Monday, July 31, 2023


ROCKY AUR RANI KI PREM KAHANI (Rocky and Rani's love story) is everything we expect from a Karan Johar film. It's a multi-generational family dramedy with broad laughs, beautiful clothes, wonderful music, and moments that genuinely make you cry.  But more than that, this is a movie that is daring in its surface message of progressive inclusion, and even more radical in its meta-message of queer acceptance. 

On the surface, this is a typical Karan Johar multi-generational dramedy. Rocky Randhawa (Ranveer Singh) is the scion of an incredibly wealthy Delhi family that is traditional and Punjabi (North Indian). He is a flamboyant, luxury-label obsessed, gym-obsessive who speaks broken English, and whose father bribed his teachers for his grades. The family is run by the frighteningly strict matriarch Dhanlaxmi (Jaya Bachchan) and her equally fearsome son Tijori (Aamir Bashir). Tijori's wife Poonam (Kshitee Jog) is servile and their daughter Gayatri (Anjali Anand) is mocked for being overweight. 

Contrast this to Rani Chatterjee (Alia Bhatt), a deeply intellectual, American-educated news-anchor whose Bengali family are cultured, bohemian and socially progressive.  Her mother, Anjali (Churni Ganguly), is the breadwinner and a university professor. Her father Chandan (Tota Roy Chowdhury) is a male classical Indian khatak dancer.  Her grandma Jamini (Shabana Azmi) recites poetry at recitals in their house. They are so progressive that her father can happily discuss why Rani's relationship with Shomen broke up - he was a bad lover. 

Chance brings Rocky and Rani together. Rocky's beloved grandfather (Dharmendra) is suffering from dementia and Rocky thinks that if he tracks down the women he once had a love affair with - Jamini - this might trigger his memories.  At first Rani mocks Rocky for his ignorance and crass personality but they soon start their own affair, just as the grandparents are also reconnecting.  

The first half of the movie is basically the two realising that they do have genuine feelings for each other despite their cultural differences.  The second half of the movie sees them move in with each others' families to see if those differences can be overcome. Can the cultured Chatterjee's help Rocky become more progressive while also becoming less snobby themselves? And can the Rhandawas accept a daughter-in-law who speaks her mind, speaks English, and doesn't cover her head?

So far so rom-com with a side-order of melodrama. What elevates this film about the norm is its surface message of progressive inclusion.  Rocky gives a powerful speech about feeling judged by the Chatterjees for his poor English - a real issue in India given that most education is private and language can be interpreted as denoting class. Mrs Chatterjee gives an amazing speech about how Indian men use the language of "honour" to disguise misogyny, and that they might sing lewd songs about what's behind a sari blouse (chola ke peetchay kya hai?) but are too embarrassed to utter the word brassiere. Most powerfully, Mr Chatterjee gives an amazing speech describing his joy at dancing Khatak but also the incredible mockery he has faced his entire life because of it. 

I commend the (now) openly gay director Karan Johar for including this material. Even more, I commend Ranveer Singh for undercutting his hyper-masculine image and partnering with the supremely talented dancer Tota Roy Chowdhury in dancing the khatak inspired and iconic Dola Re song from Devdas.  Just as the evil matriarch mockingly laughs behind her scarf, I can imagine many viewers doing the same. For Ranveer Singh to show this kind of allyship is powerful and explodes the hypocrisy of an Indian Bollywood culture where it's totally fine and not at all queer for straight men to wax their chests and dance around to Bollywood songs, but heaven forfend they do classical dance, which is still seen as the province of women.

Indeed, one can take this radical message one step further. I would argue that ROCKY AUR RANI is really a film about questioning gender roles and sexuality, and for a less toxic masculinity. After all, when you think about it, we have come a loooong way from Johar's 2001 film KABHI KUSHI KABHI GUM. In this film both families are run by financially dominant women, with Jaya Bachchan taking the evil patriarch role that her real-life husband Amitabh took in KKKG. And in the current generation it is Rani and Rocky's sister Anjali that are smart and earning a living, while Rocky is just a nepo-baby.  

In both families the patriarchs are criticised for a love of the arts that is somehow seen as not masculine enough in India's toxic hyper-masculine culture. Rocky's grandfather was scorned by his wife Dhanlaxmi for his love of poetry, and she kept their son Tijori from spending time with his father for fear that somehow this anti-masculine behaviour might be contagious! By contrast, Rani's mother and grandmother have stood by her father and his love of the arts, but his father beat him for dancing.  Maybe it's because we all know Karan Johar's real-life journey of self- and societal acceptance that I think we can read this entire storyline of what it would be like to come out not as a khatak dancer but as a gay man in India today.

The resulting film is one that wears its politics as well as its heart on its sleeve, but remains entertaining throughout. Pritam's songs are fantastic and the choreography, outfits and sets are wonderfully over the top.  In particular, I love Manish Malhotra's brightly coloured chiffon saris for Alia Bhatt's Rani, and Ranveer Singh brilliantly self-parodies his real life image as a fashion obsessive as Rocky.  Karan Johar expertly uses the iconography of DEVDAS in his pivotal khatak scene, and my only real criticism is the heavy product placement for a certain music back catalogue's hardware in the grandparents' reminiscence montage. As for scene stealers - well it's lovely to have Dharmendra and Shabana Azmi back on the screen, although I could have done without Jaya Bachchan's two-dimensionally-written evil grandma.  I think it's actually Anjali Anand as Golu/Gayatri who really steals the show with a late movie singing scene that cracked me up. 

ROCKY AUR RANI KI PREM KAHANI has a running time of 168 minutes plus an interval. It is rated 12A for infrequent strong language, moderate innuendo, sexual violence references.

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