Thursday, December 08, 2011

What we get, we praise (sort of)

Thanks to Rockstar, I've been reminded of the one artistic element no artist can hope to control: the audience.

I was having a conversation with a friend who didn't like the film. At all. He said I must have been in a sappy mood to have liked it. I pointed out that I'm always in a sappy mood. He insisted the film was not about love in any real sense, that the lead character was irresponsible, that he slept with a married woman without trying to 'fight' her marriage in a proper way.

At that point, I refused to discuss the film. I thought he just didn't get it. One of my aunties certainly didn't get it. She did not dislike it but she said, 'the film is about this new modern culture....'

I wanted to protest - no, it isn't about that at all. Other conversations with friends, film enthusiasts, aspiring film makers, film technicians, critics - all pointed the same way. I kept thinking 'No, they don't get it'. But then I saw the IMDB listing for the film. The brief description says: 'He woos... rises to become a rock-star - then self-destructs.' And I wanted to say, no, no, he does not self-destruct; he does not even woo.

But IMDB pages are usually put up by the guys who make the film, eh? Has Imtiaz Ali written that description? Is that what the film is about - self-destruction? Did I get it wrong?

And yet, I feel as if I really do get it. Despite my impatience with excessive romance in films, I felt Rockstar more sharply than other love stories, even the ones Imtiaz Ali has made before. In fact, I felt as if the filmmaker was pushing so hard to capture that emotion - a gnawing, unending hunger for love - that he forgot to be ruthless with the script.

A more rigourous application of Ali's (excellent) screenplay sense would have papered over the unwieldy bigness of this film's plot. One of his chief strengths as a writer is believably likeable characters but usually, he gives them only just enough screen time to drive the story forward. Not this time.

And yet, this film felt more honest to me.

Life allows us the opportunity to experience every shade of loss on the colour card of love. But none of us can quite understand another's compulsions until we suddenly wake up one morning and find ourselves transformed. So it is with our responses to certain films.

For instance, I was a child when I first saw QSQT. I could not understand why my older cousins liked it. It was a stupid movie, I thought. First they (the romantic pair) are stupid enough to run away and live in the hills. Then they are stupid enough to die. What's the point? And why would anyone want to run away with a boy?

This was the phase when I watched black-n-white films happily as long as there was Johnny Walker or Mehmood in the cast. Johar Mehmood in HongKong was my idea of a good watch. I liked Charlie Chaplin. I even liked a strange film where Sridevi was playing a fairy (have forgotten the title). I used to like films with kids in them, and I enjoyed child-like behaviour. Cake-throwing sequences were my favourite.

As a teenager, I began to enjoy love stories. DDLJ and KKHH marked a departure in my tastes. I understood the desire to fall in love before getting married (though I had never met a boy who even vaguely interested me) and I assumed it would be very hard to forget a 'first' love.

I did not know then that is is not only possible to forget first love, but also to feel ashamed of it. I also did not understand guilt in love. So when I saw Arth, although I felt its emotional honesty, I did not understand it fully.
There is a scene where Smita Patil (her character) is saying that she feels as if the tiny black beads of the mangalsutra (belonging to her lover's wife) are scattered underfoot. They hurt her skin. i.e. She finds it impossible to move without hurting.

I thought that was kind of crazy - a manifestation of a mental breakdown. It took me many years to figure out that guilt was driving her towards a breakdown.

For the most part of my 20s, I did not fully grasp the nature of marriage. I didn't know how deep the claws of social conditioning dig into our flesh. Despite consuming books and films about unhappy couples, I thought marriage was a permanent concept. That it was inevitable, and that any love outside it was vaguely unclean. All my friends and cousins thought the same way.

But life taught us new lessons. Married friends began to write back to describe their marital experience in one word: "Yuck!" My generation has seen itself go through undesirable affairs, divorces, abuse, despair, very strangely won loyalties. And so, when I see Heer (Nargis Fakhri's character in Rockstar) two years after she's wedded a stranger in a strange country, unsmiling, mentioning doctor's appointments, it makes total sense. I don't need scenes specifying how and why this girl is dissatisfied. I can fill in the blanks.

