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.