Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is a very uncomfortable film – just like the long shots of Ranbir’s Aayan, staring straight at you as he tells you his story, his eyes brimming with tears, achingly trying not to roll down his face. Even though Johar’s characters always belong to that entitled two percent of the population, ADHM is not larger than life – it is heart-wrenchingly personal, painful and hits you in the gut. Johar narrates a story about people who stubbornly cling on to hope – maybe, one day, she will finally love me, or, one day, I will finally be able to get over her. Because, nothing burns wilder than one-sided and unrequited love.

The story opens in London, with Aayan (Ranbir Kapoor) and Alizeh’s (Anushka Sharma) quick friendship which they hit off after an unsuccessful hook up. After bar hopping and Bollywood dance classes, they realise that their idiocy, lack of inhibitions and unapologetic love for cheesy Hindi cinema help them bond and become close friends. While Aayan jokingly hits on Alizeh often, she is not into him. As fate would have it, Alizeh’s ex, Ali (Fawad Khan) enters the story and Aayan has to face the harsh reality – his love for Alizeh that he was happily masquerading off as friendship. Not surprisingly, Alizeh decides to get married, and Aayan walks out of her life, only to find solace in the arms of the much older Saba (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan). But, like they say, love’s a bitch and Aayan struggles to get rid of Alizeh from his life, fails at it, and finally trades romance for friendship to be close to her for the rest of her life.

I am trying really hard not to give out spoilers but the second half of the film deals with complications not seen in mainstream Hindi cinema. Alizeh’s personal trauma and how Aayan decides to handle it is the most refreshing part of the film. I shouldn’t give out too much but, in an industry so given to beauty and narcissism (and KJo often being the mascot of that self-obsession), to find two actors completely sacrifice physical beauty for the demands of their character graphs is very commendable. Bollywood is growing up, people.

What Johar is able to create are relatable characters who own up to their flaws and allow themselves to be crippled by the impracticality of their hearts. Aayan is stubborn and foolishly fails to get over Alizeh, desperately trying to find solace in Saba – and then catharsis in his music. Alizeh pines away for Ali, but when she does marry him, realises that she would rather trade love for friendship. Saba feels that she might be able to be detached of romance in her relationship with Aayan, but crumbles when she realises that she has fallen for him, complicating their equation. They float about in their worlds, desperate souls, hungry for love, trying to find peace and comfort within. While the story starts off a tad abruptly, trying to find its feet, you are soon pulled into a world of music, dancing and pub hopping, beautiful partners who are just fleeting pastimes and holidays in Europe. Johar is fantastic with the comedy of the first half, heavily peppered with Bollywood homages and tropes (the Chandni sequence is excellent – a sort of parody that laughs at the improbability of dancing on snowy mountains in a chiffon saree) but shows off his actual mettle in the latter half. He wins you over with his maturity and sensitivity, creating moments that are both beautiful and agonising. While the narrative does have an Imtiaz-esque vibe (or as the film says “vaataavaran”) to it, it is able to go beyond Imtiaz Ali’s trademark bubbly-girl-inhibited-boy-other-way-round-in-the-second-half construct. Although, I have to admit that the film does remind you of Rockstar in more ways than one.

Where ADHM departs from Rockstar is in the way the characters are designed and performed. While this might not be Ranbir’s best till date, he shines bright, although one must agree that he has perfected the art of the complicated lover on screen. His comic timing is fantastic as is his irritable stubbornness – his eyes emoting frustration, pain and a hint of hope at the same time. Aayan accepts that he is weak and does not feel the need to be a hero. Thankfully, there is no alpha male or machismo in him. Anushka plays her usual dramatic-chirpy-filmy archetype in the first half but wins you over in the second, when her character goes through a traumatic story arc. She is nuanced and beautifully emotive when she tries to make light of her disease so that she does not slip into depression and still find the strength to live her life. I should stop myself because I might have said too much. Interestingly, both actors are able to maintain an absence of sexual heat between them, thus making Ranbir’s character even more believable.

Aishwarya is a classical portrait in every frame, looking ethereal and speaking volumes with the arching of her eyebrows. She is controlled and poised and shares a crackling chemistry with Ranbir. It would have been great if she featured longer in the film, but on second thought, I feel her beauty was of more use to the story than the character’s screen time. She is supposed to be a fleeting distraction for Ranbir’s Aayan without being able to fill an emotional void, and she does that masterfully. Fawad Khan is hot, effective and even when he plays an asshole, you can’t help but warm up to him. Also, it should be noted that the man dances much better than his Khoobsurat days. I should also mention Lisa Haydon, who plays Ranbir’s first girlfriend, who is outrageously funny in the film and has fantastic screen presence. It is very difficult to not look at the woman.

And lastly, there’s Shah Rukh Khan – in a 5-minute scene as Aishwarya’s ex-husband who is still in love with her – that defines the film. Also, it must be noted that this is the first time Shah Rukh and Aishwarya are sharing screen space in 14 years. And boy, do they set the screen on fire. Ranbir is also in the scene, but you just want him to go outside and play with his toys while the adults have a conversation. That is also when you realise the torturous self-consuming character of one-sided love – the way Shah Rukh’s Tahir looks at Saba, burning with passion, is the same way Ranbir’s Aayan pines for Alizeh. It is a vicious circle, beautiful, poetic and painful.