This is not a review of either of the Hindi Diwali releases that hit the theatres over the weekend. Neither is this post devoid of spoilers, so read ahead only if you are okay with those two warnings.
As more and more films are clashing at the Box Office, due to a pertinent lack of friendly release dates, the film industry and its auxiliary media portals get enough meat to make a business out of repeatedly pitting them against each other. In the West, this is a regular custom, and people watch both the films if they must, but we, in our country, are forever intrigued by the idea of two big films coming on the same date. So much so that people take sides before the release itself, try to sabotage or bring down the ‘rival’ release, stars resort to gimmicks to show their film in better light and what not. But then, I must refrain from dissing at our country or audience because I may not be as powerful as Ajay Devgn to get away with calling every citizen of India corrupt, and get away with it because he is supposedly a nationalistic chap. Interestingly, Ajay has found himself in the quagmire of clashes quite often in the recent past. Remember, Jab Tak Hai Jaan V/S Son of Sardaar? Earlier this year, when Rustom clashed with Mohenjo-Daro over the Independence Day weekend, I could not do such a post because neither of the films invoked a significant response in me, and proved to be quite a bummer. But this time, there is a lot more than just these two films that needs to be talked about.
Films, as much as we may not want them to be, are not separate from politics. While all other forms of Art are given a freewheeling license to go on unscrutinised, it is the film industry which becomes a soft target for any and every potential political controversy. Filmmakers must not only make their films with a lot of hard work, but also hope that the Censor does not butcher it on baseless grounds, and then if they get out of all that, they must look back and check if they have been anti-national in any god-forsaken way during the making of their film. Well, that is what happened with Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, which dared to engage Fawad Khan, a Pakistani actor, in a small inconsequential role for the film. All the brouhaha gave enough buzz to the film, if the songs were not enough, and ultimately, the controversy was resolved shamefully with possibly the first publicized legal extortion of cash from the makers, Dharma Productions, by a fundamentalist party.
The politics does not stop there. Right in the middle of this controversy, Ajay Devgn gave a pro-national comment to gain some brownie points on his nationalism meter. After all, this Diwali is all about paying respects to our dead soldiers, who have sacrificed their lives for the nation, but no one apart from the film industry people must stand up and give statements proving their deep respect for them. Everyone else is nationalistic, by default. Even after that, a large section of our audience, imminently boycotted ADHM as a policy. I personally know people who cited the same reasons for not watching it. That would positively solve the issues with our neighbouring country. Well, to each his own. The stage was set. ADHM was a ‘Left’ wing film, and Shivaay a ‘Right’ or ‘Right to Centre’ wing film. If a critic liked ADHM and reviewed it positively, and on the contrary, he gave a bad review to Shivaay, oh man, he was surely a left wing supporting liberal. In fact, a friend of mine had put up a post on Facebook saying that only the ‘lefties’ have given a good review to ADHM, while they remain quiet on Shivaay. So, let us take a moment and absorb all of this. Does this mean that the quality of the film, whether ADHM or Shivaay, does not matter for a critic at all? So, if someone gives a bad review to it, or gives a glowing review to Shivaay, it cannot be because he liked the latter, but because he is a right wing supporter? This may just be the most interesting phase of our social fabric, where in your movie choices decide your political leanings. Ridiculous, to say the least, but then India is a land of surprises!
I have read almost all the reviews of both the films, irrespective of whether the writers had any political inclinations or not, and have considered everything that made sense to me, from their analysis of the film. I also have a rather fresh first hand impression of having viewed both the films in the past couple of days, before I sat down to write this. And I have zero political affiliations, if you must know that. In terms of a social outlook, I tend to be liberal, but not an extremist at that as well. Thus, I can consider myself in an objective position to look at both the films and judge them for what they are. As is the situation, majority of reviewers have given a better review to ADHM as opposed to Shivaay. Whatever may be their inclinations, I am inclined to do the same, if asked, and the conclusion is purely based on the films that I watched. Having said that, neither of these films are the best of the year, or close to it, and both have their share of plusses and minuses. But ADHM outweighs Shivaay, frankly, and it is only because it looks after its writing and characters as much as Shivaay looks after its action. I am a gunner for the soul of the film, which Shivaay lacks and thus, my take on them stems from the same.
I have been talking to a lot of people who have seen both or either of the films, whether they have liked them or not. And have involved myself in a series of arguments as well, often finding myself campaigning for ADHM. A lot of my colleagues believe Shivaay was panned more than it should have been, while ADHM was praised more than it should have been, across all reviews. I cannot completely deny this argument, after having read those reviews but I would put it in a different fashion. I would say that most critics looked at the positives of ADHM, while they looked at the negatives of Shivaay. Having said that, I know they did so because Shivaay lacks a soul which is what most reviewers look for, while watching a film. Lack of a soul can make the best of critics overlook the other positives the film may have to offer, sadly. But that’s just speculation, because I cannot expect any other movie-watcher, a critic or not, to have the exact same line of thinking as I do.
Now let’s come to my perception of both the films. As stated previously, neither of them deserves to be lauded beyond a measure as the film of the year or anything. But having said that, I would still have a problem if someone did not like ADHM or liked it less than Shivaay. That, to me, is imbecilic. But then, who am I to judge the film for you? Fair enough, but would you care to listen to me if I told you about it? On the other hand, most of the problems with Shivaay were stemming from its excessive length taking cue from which Devgn has duly shortened it by a few minutes. General Indian audience does not care about the film having a soul or not, and no, I am not underestimating my audience, I am holding them accountable for what they have done all through the years.
