In a film industry that has survived on the musical film since its dawn, it's rare to see films now that actually embrace the true notion of a musical, letting the music guide the story. In a particularly melancholic sequence in Imtiaz Ali's Rockstar, Janardhan (Ranbir Kapoor) is thrown out of his house after a misunderstanding and ends up at the Hazrat Nizamuddin shrine in Old Delhi. It is here that his fumbling musical soul connects with the divine, giving rise to the impassioned artist he never thought he could become. This transformation is shown entirely through the hypnotic Sufi track, 'Kun Faaya Kun,' where the music, singing, visuals and acting all meld together fluidly to actually give goosebumps.
Rockstar has its flaws, mostly in its erratic storyline and flaky female lead. But it's the kind of film that is lifted from mediocrity by A.R.Rahman's spellbinding music through several such sequences that end up becoming the best parts of the film. These are the moments when the characters shine through, express the most, and their relationships resonate with the audience.
With such heavy dependence on music taking the story from one step to another, the pitfalls of the story get shielded. One of the film's biggest mistakes is in the beginning. As the very straight-laced Janardhan realizes he isn't getting anywhere with his music, his mentor Khataraji (a spirited Kumud Mishra) tells him that all great artists need to feel pain and frustration to create their best work. While this paves the way for lighthearted attempts at forcing a heartbreak, it also makes the rest of the film predictable. After hearing that lecture, it's clear how he will go from the oafish Janardhan to the angst-ridden Jordan. He just needs a pretty girl to make him go crazy. And that's exactly how it plays out.
That pretty girl, however, is half-baked and never sure of what she wants from life or from Janardhan. Heer (Nargis Fakhri) is a privileged girl from a Kashmiri family, with a rebellious streak. While she develops a playful relationship with the simple Janardhan that involves daring, lowbrow wishlists, she's also set to marry some rich guy from Prague. She never doubts the decision even when she knows she's falling for Jordan, the rockstar moniker she gives Janardhan. She is then perfectly happy indulging in an extra-marital affair when Jordan shows up in Prague and then suddenly feels guilty. And this repeats.
Fakhri's debut as Heer puts a major strain on the believability of the film. Her distracting pout and dialogue delivery reminds of Katrina Kaif, and with someone else dubbing her dialogues, Fakhri seems forced into the character. She's beautiful to look at but is hardly convincing as whatever her character is supposed to be.
The script and structure also meanders several times, jumping back and forth across time and space, making it seem incoherent at times. Perhaps that also reflects Jordan's mind frame, so unsettled in his anguish over constantly loving and losing Heer that even he doesn't know how he will react next.
Director Imtiaz Ali is one of the most talented storytellers of the current crop of Hindi cinema. He knows how to balance the commercial mainstream film sensibility with intelligent, real cinema. He's also very skilled at drawing out very down-to-earth and colloquial exchanges between characters. This is evident in several sequences in Rockstar, mostly between Jordan and Khataraji, and many of his scenes with Heer. But unlike Ali's Socha Na Tha, Jab We Met and Love Aaj Kal, Rockstar's strength doesn't lie in the story.
Rahman's music remains the winner throughout, complemented by Anil Mehta's alluring cinematography. The way Mehta captures Delhi, Kashmir, Prague and Verona, each place with its unique charm but inexplicably connected to the other, enhances the music even more.
The film's other major anchor is Kapoor with his full investment into the character of Janardhan/Jordan. He is one of the rare mainstream actors who can shed his star persona to be enveloped by his role. As Jordan, Kapoor displays the passion, angst, fury and loss with conviction. To writer-director Ali's credit, he doesn't make Jordan's mercurial emotional and career graph predictable in the way you'd expect to see an artist's downfall - drugs and alcohol. Instead, Jordan has a very low tolerance for alcohol and doesn't even touch drugs. But his irrepressible feelings for Heer are what torture him. Kapoor displays this tortured soul in a way that many of his contemporaries would find hard to perform convincingly.
Rockstar is also made special for being the last film appearance of the late legend Shammi Kapoor. He fills the screen with charisma in a brief role as a revered Ustaad that takes a liking to Jordan's inherent talent. In one of the film's best montage sequences, the two Kapoors have a jam session in a studio, with the Ustaad playing his shehnai and Jordan on his guitar. 'The Dichotomy of Fame,' as the track is called, unravels everything about the pensive mood the characters are in at that moment, way better than any serious dialogue scene could have accomplished. The music, once again, saves the film.
Rockstar is a better film than much of the fare we've seen recently, but it is also a bit disappointing as far as Imtiaz Ali films go. Had the script been structured less haphazardly and the female lead more believable, it would have elevated the film immensely. However, Rahman's scintillating soundtrack, Kapoor's dedicated performance and Mehta's gripping visuals make the film worth a watch.