Bollywood’s Rockstar has not had a hit in four years. With contemporaries sailing past him in box office earnings and popularity, the magic seems to be waning. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil feels like Kapoor’s desperate attempt to hold on to relevance and stardom.
You know there’s something wrong when, in just five years, an actor goes from Rocket Singh to Roy. Ranbir Kapoor has always been lauded for his film choices, often startling us with films that his peers would not necessarily take a chance on. Here was a mainstream actor from Bollywood’s first family choosing small budget projects, ensemble films and noir indies. Not to mention that he was striking a damn cool balance with glitzy romances too. But then, suddenly everything went downhill. What went wrong with the Ranbir Kapoor magic-a-thon?
Let me get something out of the way: Ranbir Kapoor is a fantastic actor. He has an expansive emotional reservoir from which he has the beautiful ability to draw nuanced performances, immaculately crafted to come across as affected and genuine. He has proven himself to be responsible and charismatic enough to shoulder a film all by himself, turns out natural and believable performances in an industry given to OTT and melodrama, has been able to break through the clutter and etch out memorable characters, has only once fallen prey to her mentality while choosing films based on “trending” and even has quite a strong funny bone. Ranbir Kapoor is undeniably the perfect package.
It is very difficult to pick out a bad performance by him. Even in Saawariya, his debut, Kapoor is the only silver lining in an ostentatiously-mounted snooze fest. If we study his filmography, from the very start of his career, he made a conscious attempt to balance commercial potboilers with intelligent films. For every Bachna Ae Haseeno, there’s a Wake Up Sid. Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahaani was followed up with the almost-indie Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year. Even actors who have been around for 15-20 years would never take the risks he took within two years of his debut. And they paid off. Wake Up Sid (starring alongside Konkona Sen Sharma, possibly the most unconventional female lead for a Bollywood film) is fondly remembered even today as one of the smartest films in the last decade. Rocket Singh is a wonderful marriage of crackling storytelling and powerful performances. In 2010, Kapoor delivered a nuanced performance in Rajneeti with maturity much beyond his years, following it up with the frothy caper, Anjaana Anjaani. Then came Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar and his stardom was solidified, as was the audience and critics’ faith in his acting prowess. As if Rockstar wasn’t proof enough, Kapoor came back the next year with Barfi! Even if we just studied these two films, the spectrum of emotions, characterisation and understanding of the craft of cinematic acting that Kapoor exhibited should be reason enough to call him the best acting talent of our generation. After Barfi!, true to his film choices, he came back with Yeh Jawaani hai Deewani with ex-girlfriend Deepika Padukone and made the BO ring.
And then everything went downhill from there.
“There was absolutely no need for Ranbir to do Besharam,” Says a film-maker who has worked with him but did not want to be named. “He tried to follow the trend of the hour in the industry at that point, everybody was doing these South Indian film remakes, and he thought even he should do it. I don’t know who put that into his head. He does not have that alpha male misogynistic vibe, you know? He tried to act that. But he couldn’t pull it off.” Besharam was a shocker for everyone and, not surprisingly, the film tanked. And then, he did Roy. I remember a review of the film that was gaining traction, which ran with the headline – What is Ranbir Kapoor doing in a movie like this? No one had an answer to that question. I personally want to know what he was smoking when we signed up for it.
But did these two bad decisions affect Kapoor’s fame or film prospects? Not at all. The industry’s faith in him to deliver a crackling performance and to draw audiences had not been shaken. Kapoor was still getting numerous offers coming his way. That brings us to the curious case of Bombay Velvet and Tamasha. Both the films were being produced by big banners, had excellent film-makers in charge and Kapoor had bankable co-stars too. It seemed like nothing could go wrong.
Bombay Velvet was Anurag Kashyap’s pet project, mounted larger-than-life in an absurd fictional Chicao-style space re-created in retro Bombay. For the audience, the film had zero connect and it made absolutely no sense to get all Prohibition about a city that was primarily Koliwada in the sixties. While Bombay Velvet fell prey to absurdity, Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha suffered from narrative incongruence. The story felt too much like his Jab We Met and followed his done-to-death trope of a bubbly girl cheering up a depressed guy in the first half and the tables turning in the second. Ranbir Kapoor was just stuck in two bad films by very talented film-makers. But can his performances be undermined in either of them? Not at all. Kapoor is fantastic as the pawn in a twisted chess game in Bombay Velvet, trying to climb up the power ladder and eventually being squished by the corrupt system. You see flashes of Raj Kapoor’s pathos in his eyes – that same sense of lovelorn, a little clown-like, but very endearing. In Tamasha, Kapoor delivers one of the best performances of his career, deftly portraying the bipolarity and heart-wrenching insecurities of his character Ved Sahni. Unfortunately, neither film did well, with critics like Rajeev Masand calling Tamasha “a colossal disappointment”.
Four consecutive flops is enough reason for producers to give up on an actor. If it has happened to the likes of Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna – certified demi-gods – it can happen to anyone. Which is why Ae Dil Hai Mushkil seems like the last chance Kapoor has. Which is unfair because an actor should be pulled to task for his acting skill and not the quality of his intuition to pick the right films. And no one has any reason to doubt his acting chops. But when contemporaries like Ranveer Singh and Shahid Kapoor are blazing past you, one blockbuster after another (and endorsement darlings as well), and younger talent like Varun Dhawan, Sushant Singh Rajput, Tiger Shroff and Siddharth Malhotra snapping at your heels, you are the mercy of box office returns.
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is exactly what Kapoor needs now – a modern, no-holds barred love story, starring powerhouses like Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, which can rake in the moolah during the country’s biggest holiday weekend. Because, unfortunately, Kapoor needs the numbers right now to back up his talent. “It is sad, really,” Said one of his co-stars. “There is not a single complaint you can line up against Ranbir. Other than the fact that he really selects bad films to do. You don’t select a Tamasha just because you love working with Imtiaz Ali. Maybe he has to learn how to say no?” Another film-maker I talk to thinks he “has to decide what his priorities are – big film-makers or solid scripts? Because both of those might not happen together.” That is a valid point because Kapoor’s flops can only be blamed on bad scripts, which is ironic in an industry filled with actors with below-average acting chops.
Ideally, Kapoor would be celebrated in the indie film space, both in the country and abroad. He should think on the lines of Naseeruddin Shah, Pankaj Kapur and Om Puri, veterans who have straddled indie/regional cinema and massy potboilers. That would give Kapoor the opportunity to work with better film-makers, travel abroad with his work and be able to, possibly, work with global talent. He would also be exposed to interesting cinema, solid scripts and producers who are fine functioning in smaller but more evolved markets. But that paradigm shift (along with being a shift of worldview) would require him to give up on the cushy security of this industry and his friends. He has to take the risk of putting himself out there and re-inventing himself and not allow speculations affect his choice of scripts, however indie they might be. For example, like Deepika Padukone, can Ranbir Kapoor ever sign up for a niche, script-driven project such as Finding Fanny? As of now, let’s hope Ae Dil Hai Mushkil does the magic it needs to do for Kapoor’s BO cred.