Salman Rushdie tangled with the Orpheus myth for his rock exercise in the Ground Beneath her Feet (also the title of a U2 single meant as accompaniment for the book). The novel is both rock saga and epic romance with some very masala overtures to it. Like most Rushdie novels this is a compulsive read even when it does not necessarily live up to its great ambitions. In Rushdie’s imagination the ‘rockstar’ of our contemporary universe becomes the modern equivalent of Orpheus and now he has a willing partner for this project in Imtiaz Ali who seems to borrow from much the same source material for his current work. Despite the film’s obvious allusion to another epic romance in the female protagonist’s name the work has far less to do with the ‘local’ legend of Heer Ranjha, even in the loosest sense, and is far more connected with the trials and travails of Orpheus and Eurydice. This makes for a rather singular point of departure in the annals of Hindi commercial cinema.
Rockstar is a relatively rare genuine film from contemporary ‘Bollywood’, an industry otherwise quite prone to bathing in cynical romances or quite happy to plumb various Hollywood genres to provide the latest ‘wannabe’ high to its multiplex cheerleaders. It cannot be said that Rockstar entirely avoids this charge either. Enough of the familiar afflictions plague Imtiaz Ali from the tourism bug to patchwork story-telling to the improbable nature of the film’s essential premise within an Indian context. The ‘rockstar’ genre much like the ‘road movie’ just does not represent a plausible Indian archive (and this was a problem even in Rushdie’s novel and to a greater degree). But for all this the director somehow manages to hold the film together aided primarily by Rahman’s extraordinary score and then in turn by Ranbir Kapoor’s assured performance. This is not to underestimate the director’s often great visual flair, especially in the film’s first half, but in the second half much of the promise he sets up initially vanishes rather rapidly. The principle confusion at the heart of film is that the director cannot quite decide whether this is a great love story with the rockstar’s profession as a back-plot or if it is more of a fictional ‘biopic’ with a strong romance angle to it. This is obvious rather early on when Janardhan Jakkad, otherwise so obsessed with pursuing his musical ambitions, is completely distracted by his romantic entanglement. Ultimately the work manages to remain truer to the love story and the rockstar’s journey then becomes a series of vignettes to intersperse the narrative. The latter is fairly clunky for this reason once one gets through some wonderful montages in the film’s first twenty minutes or more. The rockstar’s history is delivered a bit too imprecisely, the viewer never quite experiences the various stages of this life. He is either very far from fame or too much its hubristic victim. His ‘becoming’ or his success in an optimal sense is not quite apparent. Similarly the rockstar’s life seems to be a bit of a tabloid-driven sketch with not enough nuance or detail attached to it. The director indexes familiar archives to reveal each stage of his protagonist’s musical journey but the viewer can never really see the character ‘age’ with his experiences, can never quite see the evolution. On the other hand the opposite is true for the romance where Imtiaz Ali takes his time and as a result this aspect of the story is genuinely affecting at many points. In the second half when the narrative becomes repetitive in some ways the romance keeps the viewer invested and even as the film ends, to its credit ambiguously, the Rahman ballad and its ‘otherworldly’ notes seem rather justified.
Imtiaz Ali’s Delhi is marvelously buoyant without being the familiar claustrophobic, hyper-energetic metro of other imaginings. In keeping with some of the film’s themes and certainly Rumi’s epigraph the city’s sufi heritage gets highlighted and the director is superb at capturing some of the related paraphernalia. If at all one might venture a mild criticism here it is that perhaps the director sometimes get side-tracked with the sights and sounds of the city or at least his loving portrait, otherwise so entrancing, seems less justified than than a comparable one in Delhi 6 where the quasi-documentary approach ‘introduces’ the city to the outsider’s gaze. Janaradhan Jakkad is not new to the city the way the Delhi 6 protagonist is. But this is a minor quibble given the strong representation offered here, assuredly one of the noteworthy ones of this city in its industry’s history, and one rather regrets the unnecessary Prague excursion Imtiaz Ali decides to take later on. It does not seem necessary to the plot in any case.
