As always, India and honestly the whole world, eagerly await the next from the man who has etched the SRK/Kajol duo into the Bollywood hall of fame. Each of his films has a common thread, love and family, tradition and honour, identity and freedom. K3G brought us the trials and tribulations of Indian families, SOTY brought us the love triangle of India’s college youth and now Ae Dil Hai Mushkil has delved into the depths of a love story usually locked away in a box of the heart, the story of unrequited love. With his talented star cast, tantalizing dialogue and captivating music, Johar steps out of his typical ‘parivaar and pyaar’ aesthetic to deliver a heartfelt and honest portrayal of relationships.
I think it can be clearly understood from the title that this film is not going to be brimming with ‘happily ever afters’, and contrary to popular belief with Bollywood, it really wasn’t. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil translated is “this heart is difficult”, meaning to love and to be in love is a tough feat. This is something everyone knows to be true if they have experienced it and for those who haven’t yet, they still know from all the angry, crying moments they have had with their friends. So audiences went into this viewing experience with the assumption that there won’t be a lavish wedding ceremony at the end with a peppy dance number, or the two lovers of the story won’t run to each other from a far distance to express their undying love. Bollywood hasn’t really been like this for a while. Around the same time as this release, Indian cinema saw the releases of Dear Zindagi; a film about loving yourself and your life, Befikre: the 21st century love story of friends with benefits, and Sultan; a story about the conflict between love and career. So love is a common thread in Bollywood, but of the four films mentioned here alone, each of them are not the typical boy-meets-girl story with a few, yet salvageable complications, and simply because of that Bollywood has come a long way to shed the stereotype attached to its name. Alas that is a different subject for another day.
Johar’s previous works showcase that to love is to be in the most beautiful, yet complicated position in life. He aims to present love as free and individual, something all should accept, understand and embrace, and that these values should be experienced by everyone in their lives. But for his main character, life wasn’t so fair. He sets his story in the modern day, void of parental hovering, cultural traditions and hometown expectations spread over two time frames. First we meet the timid and lonesome present day Ayan Senger, played by Ranbir Kapoor, a famous singer known for the heartbreak of his lyrics, who takes us on his recounting of his muse(s), beginning with ‘the one that got away’ Alizeh, played by Anushka Sharma. Jumping to the past, their story begins in London’s party scene where they have a riotous first meeting consisting of an awkward hook-up where Alizeh criticizes his kissing style. Johar sets Ayan up to always be one step behind Alizeh, whether that is to do with his limp kisses or his lack of emotion in his singing, which she later reveals to him ever so crudely. From that assumption we can already ascertain the ‘mushkilness’ of his heart will always be tethered to that one girl. From that point, their random make-out session becomes a crazily entertaining, yet intimately close friendship. We travel with them as their journey takes them anywhere and everywhere, from discovering their respective partners cheating on them with each other in a stylish porta potty of a London club, to re-enacting classic Bollywood scenes in the hills of Vienna where they had to Google ‘how to tie a sari’ (trying NOT to be desi, yet still ending up too desi for their own good.)
Though the moment, for Ayan, that their friendship became love, was the same moment when Alizeh bumped into her own unrequited love, Ali, played by Fawad Khan. After cursing him for breaking her heart and destroying her esteem, she falls back into his arms by way of his sweet words. Johar twisted the power balance of his duo at this point by eliminating Alizeh’s ability to hold onto her own heart, and by doing so, Ayan’s love fell to the ground in a stinging moment of bitterness and hatred. The girl he so admired had forsaken all her principles for a guy, and in his eyes, the wrong guy. Some would say the story only began at that point where the underlying emotional dysfunction revealed itself and characters broke down to identify themselves as something other than sickly happy by going on a pointless bender. To take a different viewpoint, I enjoyed the manner in which Johar demonstrated Ayan and Alizeh’s toxically confusing relationship with the pretentious double dates, ‘saas-bahu’ mockery, bar-hopping, ‘Baby Doll-ing’, and spontaneous, and very expensive continental gallivanting – it was plastered with Lisa’s ‘vatavaran’ and you have to admit it was highly entertaining. When all of this was pulled from under their feet and they became blinded by unreciprocated emotion, we finally realized we were watching a film so far from our Kuch Kuch Hota Hai mindset. Instead we became embroiled in a story latched onto the deprivation of love as a way of life.
By introducing his main characters without family ties, Johar rejects the culture of the extended family – eats together/stays together norm – to ignite western values of independence and riding the rollercoaster that is life. Despite leaving their personal troubles back in India, new ones form in the face of the Ayan’s painstaking, unreciprocated love for Alizeh. Johar created a beautifully wretched cycle of one-sided love, setting the story in motion and thus preparing the audiences for that stumbling moment where Ayan’s love is tragically thrown to the dogs, championed by the incomparable voice of Arijit Singh; the “Chana Mereya” song and scene. From the start to that heart-wrenching point, the film presented a unique friendship getting ahead of itself, dueling with only one heart, breaking and bruising emotions and egos leading to the post-intermission character transformation of a bitter, resentful and alone Ayan Senger.
The second half of the film is where Johar’s intricate characterizations falter, with the introduction of Saba, the walking enigma with a sultry voice and incomprehensible beauty, played by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. She exudes the mystery one would, sitting alone in an airport lounge with a book of poetry and a stern raise of the brow at an intoxicated heartbroken boy stumbling over. At that moment, you feel her character developing into one of a hidden agenda, or closeted emotions, but Johar quickly destabilizes that possibility. He presents her as a flirtatious seductress after anything but love and by giving Ayan her number; her character is immediately read as the rebound girl with whom Ayan will realize Alizeh is still the one for him. Some months after recuperating himself, Ayan walks into Saba’s life looking for some ego rejuvenation, and she bites, because she too wants the same. And so begins their torrid love affair, starting at a one-night stand in Vienna to very un-Bollywood animalistic ‘jumping each others bones’ scenario, which finally results in an intensely passionate rock love ballad, “Bulleya” confirming her love for him, but his memory of Alizeh. At the risk of sounding cheesy, this heart really is difficult!
The appropriate word that can be used to describe the love relations of these four characters is toxic – not one couple at this point in the film truly loved one another, and not one listened to their heart and did the right thing. Or maybe they did, but to know that and to understand how and why this film ends without a happy ending, you will have to watch. Only Johar himself can reveal the big finish to his epic love stories, my spilling of the beans will not do it justice. But I can say one thing; Ayan finished the re-telling of his one-sided love story with a song…