When I was younger, I had romantic notions about sacrificing your feelings for others' sake. I did not know that feelings could not be sacrificed. They can only be suppressed. I did not know then that suppression of feelings can kill you. Not all at once. But in small, everyday ways - through stress and depression, through mysterious aches and pains - we can all be destroyed.

So I had no difficulty believing that Heer was either mentally or physically sick. In my interpretation, Heer's cancer is entirely metaphorical. What does it matter, the name of the disease? Unhappiness itself is a kind of disease. Living with a person you do not love can be frightening. It carves hollows into your face. It strips you of all self-respect. And if you do not have a clear idea of who you might love instead, or how much, you grow afraid that perhaps you are incapable of love.

You know that if you cannot love and be loved in equal measure, you are doomed. Before you know it, there is something wrong with you. A bad relationship usually translates into a bad self-relationship too. Lovelessness is all-pervasive. You cannot get rid of it by taking a walk or meeting a new set of friends, or shopping. There is only one way of getting rid of it and that is to find a true lover.

But to find love when it is clearly forbidden - that is difficult. It will not just disrupt your life. It will destroy your self-image.

In the cinema hall, there was a group (teenagers or people in their early 20s) seated a row behind me. After the scene where Heer kisses Jordan, then pushes him away, these youngsters started to giggle. They made comments about how they liked that part, because it was fun, and/or funny.

I found myself wanting to turn around and smack someone. I wanted to shake them and say: It's not funny, okay? This is not a funny scene. It comes from a place of torment. From holding yourself one inch short of happiness because happiness means going off a cliff of morality. And you don't want to fall.

Heer does not push Jordan because she doesn't know what she wants. Jordan doesn't want to kiss because he wants to sleep with her. He just wants to acknowledge the truth of their relationship. They used to be friends. They are no longer just friends. They have found unhappiness, and also found that there is a cure for unhappiness - being with each other. Kissing her is a way of telling her that he recognises this.

Heer also knows she is beyond the point of return. Some part of her is already past caring for consequences. But she pushes him away because she does not want to become the woman who has an adulterous affair at the first given opportunity. She is 'neat-and-clean', no matter how hard she tries not to be. She is curious but she is not the girl who wants to disrupt social structures. Nor is Jordon. Actually, gandh machaani in dono ke bas ki baat nahin hai. That is part of their tragedy.

As they begin their love affair in his hotel room, Heer cannot shake off her (social/moral) conditioning. She runs, afraid of what she has become, afraid of this feeling that has become stronger than her. Jordan has fewer qualms because he is still single. He need not feel burdened. But he will not chase her beyond a point. It is she who has to signal to him that their passion is equal. And the director conveys all of this messy emotion in about 30 seconds, with not one line of dialogue.

When I saw this deftness of touch being reduced to 'Ranbir acts so well' by critics, I felt I had to say 'not fair'. But then I realised that perhaps they are not seeing the same film.

I was seeing a very angry film. Poor Janardhan is furious because he hadn't asked for this kind of hurt. He wanted to make it big; he made it big. Now he knows that the glamourous, moneyed space was a trap. But it is too late to snap out of it. Or too soon. He is hurt but not broken. He is upset that he cannot control anything. He is angry that he cannot have a woman he is, in fact, entitled to. He wants her; she wants him. It should be simple. The world really has no locus standi.

Yet, the world butts in. It makes her run. It makes her try to break up with him. It makes her say things she doesn't mean. Later, when they manage to steal some time together, it comes crowding in to demand explanations. Stupid convention, law, tradition, media - it is ripping his life apart. And he will defy, defy, defy.

But finally, there is nothing to defy, because the story reaches a point when he is, actually, guilty. He's damaged his beloved. And his anger loses its heat. That last scene (in my reading of it) was supposed to convey a kind of defeat. A laying down of arms. When there is nothing left to win or fight for, what do you do?