It is hard to state more than what ought to be supremely obvious about Rahman’s score in the film. Other than Rang De Basanti it is hard to think of another Hindi film where the maestro’s soundtrack is so effective employed. The cues are not quite as well-handled as in Mehra’s work but the music is still integrated rather well and seems inherently part of the narrative, perhaps even moreso than in the older work. None of this film’s triumphs can quite be conceived without Rahman’s interventions.
Ranbir Kapoor is of course at the heart of this film. His first ‘showcase’ part as a star-actor. With a part that is sometimes under-written and a script that does not always offer the most reliable support Ranbir makes the film quite his own without by any means being a superlative performer. His initial act as the gawky and earnest ‘simpleton’ belongs to a whole archive of Indian commercial cinema where such characters quite often come across as mentally-challenged. He is certainly less stereotypical and much more edgy as the ‘Rockstar’ even through the characters different moods but the transition from his older self to his later one is not easy to read. The ‘older’ persona he slips into every once in a while as he ‘matures’ into a star is perhaps the one that should have been referenced starting out. Actors and their directors frequently make the mistake of introducing too wide a chasm between two selves of a character. This decision undoubtedly creates effective results in cinema without always constituting a convincing enough fiction. It is often rather the little differences and the minor nuances that preserve the character’s evolution or frame of reference. These distinctions are less obvious in the telling, less discernable even but often acquire cumulative force as the work reaches its conclusion. It is nonetheless a tribute to Ranbir’s overall success here that despite these deficiences he constantly keeps the viewer engaged and specially as the ‘rockstar’ struggling with fame and fortune. Even here the actor’s impassioned portrayal might have been better served with a script willing to explore his talents a bit more but also with a greater admixture of subtlety. One witnesses a ‘gallery’ of the rockstar’s emotions but not quite the connecting tissue. All of this is not intended to be too much of a criticism. Ranbir does admirably to keep some of the film’s incoherence glued together but it is nonetheless a relatively obvious performance with very few unpredictable flashes. Rockstar possibly points to greater things for the actor but it is not yet that canonical moment for him.
Nargis Fakhri meanwhile is extremely scattered in her debut in what can hardly be termed a ‘performance’. But she certainly has screen presence and even screen chemistry with Ranbir Kapoor despite striking all sorts of false notes on the acting front. Piyush Mishra is always a joy to behold though one senses that his Dil Se outing has served as a template for most others following in its wake and something better than caricature could be attempted with this quirky actor.
Early on in the film Ranbir’s confidant and benefactor berates him for not having experienced enough of life’s anguish to truly become a significant artist. At one point the chiding introduces a humorous catalog of traditional commercial film woes (the lover has a disease, the hero is poor and so on). All of this is a useful trope for Imtiaz Ali’s own concerns vis-a-vis ‘Bollywood’ which in turn is in exemplary fashion the industry that knows no anguish or heartbreak unlike its older historical selves. Perhaps Rockstar is then an effort to induce passion and pain into an increasingly plastic cinema. Perhaps the director in this context is also atoning for his own sins in Love Aaj Kal. Shammi Kapoor (purposely ignored earlier in the discussion), with this bitter-sweet appearance (because so wrapped up in the event of his death), is a rather mysterious figure here. A presiding deity in the film, representing the ‘pastness’ of the industry but also inviting a dialog with the ‘present’ in the brief scenes he shares with Ranbir Kapoor. The film indeed opens with a pop art dedication to the star’s iconic 60s self and later on Ranbir offers tribute to his grand-uncle’s ‘Kashmir Ki Kali’ moment. This does not come across as merely cynical but a genuine desire on Imtiaz Ali’s part to reinvest ‘Bollywood’ in at least one chapter of its glorious history. However far or not one wishes to push this entire metaphor the current movie offers for all its ‘misses’ something cumulative, even an afterglow that stays on in the mind. Not strong enough to be experience but authentic enough to leave behind a residue…