The amusing bit about Karan Johar’s Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani lies in the irony that buoys his latest effort. The love story that Alia Bhatt and Ranveer Singh play out is not surprisingly seeped in cliches.

Alia Bhatt-Ranveer Singh starrer ends up as Karan Johar’s bid to balance rom-com cliches with sporadic fresh imagination.

Yet Johar, almost atypically, does a few things differently this time, especially while fleshing out some of his fringe characters. Beyond its rather halfbaked tributes to vintage screen romance and the classic music that defined such romances in Bollywood’s golden era, the film also tries understanding how love transcends age, looks at gender politics in man-woman relationships and explores role reversals at a socio-cultural level.

For, Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani isn’t just about Alia Bhatt’s uber-sophisticated Bengali TV journalist Rani Chatterjee inexplicably falling in love with Ranveer Singh’s Rocky Randhawa, the gaudy Punjabi puttar who doesn’t shy away from flaunting the high life his position as male scion of a desi ghee laddoo empire lets him afford. Beyond the box office-savvy rom-com that sets up screen space for the two new-gen stars, the film has an interesting romantic subtext that is somehow never wholly realised — between Dharmendra as Rocky’s grandfather Kanwal Loond and Shabana Azmi as Rani’s grandmother Jamini Chatterjee. It turns out the two had met at a Shimla kavi sammelan in the late seventies. Today, decades later, the very-much married Kanwal utters Jamini’s name amidst throes of dementia. When these two elderly characters finally meet, the screenplay literally seals it for them with a kiss.

A romantic sub-plot about an elderly couple, in this case a married man and a widowed woman, that doesn’t hesitate to pucker up in front of their families, actually reverses the notion of rebel lovers, for our movies normally associate such traits with young lovers. As such, few films in commercial Bollywood have tried the idea of elderly romance — off hand, one can recall Life In A… Metro (also featuring Dharmendra, with Nafisa Ali) and Pyaar Mein Twist (Rishi Kapor and Dimple Kapadia) in the past two decades.

But Karan Johar’s more complex shot at making his assembly-line rom-com seem different lies in the imagining of Rani Chatterjee’s family, especially Tota Roy Chowdhury as Alia Bhatt’s on-screen father, Chandan Chatterjee. Chandan is a bhadralok, genteel and cultured, and also a kathak dancer who uninhibitedly gets into Madhuri Dixit’s Dhai shaam groove at a rumbustious Punjabi wedding gala that Rocky invites the Chatterjees to. It would seem a calculated risk for Johar to visualise the heroine’s father as a kathak dancer (“male kathak?!” is Rocky’s first reaction on discovering the vocation of Rani’s father, served with characteristic Ranveer Singh punch).

It is the sort of genre-bending that Bollywood relationship dramas need right now in order to bust gender stereotypes, although such characters would still take a while to connect with the larger masses who flock to watch a film starring Alia Bhatt and Ranveer Singh. Karan Johar probably knows as much, which is why he keeps the streak of experimenting with romance and characters restricted to Dharmendra-Shabana Azmi and Tota Roy Chowdhury.

In contrast, like almost all romantic releases in recent times, his lead characters inflexibly refuse to move beyond comfort zone. Alia Bhatt’s Rani, for all her ultra-modern, fiery independent woman vibes, preens and poses as the classic Hindi film heroine in the essential naach-gaana routine when she is not mouthing a shockingly cringeworthy Bangla accent (if a diction coach was beyond Johar’s budget, the least he could have done is restricted Alia’s dialogues to Hindi — a lot of Delhi-bred Bengali youngsters converse in a mishmash of English and Hindi even at home). She falls in love with the polar opposite Rocky driven by no apparent logic except that in a Karan Johar film Alia Bhatt has to romance Ranveer Singh.

The hero Rocky Randhawa is weird caricature of Punjabi excesses, too. In an effort to imagine Rocky as close to Ranveer Singh’s off-screen image as possible, the protagonist vaunts a wardrobe that is expensive but loud and sensational. He can’t speak in English, which lets Rocky spew random hilarious lines, though Johar seems to have overlooked the fact that Gen Z scions of almost all big business families in India — billionaire laddoo makers included —are almost invariably fluent in spoken English. Yet, the absurdities that abound about Rocky’s character get a redemption of sorts in the defining scene where he tells Chandan Chatterjee how his chauvinistic upbringing never allowed him to understand the finer aspects of life in a world where societal norms are rapidly changing (“Golu ko Golu bulaane se fat-shaming ho jaata hai??”).

There are many moments in the film that make you feel Johar was trying to balance experimentation with safe storytelling and character sketches, on one hand pushing the envelope and on the other seeking refuge in cliches. Rocky’s sister Gayatri (Anjali Anand), or ‘Golu’ to near ones for her rather overweight persona, is literally trader with the magic touch, but she is forced to do her trading in secret lest strict papa finds out. Rocky’s mother Punam (Kshitee Jog) croons Aap jaisa koi meri zindagi mein aaye in solitude and, egged on by Rani, ends up participating in the first reality show she auditions for.

The familiar premise of women realising their potential when they are freed from the fetters of subjugation invariably works, and drives home its significant message. But it also makes you wonder — wouldn’t these women deserve the dignity they rightfully get in the end if they lacked in special talent such as trading stocks or singing?

Johar’s dilemma is understandable. He bravely set out to tell a new love story filled with feel-good fun to a generation that is not so sure it wants to watch screen romances right now. As a storyteller on screen these days, one has to be cool, yet one can’t afford to do away with realism. Johar, like every other romantic filmmaker, was perhaps caught between his urge to stay true to the classic love story and his need to do things differently.

It is a dilemma hounding almost every filmmaker trying to foray the dream zone of romance lately, the reason Bollywood has not made a great love story in a while. Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani will, in retrospect, not be counted as one either, despite Alia Bhatt’s sizzle and Ranveer Singh’s sparkle. Somewhere beneath the starry acts, though, Karan Johar might have just left a hint of how characters can be brought alive differently, to whet audience interest.

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