How do you say “white elephant art” in Urdu? I’m sure the makers of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil have affection for the language and its place in Indian cinema, but its presence here felt more like a pose than natural speech. A character actually says, “Wow, Urdu is so exotic,” and though it’s meant as a joke, this feels like the film’s attitude as well. Every time Alizeh (Anushka Sharma) says waalid or shauhar, one pictures the writers (story and screenplay by Karan Johar; dialogue by Johar and Niranjan Iyengar) patting themselves on the back for being so refined. The fact is that Urdu dialogue today is mostly limited to two kinds of Hindi films: ones set in the distant past and ones set in Pakistan. Whether the scenes set in “Lucknow, India” (as the onscreen text assures us) were in “Lahore, Pakistan” in an earlier draft, we may never know.
If Urdu is fetishized in Karan Johar’s film, Bollywood is as well. Alizeh and Ayan (Ranbir Kapoor) bond over Hindi films after their hook-up in London ends with her making fun of his kissing. He sings Ruk Ja O Dil Deewane. She dreams of a being in a teary airport scene one day. They head off to the mountains; he sings “ae hey”, she wears a chiffon sari in the snow. He plays Pyar Ka Tohfa Tera first thing in the morning—an astonishing act of self-flagellation. You can see why Johar spends so much time referencing popular movies and songs: by demolishing any notion of hierarchies of taste, he makes it easier for audiences to relate to characters who are “jet plane wealthy”.
Holidaying in Paris with Ayan, Alizeh bumps into her former lover, a DJ named Ali (Fawad Khan). She’d warned Ayan earlier that Ali was her tabahi (destruction) and she proves this by dropping her friend cold and walking off with her flame. A couple of days later, she informs Ayan that she’s marrying Ali. She asks him to attend the wedding, a request bordering on cruel, given that Ayan has made it clear that he still loves her. But Ayan is such a self-deluding, self-defeating character that he agrees immediately and heads to Lucknow to try and win her back at her own wedding. You can imagine how that works out.
After the intermission, the film starts to resemble Johar’s 2006 film Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, with Alizeh and Ali married and Ayan starting a relationship with a poet named Saba (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan). The difference is that the Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukherji characters in Kabhi Alvida wanted to spend their life together, whereas Alizeh is adamant that Ayan is only a friend. Whether you find the latter half of the film frustrating or moving might depend on your tolerance for generalizations such as “The best kind of love is one-sided” and your willingness to see Ranbir Kapoor play yet another sad-sack romantic with the emotional intelligence of a 15-year-old.
Instead of confronting its central question—what do you do if the person you love doesn’t love you back?—the film sidesteps it with a shameless deus ex machina. There’s a certain cynicism involved in introducing a twist like this: the assumption has to be that the audience won’t see through the very obvious manipulation, or won’t care. Similarly blatant is the cameo by Shah Rukh Khan, a two-minute apologia for ex-lovers who won’t give up.
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil has a run-time of 158 minutes, but there’s surprisingly little filler, and a better ratio of good to bad jokes than one might expect from a Johar film. Lisa Haydon has an entertaining cameo early in the film as Ayan’s girlfriend, and there were audible sighs when Fawad Khan turned up onscreen. Rai, though, struggles to give her character definition; it’s ironic to hear Saba say that beauty fades while personality persists beyond the grave, given that the actor has always had too much of the former and very little of the latter. Her lovey-dovey scenes with Kapoor are a train wreck, though for sheer awkwardness it’s difficult to beat Johar determinedly celebrating his own career through the course of the film. Within the first 10 minutes, three of his films are referenced. The theme from Kal Ho Na Ho plays at one point, It’s the Time to Disco at another. Alizeh says, “I am not a terrorist.” She and Ayan do the nose-tweaking thing from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. This is beyond just self-referential—it’s self-reverential. Maybe that’s the answer to the film’s dilemma: when the object of your affection doesn’t reciprocate, you simply learn to love yourself.
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil releases in theatres on Friday.