You do what you can. You play music. You go to work. Perhaps you learn to live again. Perhaps, you die. Perhaps, you pretend to live. Who knows what happens to Jordan afterwards?

Every story comes from a point in the artist's heart, even if the events of the story are not from his/her own life. The rest is just craft. You are dependent on your medium to make yourself understood. But no matter how well-crafted a film (or book, or art installation, or photo exhibit) might be, understanding is not guaranteed. Because understanding is a two-way street.

I enjoyed it because, despite its flaws (some bad acting, definitely), I get Rockstar. I think. Not because I'm especially sensitive or too sappy (which might be true), but because the whole spectrum of grief interests me. I catch glimpses of it in every relationship. I puzzle over it. I hear it in songs. I read it. I write it. I watch it. And I am often dismissive of films that have no emotional depth. The filmmakers I love most are the ones who want to look at love and loss right in the eye and show me what they see.

I suppose, it is safe to say that beyond craft, beyond vision, plot, narrative, style, context or the combined talents of everyone involved in a project, there lies that elusive element - recognition. Every film, every book needs an audience who can recognise themselves in the story. Sometimes everyone can. Sometimes only a few people can. It is a bit like dancing to your own tune, except you do it in public. Those who are not in sync with that particular tune will be annoyed. And those who are in sync will fall in step.


Vijaya said...

Ah! that was a very beautiful review if I can call it that. I liked the movie for the same reason but was not able to articulate it:P

sakthi said...

It is a beautiful way of looking at the movie. Unfortunately for me I couldnt look beyond the real bad acting on part of the female lead. She destroyed Heer for me in the first scene. After that every scene she was in became a torture to sit through that I could not appreciate any of the emotions that the scene was trying to convey. And unfortunately all I had left to see was the torment of Jordan expressed by Ranbir and hence I come out saying that 'Ranbir acted really well'

pi-pu-xi-xu said...

You know, this is *probably* the film Imtiaz Ali thought he was making, but was too self-indulgent to actually end up making.

Like I ranted in front of a friend after the film- You want to make a film about the Faustian bargain of fame (with a very unlikely, corpulent, Delhi Punju Mephistopheles), you can do it.

You want to make a film about the complexities of love, and how love cannot always be circumscribed within the bounds of conventional relationships? You can do that as well.

You want to make a film that does both? That's not impossible either.

But this film was none of the above. Bad writing and one notably disastrous performance completely killed it.

P.S. It is possible that Heer's unhappiness and illnesses might have been intended as symptoms of a loveless match, but the way the role played itself out on-screen, she came across as dying of ennui more than anything else.

P.P.S. I sound like a highly unsympathetic, crotchety old woman. At 25, I probably fit the bill too! ;)

Banno said...

Annie, that is a beautifully written 'reading' of the film. I've yet to see 'Rockstar' and don't know whether I'll get it, or not. But I loved your analysis of love and grief in the film.

Tess said...

Completely loved the way you've written this piece, even though I personally couldn't stand the movie. Not for reasons of 'morality' or 'propriety', I gave up on those long ago.

But I think I agree with the comments above, about the movie just not coming together for me.

There was a nuanced movie about 'shades of loss on the colour card of love' somewhere. But for me, it was hidden behind all those stilted scenes with Heer in them, smothered under the badly written/directed scenes, lost in the tumult of so much else that went wrong.

However, thats the beauty of any form of art, there isn't really a right or wrong. And the parts you've written about changes responses to movies as we grew up, is something I've felt so many times, but never been able to convey so well.

I hope more such movies come out, if only to get more such writing from you!


NightWatchmen said...

That is a very good reading of the movie. I have not watched it personally, but the thing is I feel everyone takes away different things from a work of art in this case cinema. And that usually should not be burdened by what the director intended to do, it is what kind of thoughts and emotions it provokes in you that matters. I think the piece was fine, till the whole emphasis on trying to "get" the movie.

