The Accidental Rockstar

When Shammi Kapoor pops up in Imitiaz Ali’s Rockstar, you get the sense that the film is about to introduce an interesting new character, with a new layer, and a new sensibility to aid an otherwise anemic, story-starved affair. That this promise is not kept is symptomatic of the overall problem with this epic film, which chugs along for nearly three hours, stretching out a paper-thin plot while introducing and abandoning tantalizing pieces along the way, and ultimately relying almost entirely on a central love story where the two leads have a gradually tiresome chemistry. The good news is that this isn’t a very bad film by any means but it is an easy one to confuse for a very good one. The truth is somewhere between.

One of the problems is that only half of this lead pair is played by an actor. People have lauded Ranbir Kapoor’s performance here and though I find much of this praise pretty excessive, (he’s still not quite the “man” he aspires to be here) as an actor I’ve mostly enjoyed since the beginning of his still young career, I’ll say this: he’s finally come up with a performance that is a respectable second best to his wonderful turn in Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year. But where Kapoor was surrounded by a superb troupe of character actors in Shimit Amin’s underrated film, here he has to spend most of his time expending his gifts beside Nargis Fakhri, a baffling miscast who at first seems like an interesting choice—her introduction is set to flamenco and Ali seems to be introducing a “foreign” element to his protagonist’s till-then fairly rooted life—but that turns out to be the first and one of the most significant of the half-delivered promises here.

Much worse is the film’s failure to deliver a real, detailed character arc that takes us convincingly from a cheerful young lad to a jaded international phenomenon. It’s as if Kapoor’s character, upon making a name for himself, is tuned out most of the time and doesn’t have a hand in creating his own image, his own stardom. As if he became a rockstar by accident! The beginning of this film has its young protagonist vocalizing what has been ailing young Hindi film heroes (Ranbir has played some of these, Imitiaz has created some of them) for some time now; that is, the absence of any real conflict outside of a problematic romance to define their lives. I found this acknowledgement that we’ve been exposed to far too many young men who have it far too easy incredibly encouraging. Unfortunately Ali’s answer to this dilemma isn’t to introduce a remedy but simply to acknowledge it, ensure that his protagonist is briefly deprived of some of the aforementioned comforts in his life (for, you know, like two whole months or something!) before “earning” his phase as a celebrated rockstar. So those looking for something very unique in Kapoor’s Jordan or Ali’s film will go wanting. At best Ali’s script is a diverting work that doesn’t go off the deep end—though that’s only because it doesn’t take any real risks and because Ranbir’s best achievement as an actor here is that he makes the film seem more significant than it is. He holds it all together. Posturing aside, though, this is a safe and typical movie about a musician in love that in one way has all of the depth of a Yashraj romance, and you could almost dismiss it as something like this were it not for the conviction and formal skill that Ali brings to telling his story, and this is entirely due to the efforts of three gifted accomplices he’s got working with him behind the screen.

Editor Aarti Bajaj and cinematographer Anil Mehta (himself a superb filmmaker) really elevate things here by creating an interesting, kinetic visual texture. There are various stocks used throughout (most memorably at the very beginning of the film, outside a rock concert) and aspect ratios vary here and there to create the sense of this film existing within a grand tradition of rock documentaries and features, and within the framework of a specific local and personal history. Things are being documented here with a frenzy of cameras surrounding the protagonist at all times, while more intimate moments away from the leer of lenses are shot and cut with longer, more deliberate takes. Bajaj takes shards of the narrative’s imagery and sprinkles them at various, important points of the film, with moments from disparate time periods flowing in and out of the narrative. This technique seems to work in service of Ali’s most noble and persuasive statement here—that memory is inescapable in ways that are both blissful and traumatic. The best of music could be characterized in the same way.

