You don't have lachak, Rani tells Rocky at the disco akhada. Excuuuuse, he protests. He's not really offended, because it's so untrue. It's not just that Ranveer Singh has more lachak than Alia Bhatt. He has so much lachak he doesn't know what to do with it. He has so much lachak he learns kathak.
There's nothing in Hindi cinema like Singh turning on the full blast of his charm. He just won't quit. He'll strut, sashay, simper, make terrible jokes, do that thing where he averts his eyes. If it isn’t terribly written and his co-stars can keep up with him, scenes lift clear off the ground. His efforts make the first 80 or so minutes of Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani more fun than I thought I could ever have at a Karan Johar-directed film (Sumit Roy, Ishita Moitra and Shashank Khaitan are the writers). Even Alia seems happy to sit back and watch The Ranveer Show (there’s a lovely moment where, recovering from a particularly disarming barrage of Rocky, Rani asks herself, “Why are you still smiling?”).
Many years ago, in Shimla, Rocky Randhawa’s grandfather Kanwal (Dharmendra) and Rani Chatterjee’s grandmother Jamini (Shabana Azmi) met at a poetry reading. Though both were married, they fell in love. Since neither wanted to break up their family, they parted ways, each keeping a torn half of a photograph as a keepsake. Decades later, Kanwal, who’s been in a dementia-like state for years, starts to say her name. When he shows his grandson the photograph, Rocky follows the trail to Rani. Johar has explored rueful infidelity as director and producer, but this is one of his weirder runs at the theme. The scene where Kanwal and Jamini meet for the first time in years is like bad TV, Azmi playing it straight and Jaya Bachchan hamming it up as Kanwal’s wife, Dhanlakshmi. Kanwal doesn’t recognise Jamini at first, then starts singing “Abhi na jao chhod kar”, the camera going in circles, taking in the ugly Randhawa mansion.
With Dharmendra doing a worryingly good job of playing someone whose mind isn’t quite there, I was happy when the Kanwal-Jamini story receded into the background and the focus settled on the young lovers. Despite Rocky being an amiable Delhi Punjabi himbo and laddoo-business scion and Rani being a sharp, articulate, respected Bengali journalist, they hit it off immediately. After a lot of flirting and canoodling and genuine chemistry, talk turns to marriage and how each might deal with the other’s very different family (first impressions haven’t been good). They arrive at the whimsical decision to simultaneously move into each other’s house and test the waters before agreeing to marry—a real screenwriter’s solution.
Rani’s family—Churni Ganguly and Tota Roy Chowdhury as the parents, plus Azmi—are a Punjabi’s stereotype of Bengalis: culturally minded, snobbish, English-speaking, effete man, domineering woman. Rocky’s attempts to win them over are effective low comedy—he folds his hands in front of a Tagore portrait, mistaking him for Rani’s late grandfather. Rani’s relocation is less enjoyable. Neither Bachchan nor Aamir Bashir, playing Rocky’s father, are convincing Punjabis; instead, Johar interprets the culture clash as a liberal Bengali trying to free the minds of bullied Punjabi women (Kshitee Jog and Anjali Anand play Rocky’s mother and sister).
It’s rather touching to see Johar still trying to make the kind of all-shrieking, morals-improving, life-is-antakshari Bollywood film that everyone else has given up on. For all its jovial energy, Rocky Aur Rani is a huge pain when it starts dispensing life lessons. Rani’s reformatory zeal has an annoying smugness; when she lecture-fights with sour pill Dhanlakshmi, there are no winners. In the second half, everyone queues up to yell obvious things at each other. Don’t defer your dreams! Real men can learn kathak! Women are not objects! Lingerie isn’t scary!
As someone who detested the retro Hindi film song fetishising of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, I found Rocky Aur Rani’s use of classic numbers less annoying (Dharmendra and Azmi’s presence is a decent narrative excuse). But where Ae Dil had a terrific soundtrack, Pritam doesn’t manage a single memorable song here. Diljit Dosanjh’s Lover is drafted in. The dance number What Jhumka? coasts on the melody of Jhumka Gira Re. We hear snatches of Mere Bhole Balam, Chaudhvin Ka Chand, Hawa Ke Saath Saath, Yeh Shaam Mastaani. But Rocky also blasts Aaja Meri Gaadi Mein Baith Ja; we hear the mandolin from Tujhe Dekha Toh Yeh Jaana Sanam; Chowdhury dances to Dola Re Dola. What kind of undiscriminating nostalgia is this, ranging over five decades of Hindi film, tossing out only the most obvious hits?
The sensible solution seems perpetually out of reach. It feels weird that someone as practical as Rani doesn’t even bring up the possibility of them living by themselves. And even if they’re committed to the big swap, why not take turns hosting the other and help put out fires, rather than moving out at the same time? It’s the sort of film where an amateur stock market player can walk into a newsroom and land a job, where a news anchor can walk into a company boardroom and invent a successful ad campaign on the fly. The lovers in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil felt like contemporary creations. Rocky and Rani could be Govinda and Juhi Chawla in some amiable '90s film.
It was surely someone’s dearest wish to see Ranveer Singh try on a black bra, and I’m glad it’s come true. Johar enjoys pushing the needle in small ways, like Rani’s family discussing her ex’s shortcomings as a lover at the dinner table, or classical dance as a metaphor for a coming out story. I was happy to see Dharmendra and Azmi share a brief kiss—a simple onscreen pleasure denied to actors of their generation. It’s these small things that make Rocky Aur Rani easy to enjoy, even as the overblown, old-fashioned drama makes it impossible to rate beyond a point. I cracked up at Dhanlakshmi referring to her husband and his paramour as "Ghajini and sajni”. Who knew Guddi could be such a baddie?