Unknown said...

great writing as usual..
slapping would hardly be understood as there is only anger everywhere and no understanding..that includes or included me, i dont know..
when every person and feelings are considered, there can not be a happy ending..only as a group as in country can the culture be defined..and its character..
looking forward to more from you..cheers..

Anonymous said...

it is a beautifully written review. I really liked the movie and wholeheartedly agree with your interpretation. The filmmaker tried to capture all the hues of love. It was not a typical candyfloss superficial love we generally get to see. The angst, confusion, restlessness and anger were realistically portrayed. The protagonist was normal guy with his share of weaknesses trying to negotiate with life and the cards that he was dealt with.

Dr. Gonzo said...

Hi Annie,

I loved reading your interpretation of the stunning piece of cinema Imtiaz has created.

In fact, I am in awe of people who have been able to write about it, who have been able to describe it; and I say that because I tried, and I could not, just could not apart from adding a few pretty pictures (

I felt it too. I understood it too. Though Imtiaz might have ended up creating something very much like love. Evocative to experience, difficult to put into words.

However, I really liked this Reema Moudgil piece on Unboxed writers at ( Perhaps you would like to read it too.

kartik krishnan said...

"And why would anyone want to run away with a boy?"
Yeah I guess one should take a donkey along with her

"I even liked a strange film where Sridevi was playing a fairy (have forgotten the title)."
I think it must have been aadmi aur apsara. And i think you liked the film becos the apsara was sridevi and not chiranjeevi

"The filmmakers I love most are the ones who want to look at love and loss right in the eyes and show me what they see."
Curious to know who they are. Some names please.

And reitarating my comment here -
"may be you should give a chance to the donkeys once in a while. I’m sure you might find a steed worth riding"

Annie Zaidi said...

Those who said nice things: :)
And I agree, Fakhri was an unwise choice. Since Imtiaz Ali was casting a new girl anyway, he may as well have looked a bit harder for someone who fit the bill physically but could also act, and speak Hindi. Or at least, put her through some seriously intense workshops.

Dr Gonzo: I have read Reema's piece. And most other reviews of the film. Can't get over how extreme the responses have been.

Kartik: The Sridevi film was chandramukhi. Salman Khan goes overnight from kid to man. No metaphors there, am afraid.

viz Naming names, why? There are a lot of them out there, no? Fatih Akin for one. Mahesh Bhatt's early work. I personally like Imtiaz Ali's work. Or take a director like Nanni Moretti who is supposed to be funny, but there's so much emotion he's tackling. And there are films like Fish Tank or Once Upon a Time in Anatolia in recent years.

Anonymous said...

This is lovely. Probably not the best thing to read first thing in the morning. :-) Sometimes one recognizes oneself in movies and stories and sometimes one recognizes oneself in reviews such as these. Thank you for this.

Anonymous said...

hi. annie . its a very well written reveiw. i would like to add that u did not mention about the music in this film. it defines the film, without which imtiaz would have definitely struggled.
all people have a right to choose, hence salman can do a bodygaurd and is hit though people like me may not like it, and majority may not like rockstar.......but thanks to imtiaz and rehman, i enjoyed rockstar!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
yogendra said...

Brilliant analysis. Mostly agree especially your understanding of the emotional subtext a well as the actual films. The understanding, i am, afraid might even rival Imtiaz's inspiration or rationale. Maybe you should get him to read it. All in all excellent read.

Niharika said...

While I agree with your analysis of the emotional complexities in the film (very perceptive, if I may add), I believe that it was the only USP the film had to offer. And the makers did not do a particularly good job of it. And this, I put mildly.

Sure, this film will make cynics sigh about the angst of unrequited love. Sure, the characters wanted to stay within the ambit of social norms. Sure, they tried hard to forget each other.

That does not excuse the poor story-telling.

Cinema is a visual medium, a universe of make-believe. The operative word here is 'believe.' You have to create an entirely different, new world of characters and situations. The believability of it has to be sold to the audience.

