Since Karan Johar’s debut as a director almost twenty years ago, Dharma Productions has become synonymous with bringing glamour and polish to the world of Hindi cinema. Johar’s melodramatic, lavish multi-starrers are always hotly anticipated and his latest offering, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (ADHM) (This Heart is Complicated) is no different. Commercial success hasn’t eluded the director but he’s made it known that he craves critical appreciation.
Staying true to the Dharma brand, ADHM has a roster of A-listers, foreign metropolises, costly production design and chart topping songs. But don’t let the gilded surface fool you, as Johar has directed his most thoughtful, mature and genuine movie yet.
The film’s leading man and lady first meet at a London bar, fail at hooking up, but nonetheless decide on spending the night together, barhopping and learning more about each other. Ayan Sanger (Ranbir Kapoor) is an awkward MBA student who dreams of becoming a singer, and Alizeh Khan (Anushka Sharma) a free spirit who has made a profession of taking various classes across the city. Both have strained or non-existent relationships with their respective families, but their definitions of relationships are very different.
Ayan has a girlfriend (Lisa Haydon) who he admittedly is dating simply to have a hot companion, while Alizeh is scarred from a previous relationship with a DJ named Ali (Fawad Khan). Alizeh openly declares she’s not interested in commitment and as she forms a bond with Ayan, she sees a dear friend in him, not a lover. Ayan, however, drops obvious hints to Alizeh that he desires to be her one and only.
Lisa proves unfaithful, thus giving Alizeh the opportunity to take Ayan on a trip to Paris to recover from the break-up. During a night on the town, the ghost of relationships past visits Alizeh as she unexpectedly spots DJ Ali. Alizeh’s first instinct is to run from the man who broke her heart, and Ayan is all for protecting his distressed friend. But DJ Ali begs for a second chance with Alizeh, and to Ayan’s dismay, Alizeh agrees to a reconciliation.
Ayan is left nursing a broken heart and a bruised ego, and on his way back home to London, he meets Saba Taliyar Khan (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) an Urdu poet based in Vienna. Ready for a rebound partly fueled by vengeance, Ayan begins a relationship initiated by the self-assured, divorced older woman. Like Alizeh, Saba has suffered in the name of love and is content with a physical relationship with Ayan. While Alizeh is out of sight, she’s not out of Ayan’s mind and it’s not long until the two meet again.
Anushka Sharma: Bolstered by her crackling chemistry with Kapoor, Sharma’s fantastic portrayal of a mostly exceptional character is easily her best performance to date. Whether thoughtfully silent or in the midst of an emotional breakdown, it’s obvious Sharma gets Alizeh and makes the role her own. Sharma’s Alizeh is an imperfect, relatable person, but the perfect friend.
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan: Bravo to the awesome threesome of Karan Johar, cinematographer Anil Mehta and makeup artist Mickey Contractor for making the actress appear anew and absolutely bewitching. The audience is introduced to a woman who wears maturity like a crown and leaves moviegoers mesmerized. Sure, Bachchan’s beauty is legendary, but here she’s at ease with herself and her portrayal of Saba is restrained, which elegantly elevates her many looks in the film to another level.
Music: In an unwritten contract between Dharma Productions and the paying public, it’s stipulated that the production company, and especially a Karan Johar film, must provide solid songs to the world to play at social functions, especially weddings. Music director Pritam did good on the promise and produced an eclectic album with each song having a different take on heartbreak, from the funky Break Up Song, to the touching Channa Mereya. Picturization of some songs though, namely Bulleya and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is a bit lengthy and somewhat distracting.
Lisa Haydon: Haydon has about three scenes but brings freshness and charm to the role of Ayan’s girlfriend, also named Lisa. Very comfortable in her skin, the model-actress has the potential to become an accomplished actress. Haydon is very much in on the joke of being portrayed as vapid arm candy and welcomes the opportunity to demonstrate her comic timing.
Ayan Sanger: It’s no secret the incredibly talented Ranbir Kapoor’s career mostly consists of playing the man-child whose maturity is dependent on a relationship with an emotionally evolved woman. But in ADHM, many interactions between Ayan and Alizeh are uncomfortable to watch as he emotionally blackmails and manhandles her when she refuses to accept his advances. Part of Ayan’s backstory involves abandonment by his mother at a young age, which could potentially explain his clingy nature and obsession with Alizeh, but there are moments when one questions whether Alizeh is confusing being a loyal friend with tolerating unacceptable, childish behavior.
The Third Act: No spoiler alerts here, but it’s safe to say the last twenty minutes are baffling. The last act becomes the final attempt to make a mature man out of Ayan, and the proceedings are cliched and disappointing. Furthermore, the whimsical and even somewhat sloppy manner in which Ayan is forced to grow up is unbelievable.
Sometimes Awesome, Sometimes Not So Awesome
Writing: Dialogues by Niranjan Iyengar and Karan Johar hit the ball out of the park on many occasions. Saba speaks almost entirely in Urdu poetry which is expressive but also comes off as a means to be evasive and keep her heart protected. Much of Ayan and Alizeh’s bonding is done thorough their love of Hindi movies, and while some references are magical, at times there are far too many forced, classic film dialogues and songs.
Direction: It appears Karan Johar has taken a semester long course at the Imtiaz Ali School of Filmmaking. Characters, some situations and themes are reminiscent of Ali’s Rockstar, Tamasha and even Jab We Met. The tender moments Ayan has with Alizeh and Saba are treated thoughtfully, and Johar explores the complexities of relationships with more confidence and vulnerability.
But Ayan is shown as incredibly childish, someone who either dances foolishly or throws tantrums when he doesn’t have his way. Mr. Johar could have conveyed immaturity without having to turn the performance volume on full blast. Same goes for the introduction to Alizeh, who at times can go over the top conveying “See! I’m a woke, liberated desi girl!”
Fawad Khan: Though the actor is billed as a Special Appearance, it would have been delightful to see a more developed character, even with limited screen time, for the talented Pakistani actor to play. Khan’s extraordinary performance in this year’s Kapoor & Sons has set high expectations from him. But this time around we’ll have to settle mostly with being thankful to his parents for producing such a handsome man.
In the world of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, the men are immature, self-obsessed and even emotionally abusive. They long to be in a relationship of their own rules and hope the void in their life will seamlessly disappear by conquering the females they desire. In stark contrast, the women are shattered by love yet emerge from the ashes with a better understanding of the nuances of relationships and their slippery borders.
Alizeh and Saba are very cautious of entering the deep end of romance, which seems to reward them with little else than trial by fire. These broken people try their best to form perfect bonds, but as Johar points out on many occasions in his films, trading the solace and support of friendship provides for the unpredictable and hurtful passion that is love, a losing bet.
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Shivani cannot remember a time when she wasn’t madly in love with Indian cinema, which now inspires much of her writing. She lives in both New York City and Twitterpur at @Shivani510.