Perhaps it’s fitting that Karan Johar, whose very first film addressed themes of abiding friendship and the pain of unrequited romantic love, should revisit those themes nearly 20 years later, armed with the maturity that comes with time and age. The result, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, is easily Johar’s best film since his widely polarizing extramarital love story Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna from 2006.
Operating well within the comfort of a world that is familiar to him – namely rich, good-looking NRIs disconnected from the trials and tribulations of us normal folk – Johar crafts a surprisingly sensitive, and for the most part genuinely moving drama whose biggest strength is unarguably the terrific performances of its two leads.
Bound by a shared love of cheesy Bollywood songs from the 80s, Londoners Ayan (Ranbir Kapoor), a wannabe singer, and Alizeh (Anushka Sharma) become thick friends after an awkward hook-up attempt at a party, and in the wake of their respective breakups with meaningless partners (a scene-stealing Lisa Haydon in his case, a stiff Imran Abbas in hers). His friendship with Alizeh turns quickly into romantic attraction for Ayan, but her deep affection for him remains firmly platonic.
Over two hours and thirty minutes, Johar puts his protagonists through an emotional wringer, testing what’s between them with the appearance of exes (Fawad Khan), new lovers (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), and ultimately an un-vanquishable villain.
In many ways Ae Dil Hai Mushkil evokes the romantic complexities of Yash Chopra’s later films, while echoing the intensity of Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar. But it’s got Johar’s stamp all over it, from the witty dialogue exchanged between the principals, the tendency to self-reference the filmmaker’s earlier hits (which can be exhausting sometimes), and his skill at mining laughs from seemingly serious situations.
There is maturity in the new film, a leaning towards the real and the relatable that has evaded some of the director’s previous films. Sure characters and spaces still look like they’re straight out of a fashion glossy, and the pressure on aesthetics is almost overwhelming. But this is Johar’s cinema, and while much has evolved and improved over the years, there is a lot that feels comfortably familiar. Music has always been integral to the director’s films, and Pritam contributes a bunch of winning tracks that are skillfully woven into the narrative.
The key to engaging with the film, however, is investing in its characters. Sporting a straight-off-the-runway look Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, although saddled with clunky lines in the role of an Urdu poet, leaves a lasting impression in her limited screen time. In one particular scene, a teary confrontation, she conveys volumes with minimal lines.
Anushka Sharma, playing a tricky part that could easily come off as selfish, grounds the character in sheer practicality, and does some of her best work here. It’s Ranbir Kapoor, though, who walks away with top honors, delivering a performance that doesn’t miss a beat. From comical to heartbroken to confused, his face is a canvas of complex emotions, and he makes his every moment on screen count. It’s an excellent return to form for the actor who’d been all but written off after a spate of failures recently.
Despite the occasionally mawkish undertones and the blatant attempt at emotional manipulation in its final act, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil gives you a hero that makes you care. I suspect you’ll be a slobbering mess at the end of the film, a puddle of tears when the lights come back on. Johar knows how to do that. It’s a skill that’s stayed with him even if his grammar has changed.
I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five. Prepare yourself for a good cry.