How and why Jordan and Heer developed a bond so quickly remains unclear. Heer's dissatisfaction in her marriage just does not come across. Nor does Jordan's 'superstar one minute, Janardhan the next' act.

Sure, love is messy business. It's daunting. Terrifying. And also deadly when it burns. But that just did not come through. Your evocative blog post of 2000+ words explain the nuances of love, better than that film did in two hours and a half hours (if it did at all).

Almost everyone has known sorrow. Felt it just under their skin. And if marriages were as mundane or something that stripped one of self-respect, I'm sure Rockstar would've had more people identifying with it, if nothing else but for the sake of the emotion it tried to convey.

Kudos for a wonderful post. May there be more to come. :)

Anonymous said...

First time visitor and I'm hooked. You should try selling this to Imtiaz Ali. I mean that in all seriousness. I think (and agree, if that's what you mean) that each member of the audience brings something to the table: their own life, their experiences, their own take on love and grief and life. The glasses that color their vision. And what they get from a movie (or book or whatever) is partly a function of all that.

There are books I've read multiple times and derived a wide range of feelings from, and when I look back it was about what stage of life I was at each time. I read The God of Small Things for the last time (in recent history) the DAY I was walking out of my marriage. And now, to me, it's become a book about how much of Indian "culture" we inherit, even as we think we've rejected it. It was once about sibling love. Another time, it was about forbidden (romantic) love.

Thank you for writing this, for giving words to my thoughts!

Winter Song said...

Beautifully written. Never thought I'd say that about a film review. Esp the way you delved inside Heer's moral dilemma.....and that kiss after which she pushes him away.

dipali said...

I love what you've written, and yes, while I did like the movie, I loved much of the music. The pain and helplessness and joy in their relationship came through. Have you read Rangan's review of this? Another interesting analysis of this movie.

Anonymous said...

Got it...exactly as you did...and my"Jordan "also got it...the Rumi quote just about summed it all up.
Thank you for articulating what many of us can't...beautiful writing..I'm going to pick up your book as soon as I land in India!

Aarthi said...

thanks for writing this.
I feel the pain and oh how much it affects me
The pain in Ranbirs voice when he sings(Sadda haq or Aur ho)
You really write well.!!!

Annie Zaidi said...

thechildgonewild: don't know imtiaz ali so cannot sell him anything. much less a reading of his own work. you play it back to him if you know him :)
dipali, I have. I read most of Rangan's reviews.
Aarthi, wintersong, others: thank you

Tania said...

Love this post.... !
after the movie I was probably hovering around where your post has managed to get me :))

roses said...

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usha nangrani said...

hi annie .. just came across ur site n this was the first article of urs that i read ... seriously excellent ... well we were class mates in sophia college 1999 batch... i still remember the discussions with mam lee..
but honestly saying this article has been very heart touching ... felt as if u wee speaking every girl's heart... may be when imtiaz ali reads this he gets a more better perspective while working for his next film..... keep it up

Anna said...

Hi Annie, i have been obsessing about Rockstar since the movie released. i rediscovered it a couple of days back when the DVD released. If you havent already watched it - please do. If you get an opportunity also please watch it with the commentary by Ranbir and Imitiaz. The movie blew me away and i think after a long long time i found one that spoke to my soul. Thank you for writing this and for describing so beautifully what i felt.
Also here is a link to my not so articulate post on rockstar...

Karan Aylawadi said...

You know.. I loved 2 parts of this review.. One being the description of the scene where Jordan runs after Heer (but only up-to a point)I know the song and it could never be described with some cheesy lines / secondly about marriage.. the concept I think is too flawed for our generation.. the reasons vary.. I too recently had written a post about rockstar .. though not as detailed as yours neither expressive but somewhere on the same wavelenght.. Hope u like it.. would look forward to your comments:

Vinaya said...

Loved the review.. This is exactly what i wanted to shout out loud to all the people who did NOT UNDERSTAND the movie... So so bloody well written...

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