Salim on Ae Dil Hai Mushkil
**May contain spoilers**
What if Tina hasn’t died at the start of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai? What if Anjali hadn’t grown her hair and started wearing sarees? And what if one day Rahul had to assess which ultimately meant more to him, his friendship with Anjali or his love for Tina? Two decades after his directorial debut, Karan Johar’s cinema has finally come of age. The gloss and glamour remain in copious amounts but we now have a film about the adult world (if not entirely populated by “adults”). John is unlikely to ever produce great cinema, and the sentiments of this movie far outweigh its cinematic qualities…but that’s not always a bad thing.
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is about unrequited love. The original Rahul, now a middle-aged divorcee looking with regret at his still stunning ex-wife, delivers the best line of the film: unrequited love is the most complete as it is not divided between two people and thus remains entirely uncorrupted and under the sole control of its proprietor. Alizeh too learns this lesson her experience with Ali; ostensibly she states that she has no non-platonic feelings for Ali and there is no reason to disbelieve her. But should one hypothesise that she was consciously or otherwise holding back from allowing friendship to develop into love, it may be the impact of this lesson having been learned that is the preventer.
But this film is not about Rahul. He is there only to remind us of where Karan started. Something we repeatedly given nudges at through multiple references to his earlier films. But these work as our lead pair are film buffs for whom Hindi cinema (even its most awful period of the 80s) is the baseline from which all life moments are assessed. Karan deserves special mention for reviving the word “vaatavaran”.
The premise is a quadrangle of unrequited love. Ali (Fawad) is loved by Alizeh (Anushka) who is loved by Ayan (Ranbir) who is loved by Saba (Aishwariya). These “loves” are each different, but there is another “love” that this film is really about. The platonic love that Alizeh feels for Ayan, but which he is never able to see as a worthy reciprocation for the very non-platonic love he feels for her.
Ayan wants to know why Alizeh cannot or does not give him the kind of love he wants from her. She tells him that her relationship with him is the most important of her life. She tells him she wants their friendship to last forever. But she cannot (or will not, should one consider it to be in her control), reciprocate the kind of love he has for her. He wants to know why but she has no answers. There is no compromise, no melting in her part; Ayan’s unrequited love remains eternally incomplete.
Saba asks Alizeh the same question: how could you not fall in love with this man? But Saba perhaps knows more than she lets on for she has now developed an unrequited love of her own. And Ayan, who does not reciprocate, knows only too well that one cannot love someone back simply because it would be in your own best interests.
Karan’s movies are often populated by a host of doting family members but here our characters are all alone, consumed entirely by their respective unrequited loves. Ayan is a self-confessed weirdo, going through an awkward adolescence waiting for that one person who ‘gets me’ but alas when she arrives she recognises him as her soulmate, her best friend, but not her lover. Ranbir expresses angst, anger and self-pity, but above these it is his magnificent disinhibition that is a joy to watch. Be it in paying small tributes to his father in Chandni or his uncle in An Evening in Paris, he looks every bit the goofy movie fanatic. But he is matched and absolutely outmatched by Anushka in what is easily the performance of her career thus far. Her eyes convey everything as she watches Ranbir sing Channa Mereya. But much is left unsaid and therein lies the beauty of her performance. We are left with so many questions about how she really felt about the two men in her life and how much self-understanding she ultimately has. But she’s the grown up and she contains her emotions magnificently until they ultimately spill out. Anushka’s vivacity lights up the screen but we’ve seen her do that before. Here she moves beyond her earlier performances and grasps and conveys emotions that one might agonise over even defining let alone portraying honestly.
Fawad has a special appearance and leaves the audience wanting to see more of him. Perhaps even more so given that this may well be his final Indian film performance for some time. Unfortunately the weakest portions of the movie are the start of the second half where Aishwariya enters the screen. Karan Johar is clearly not Mani Ratnam, the director who has extracted the finest performances from India’s most famous face. So we are left with about twenty unconvincing minutes where Aish struggles to deliver Urdu couplets. (Tabu, in her Haider/Fitoor form, could have done wonders with this role). Fortunately, her ex-husband turns up in a excellent cameo and Alizeh arrives shortly after, leading to a painful plot twist and two of the film’s finest scenes.
The first involves our three lead characters having a cosy dinner party, listening to Noorjahan reciting Faiz: Mujhse Pehli Si Mohabbat Mere Mehboob Na Maang (We later have an inspired use of Madan Mohan’s eternal composition of parting love: Lag Ja Gale Se Phir Yeh Haseen Raat Ho Na Ho). Alizeh and Saba are beautiful, mature and sensitive, but Ayan remains a boy. The film isn’t about the difference between men women but this scene gives us a glimpse.
The finest scene of the Ae Dil Hai Mushkil however is just before the climax. Ayan and Alizeh appear to have finally come to terms with the terms of their relationship. But is that ever possible if the feelings on each part are unequal or of a different nature. Ranbir conveys his frustrations that are now running out of time, but it is Anushka who is mesmerising here, telling him and us the lasting message of the movie: there is no suitable answer to unrequited love.