Which brings me to what saves Rockstar, what truly rescues it, and what is indisputably great in it: the experience of attending a proxy A.R. Rahman concert unlike any in screen memory. Never in his illustrious career has Rahman so thoroughly and so wonderfully OWNED a film—Rahman is more than a composer here, he is an invisible cast member, the film’s true hero, whose contribution serves not only to tell the story here but to give it the depth of feeling—the sense of sharp troughs and peaks—that so eludes it when we settle back into the plot. The music here is phenomenally well-used (and well shot by Mehta) and just as good as the tracks here is the background score. The highpoint here for me was the Sadda Haq performance (in the show I saw, a few people even applauded it) which must be counted among one of recent Hindi cinema’s most believable and rousing depictions of rage. I also found the qawwali moment here at Nizamuddin dargah utterly entrancing. Innumerable such moments really define the “soul” of the film and it is the memory of the music that remains more than anything else. I came out of this film reasonably pleased with Jordan, but absolutely blown away by A.R. Rahman.

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26 Responses to “The Accidental Rockstar”

  1. Rajen should be thrilled.. all these Rockstar reviews knocking heads on the site!

  2. Needless to say a fine piece GF and of course I agree with just about everything here..

  3. Alex adams Says:

    Very nicely written and worded review there as expected–may read in entirety later
    Just a small innocent counter question—
    Which recent bollywood movie(s) of a SIMILAR genre have done better whilst still moving the box office similarly (excluding stuff like saathiya and mani/south remakes)

    And which of the current Bollywood actresses may have been more “apt & effective”–this answer should be hopefully v v easy

  4. Alex adams Says:

    The slight ” problem” with all these “distinguished ” reviews is the failure to acknowledge the simple fact that a “love story” will remain exactly that– a ” love story”!!!
    That IS a problem if one expects ray-esque or Fellini-esque or even hirani-esque stuff suddenly

    And keeping the box office intact, ther are only certain permutations and combinations one can introduce(& those have been more tha abused by kjo/yrf inc!!!)
    Unless one wants to bring in the “kinky love”–

    In other words–if the best minds here are asked to “design” the ideal such movie with v good box office what would the “design” be like–would be interesting to hear a rough draft idea at least on paper lol!!!
    When one grapples with this question, the relative “achievement” of this effort may seem more obvious…..

    • The film could easily have had a better plot keep everything else intact. The film’s box office prospects would only have been helped. Note how many reviewers are complaining about the second half. Don’t think they have Ray or Fellini in mind. Leaving this aside whether it’s a love story or an action film or whatever. Surely those genres don’t automatically lend themselves to less work?!

  5. Re : Rajen should be thrilled..
    Any day when the first three posts on the blog are Q, GF and Satyam’s reviews of a film is a great day. Regardless of the film being reviewed. If it happens to be ROCKSTAR, even better

  6. That’s a very fine review, Satyam. Despite all the flaws, the movie is very touching and doesn’t play safe by opting for a sad (even ambiguous) ending. Imtiaz could have easily gone for a tamer, happier, more commercially acceptable ending where Ranbir helps Nargis recover from her disease and they live happily ever after.
    But Imtiaz admirably followed his theme of ‘loss’ all the way. The most affecting moment for me was when Ranbir realizes the true meaning of ‘loss’, and tells his manager that he is ready to give up everything, but doesn’t want his heart broken.

    • yes agreed on this point and this is one of the reasons I found the film genuine. Hope Imtiaz Ali takes the tone of this work going forward and works with it as opposed to returning to something like LAK.

    • Thanks for your comment Henry. I definitely think this has its genuine emotional moments and there’s enough here not only to heartily recommend a watch, but specifically a theater watch given how uniquely pulsating and important the audiovisual aspect is. I’d certainly frown more on watching a screener here as opposed to Ra.One!

      And no apology required below. Getting confused for Satyam’s writing is a rather generous compliment!

  7. I meant – doesn’t play safe by opting for a happy ending.

  8. Sorry, just noticed this is GF’s review. Both of you guys write really well.

  9. “Hope Imtiaz Ali takes the tone of this work going forward and works with it as opposed to returning to something like LAK.”

    Couldn’t agree more. I think even the audience has gotten tired of ‘fakery’ like LAK and want the return of more rooted cinema.