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil sees Karan Johar in his most honest form, and maybe the audience does not like it that he lays his soul bare and takes a dig at everything his films, or their likes from YRF and other houses, ever stood for, but he does it with a nuance of fun. In doing so, he gives us an updated version of the films we grew up on, where we could laugh and cry out to our heart’s fulfilment, all in two and half hours. People here talk by referencing older films, their songs and their moments – a trope used quite a few times in recent Hindi films, except here all of it comes with a layered meaning to the scene it is used in. I believe this might have gotten irritating for a lot of people watching it.
The biggest problem with ADHM is that it casts Ranbir as a man-child Ayan, yet again, and it is a woman who must make him an adult. Remember, Imtiaz Ali and the many times he has done that? So, Karan just made a rehash of Tamasha, Jab We Met etc. Wait a minute, Ayan is also a singer whose voice does not have the required pain. So, its Rockstar, as well? Oh, boy! To be honest, yes, it visits the similar lanes of all those films, and Ranbir’s character is also the same (so what if he has given a performance no one can or one which he did not give before) but there is a striking difference. Imtiaz’s films are usually about one protagonist on their journey to self-discovery. ADHM is about two people, who are instantaneous friends, but have different perceptions of love. ADHM never leaves Anushka’s Alizeh in its plot while it talks about unrequited love from Ayan’s side. This is Karan’s most uni-dimensional film, where he does not care to fix all the mainstream plugs but just talk about the heartbreak he set out to. Thereafter, ADHM is essentially a revenge film where Ayan, if you notice cautiously, does everything under his realm, to just get back at Alizeh, until he cannot. And then he runs away, only to come back to get her again, but this time he can’t fight the villain between them. Still, he does not grow up, and perceives love the way he used to and ends up fighting with her. 18 years ago, Karan gave us the line we all swore by but never understand – “Pyaar Dosti Hai.” This time again, he is on familiar territories exploring the blurring lines between friendship and love and how two characters perceive one above the other. When a distraught Alizeh tells Ayan that for her, their relationship is much more than the love she had for the one she ‘loved’, Ayan just cannot wrap his head around it. And that my friend, is the crux of the film. I am the biggest fan of Imtiaz Ali, but no, he has not done this before.
A lot of people had issues with the last half hour of the film where Karan chooses to invoke a plot point so clichéd that it made them cringe in their seats. But allow me to a question a member of the thinking audience, who should have seen the film – where would you have taken the film from the point that Ayan and Alizeh meet again on rooftop? In my opinion, anything that Karan would have done would have been panned by the critics and audience unanimously, so then rather do something that cements the agenda of the film? Except that he decides to do it with a lot of spunk and fun, making the proceedings light-hearted. ADHM comes across as an extremely self-aware film with quite a cynical world view, something that is far from Karan’s sugar coated scared attempts to cross the line in the past. That apart, Ranbir and Anushka’s performance itself is worth the price of ten tickets. Nothing as electrifying as them has hit the screens for years. But one can’t ignore that there is a been-there-done-that feel to the film’s plot which is what limits its reach.
Now, before I part, I wish to dwell on Shivaay as well. Touted as Ajay Devgn’s biggie, the film no doubt is mounted on a scale rarely seen in Hindi cinema. The action set-pieces are staged phenomenally, and one can say that Devgn, the director, has a knack of handling them in a fresh way, unlike many of our action filmmakers. Visuals arrest you, the music enchants you, and the action enthrals you, but the screenplay (coupled with dialogue) makes you pull your hair. There is a lot going for the film, specially the lead performance by Devgn himself, who seems to be back in form, after years. Sinking himself deep into the pain of the character, he brings across emotions which you wish the whole film brought about in you. The Director in him disappoints the Actor in him. For most parts of Shivaay, there is no sense of drama, largely due to bad scene design that never makes the conflict glare into your face, quite conveniently resorting to physical action as the only solution for each of those problems. Devgn’s problems are further sabotaged by a ridiculous supporting cast which gets no help from the film’s writing to flesh out well-etched characters.
A lot of this film is also shockingly regressive and misogynistic but like always, no one seems to have thought about that. For instance, why does Shivaay get angry when Olga, his girlfriend, gets pregnant, and why does he force her to have the baby against her wish? Why does a debutante actress need to have a song in the bathtub in a film where there is no place for this? And so on. Without getting into the logical flaws of Shivaay, a film should engage you at a very basic level owing to story, which can be simplistic too. The key to this engagement is to establish characters that the audience cares for. There is a lot to like in Shivaay when there is less of talking, and only music plays or the action takes over or both. But Devgn’s need to fit in everything in one film topples the film over. We never end up caring for the problem he is fighting, or for his character. But our general audience is very forgiving, they seem to be liking a revenge drama with a bleakly characterized villain as well, as seen in the collections of Shivaay. Ah, who cares about storytelling when Devgn is fighting it off in amazing landscapes and talking about himself in third person?
In the end, I have a feeling that you might infer my musings to be biased towards Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, but that’s because you choose to look at it that way. Also, that is the film I liked more, so why should I mull over the film I did not like as much? You might think that if one likes something, they go to any length to justify it, and vice versa. But hey, this is as objective as I could be, giving credit where its due and not pointing out what doesn’t work for each of these films, which is what keeps greatness elusive to both. I am just happy that Devgn is back in form, so is Karan, while Ranbir is always in form. So, watch whichever film you feel like, or both, but let us not allow our like or dislike of them to be clouded by opportunistic politics that tries to swallow the Art behind each of these films. Happy Diwali!