj Kal because the subject matter was not to my liking. But Rockstar has made me stand up and watch intently. One of his characteristic qualities is how he makes the film work though it is told in non-linear fashion. In this film, for example, he chooses to repeat the same scene twice to give us, the viewers, a bearing on where we are in the plot. Would the film have worked equally well if it had been told in linear fashion? Yes. But the approach employed by Ali makes sure we keep guessing where, and in which state, Jordan ends up. There is no doubt in my mind that he is one of the brightest young directors in Indian cinema right now.
For A R Rahman, this is arguably the biggest feather (well, after the Oscar, that is) in his ever-expanding cap. Some of the songs have already been highlighted in the above passages. Jo Bhi Main… is the best of the rest, and is employed fitfully in a number of sequences shifting from the present to the past or vice-versa. And it is a testament to Rahman’s genius that even songs like Phir Se Udd Chala…, Sheher Main…, and Tum Ko… which aren’t given much of a presence in the film are terrific to listen to, and grow on the listener with multiple listens. It would also be unfair to omit Mohit Chauhan’s incredible vocals. I had the opportunity to listen to him live in Rahman’s Dubai concert, and he was every bit as good as in the film. Irshad Kamil’s lyrics are definitely worthy of a mention as well. He captures the singer’s every emotion using his words. And it’s been a long time since the music, vocals, and lyrics, have done so much in service of a film and its story, especially in Indian cinema. For that alone, Rockstar should be considered a milestone in the modern era.
Rockstar is the kind of film I could go on talking about. I’ve written so much, yet there is so much left to say. It is a film that made me experience so many emotions that I don’t think I could ever do justice to them all. The word masterpiece has been thrown about a lot these days, but I cannot think of any other recent Indian film which has earned that classification as much as this one. That is because I cannot think of one that has juggled so many different facets so exquisitely. Rockstar is at once a chronicle of a musician’s rise to superstardom as well as a beautiful romance between two individuals who are inextricably linked together by the power of their love. Its greatness lies in that those two aspects never feel mutually exclusive of each other. One cannot exist without the other, and both combine in brilliant ways to give us this breathtakingly detailed motion picture.
- Banner image used falls under fair use and taken from Wikipedia