  10. yeah..Imitiaz ali should stick to such movies..and I sincerely hope our so called youth lap such stuff..because at the end of the day..some box office results are necessary.. I agree with GF’s review except that he hasn’t noticed that the music was a part of the script itself..to consider it a differnt entity wudnt be entirely correct..the lyrics and the score reflectd each and evry scene..

    • That’s fair enough anshul. It’s certainly not that I didn’t notice the music wasn’t a part of the film’s script – the reason I cite how well used the musical sequences are is largely because they exist as a pretty seamless part of the narrative, really rescues the narrative in many ways but my thought on Indian song sequences are that the best of them do two somewhat contradictory things–they work to support the narrative while existing at a remove from them, highlighting a moment or a extending a beat in the storytelling in a way that is both connected to the larger picture and self-contained. It’s something of a tightrope walk which is why not everyone does it very well and Ali does it really well not least because Rahman seems plugged into the storytelling here in a way that’s rare among music composers.

  11. I wonder if Jordan’s career progression as a musician is supposed to be sort of an ironic riff on his mentor’s initial comment about pain being the engine that drives a musician. It appears that his general air of being a bit pissed off and disconnected from the world around him allows his music to mean whatever it does to his listeners.

    The Sadda Haq sequence, for instance, shows a whole bunch of folks shouting out that slogan, and none of them probably mean anything to Janardhan, nor does he mean anything to them. But is that the point Imtiaz is trying to make, that the music could mean different things to different people, and Jordan’s image, however marketable it is, doesn’t really mean a thing to either Janardhan or his listeners when it comes right down to it? The term “accidental rockstar” fits quite well.

    For me, the key moment comes right at the end when the man seems to see the audience for the first time. It’s as if he’s thinking, “So this is what Khatana bhai was talking about. Damned if it didn’t turn out like he said it would.”

  12. Superb review here — especially in the “justice” it does to ARR’s music, more specifically to the experience of ARR’s music (yours is one of the rare reviews that focuses on this crucial aspect in which the film does live up to the “Rockstar” title; namely that watching it is like attending an ARR concert).

    On “the film’s failure to deliver a real, detailed character arc that takes us convincingly from a cheerful young lad to a jaded international phenomenon”, “as if Kapoor’s character, upon making a name for himself, is tuned out most of the time and doesn’t have a hand in creating his own image, his own stardom.”, I couldn’t agree more. And certainly couldn’t have written that better.

    • Thanks Q. Revisited your own review after watching the film and I’m inclined to agree with just about everything you say. Especially glad you cited Piyush Mishra who, again, was one of those “tantalizing pieces” I meant to indicate here and he’s so good one wishes Ali had made more of the “rockstar” track here to see more of the guy if nothing else.

      • That massage scene is I think one of the great comic ones in Hindi cinema. Mishra’s expressions here are simply priceless.

        • Yes, also quite liked the “mantra” recitation scene with the torn contract. Mishra in general reminded me of his wonderful supporting work in JBJ.

          • The other great thing about Mishra is his Hindi: obviously no surprise, given his position as a man of letters and a theater artiste, but he really can do so much more than we have seen in his Hindi film work. At least in Gulaal we saw his talent at work, by way of lyrics.

  13. Why Shashi Kapoor had to see Rockstar
    November 18, 2011 13:01 IST

    The much-praised film Rockstar had an unexpected patron on Monday evening: the ailing yesteryear star Shashi Kapoor.

    Shashi, who emblazoned his name across the marquee with a series of romantic movies in the 1960s, has a very intense emotional connectivity with Rockstar. Not only does his grand-nephew Ranbir Kapoor [ Images ] star in the film, it has Shashi’s elder brother Shammi Kapoor’s [ Images ] last screen appearance.

    And this, Shashi had to see.

    “Because of his failing health and immobility, Shashiji has not been to see a movie in a theatre for the last 10 years,” says a source. “The man who brought in a new-kind of romantic hero in cinema, did international projects with the world’s top directors and championed art-house cinema with historic clutter-breakers like 36 Chowringhee Lane, Junoon and Utsav, can’t go to the cinema any more! Of course, he watches films at home. But for Rockstar Shashiji insisted on going to the theatre, no matter how much of an effort it took him. He had two reasons for this: He wanted to see his brother’s last screen appearance, and also watch Ranbir on screen for the first time.”

