The romantic drama Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, written and directed by Karan Johan (his sixth film and the first since Student of the Year, 2012), stars Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in pivotal roles, with cameos by Fawad Khan, Lisa Hayden, Alia Bhatt and Shah Rukh Khan.
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is essentially the story of a young man named Ayan (Ranbir Kapoor) who is in search of true love in a selfish and materialistic world. Ayan is filthy rich and has all the time in the world to pursue his quixotic adventures. Interestingly, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is supposedly inspired by events in the director's own life. While talking to film critic Raja Sen, Johar said, "Twice in life, my love hasn't been reciprocated and I know what it can feel like. So that emotion runs through the film... I told Ranbir that on some level, in some way, you are playing me... I feel that I'm the brand ambassador of heartbreak." Come to think of it, it is not difficult to imagine a young Karan Johar pining away like the protagonist.
Characters as egocentric as the ones in this film cannot pull off a love story; at best they can achieve a simulacrum of lust or infatuation.
But what's difficult to come to terms with is a film about love that tends to depict human relationships with an outrageous sense of levity. Every character in the movie is utterly selfish. No one seems to care about anybody but themselves. Even the tertiary characters are mean and selfish. Maybe Johar's cynicism is seeping into the film but the result is that the effect is inconsistent with what the director says he is trying to achieve. Characters as egocentric as the ones in this film cannot pull off a love story; at best they can achieve a simulacrum of lust or infatuation. In other words, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is completely devoid of any feeling that can even be remotely termed as love. Although these characters keep talking about love, they are incapable of loving anyone except themselves. At first they all appear to be kind, loving, and friendly but wait till they remove their facades and reveal their true selves. Do they behave so because of their loneliness and insecurity? Well, the fact is that they are too shallow to even experience loneliness. What comes across is that they are bored by their lives. Perhaps they need company to escape their boredom. But even company is no good to them, for they always end up rediscovering boredom. If this is true then can we say that Johar succeeded in evoking Antonioni? Alas, we can't! For, Johar certainly doesn't achieve this effect by design. He attempts to make an out and out romantic film but ends up making a film that's not even remotely romantic.
That's not all that's wrong with the film, sadly.
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is rife with homages to old Hindi film songs (Mohd. Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Nur Jahan... you name it) and the characters' mannerisms seem deeply influenced the traditional melodrama of Bollywood films. That's fine, but the self-referential aspects of this jar. Karan Johar doesn't hesitate from making references to his own films and dialogues. It may look funny at times but it certainly is quite unbecoming of a seasoned filmmaker like him. He stills seems to be living in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Not much has changed about the way his films are made except that his characters are now quite open about their physical needs. Sex is no longer a taboo for them. There are moments in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil when it appears that Karan Johar is running short of ideas. The film runs high on clichés (he even introduces cancer as a plot device!) and it seems as if Johar is grasping at straws to give the film some semblance of closure. Another disturbing thing about Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is that the characters are drunk most of the time. One wonders how these characters end up making all the important decisions in their lives while being in a state of inebriation.
What comes across is that they are bored by their lives. Perhaps they need company to escape their boredom. But even company is no good, for they always end up rediscovering boredom.
Overall, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is one of those films that show promise but ultimately disappoint. While Johar does a reasonable job as far as the movie's direction is concerned, he fails miserably in the writing department. The weak writing fails to do justice to the talent on show. Ranbir Kapoor, who is known to be quite choosy when it comes to picking roles, must have given his nod for Ae Dil Hai Mushkil in the hope that it would help break the hex of misses and near misses that have shaken his career during the last couple of years or so. Although, his role in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil bears some similarities to his roles in Tamasha, Rockstar and Wake Up Sid, there's even less substance here. His character never quite develops. Anushka, as usual, exudes an air of chutzpah that few actresses in the industry can equal. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan makes her presence felt during her short appearance. But, unfortunately, the romance between her character and Ranbir's doesn't live up to the hype created by the rushes. Fawad Khan's role is far from significant. Wonder what the fuss was about. As for Shah Rukh Khan, he looks charismatic during his brief appearance wherein he makes an important remark about one-sided love. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil has its moments but it ultimately fails to leave any lasting impact owing to its weak narrative. Still if you are desperately looking for some escapist entertainment you can certainly give it a try.
A version of this review was first published in A Potpourri of Vestiges.