    Shashi KapoorApparently, Shashi took his beloved staffers from Prithvi Theatres to the movie with him.

    Confirming the news, Rishi Kapoor [ Images ] said, “That’s right. My uncle had not been to a theatre for more than 10 years. He went and saw Rockstar, and liked Ranbir’s work. We are enjoying the response the film has had even though I am in Dehra Doon, shooting for Karan Johar’s [ Images ] film and my wife Neetu is in New York.”

    Meanwhile, Rishi is miffed by comparisons between Ranbir’s act in the film, and Rishi’s own rockstar performance in Subhash Ghai’s [ Images ] Karz.

    “How can you compare the two? That was another era,” he says. “What I played in Karz was a conventional hero. Gao, nacho, masti karo. Ranbir has portrayed the internal turmoil of a musician. Koi mamooli baat nahin hai. Grant him the credit for choosing unconventional roles time after time. In my time, I wasn’t allowed the liberty of going against my image.”

  14. Am wondering whats keeping Abzee from putting up his review?
    I guess a Ra.One DVD wasnt enough. Probably an offer of a -Night with SRK might do the trick!

  15. Movie Review
    Rockstar
    However much you may quote Rumi, you may still not be able to reach the viewer’s soul.
    Namrata Joshi

    Starring: Ranbir Kapoor, Nargis Fakhri, Piyush Mishra, Shammi Kapoor, Aditi Rao
    Directed by Imtiaz Ali
    Rating: **

    Imtiaz Ali is a persuasive director. Delhi college boy Janardhan Jakhar’s journey to becoming rockstar Jordan has moments that tickle the imagination. The opening sequence of a rockstar racing through the streets of Rome, moving past the crazy fans, straight to his concert is kinetic. Or the scenes of the musician’s assimilation of the varied forms in his repertoire, from the Sufi strains of Nizamuddin dargah to the Gypsy folk on Prague’s streets. Or the tongue-in-cheek vignette of a mata ka jagraata in Dilli. Imtiaz shoots these moments wonderfully and then goes on to cap it with a heart-tugging shehnai-guitar jugalbandi with the late Shammi Kapoor giving a nod to the late Ustad Bismillah Khan. Music as the meeting ground for our today and yesterday.

    You wish there was more such instances of an artiste’s tryst with and passion for his music. Similarly, the underlying tensions in Jordan’s family could have been better explored, specially that sassy sister-in-law who keeps sticking too close to him. But Imtiaz sidelines it for a love story that’s tragically lame and tame. And one can’t just lay the entire blame for it at the doorstep of newcomer Nargis Fakri, despite her acute lack of expressions and irritating, silicon lips. However hard Ranbir may try (the unsteady Haryanvi accent and a ‘silly instead of the simpleton act’ notwithstanding) his character’s inexplicable attraction for her isn’t convincing enough. Their love story in the first half is as banal as a Mere Brother Ki Dulhan. Be it eating gol-gappe or seeing Jungli Jawani in Amar Talkies or drinking narangi, the friendly banter feels simulated than spontaneous.

    In the second half, Imtiaz attempts to go grand as the lovers’ passions get scaled up several notches and come dripping in pain and tragedy. But what drives the anguish? Where does the pain come from when the love at hand is puppyish and laughably melodramatic, what with some stupid bone marrow issues holding the key. Jordan’s angst also feels more designer and sexy than real. I kept wondering what he was rebelling against, and how the ‘Free Tibet’ issue comes to figure in his rocking life? Imtiaz strikes other false notes, especially the way in which some characters on the side come and go. Moreover, he chooses the most innocuous actors to play these roles, be it the heroine’s sister, father or husband. Even the play of words (burger and bugger) makes one cringe. In Rockstar the setting, imagery, costumes, get overwrought and orchestrated, the emotions become magnified. What Imtiaz forgets is that simplicity can sometimes talk much more. And however much you may quote Rumi, you may still not be able to reach the viewer’s soul.

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