Released by Fox Star Studios on a near-record number of screens opposite the Ajay Devgn action spectacular Shivaay, the globe-trotting musical has won the lucrative holiday weekend at the box office thanks to Johar’s track record as a director of big, glossy dramas peopled with sleek protagonists and soundtracked with catchy earworms.
The story follows the adventures of a handful of Indian-origin singles: Ayan (Ranbir Kapoor), an artistic type who’d rather be singing than working in the family business, meets spirited Alizeh (Anushka Sharma) at a London nightclub, and the two become fast friends. Ayan wants to be more than pals, but he respects the fact that Alizeh is pining for the one that got away, a hot EDM DJ called Ali (Fawad Khan). When Alizeh gets the chance to make things right with Ali, Ayan acts the perfect platonic friend, giving her a shoulder to cry on and even showing up as a welcome guest at her lavish Rajasthan wedding.
In an attempt to get over the loss, the heartbroken Ayan hooks up with Saba, a gorgeous poet he meets in a first-class airline lounge (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, in a welcome bit of casting) — but he soon starts to understand true human connection transcends the labels of friendship and love.
Director-writer-producer Johar is calling Ae Dil Hai Mushkil his “most grown-up film yet,” but if these characters are any indication, the concept of grown-up responsibility hasn’t really caught on chez Johar: trust fund baby Ayan is given to moping around London rooftops in his Yeezys; Alizeh passes the time in an endless progression of nightclubs and silent discos; and even the brainy Saba has no visible means of support for her splashed-out Vienna hideaway — unless poetry is a hot new career path I wasn’t aware of.
Johar is also relying on timeworn tropes that have outstayed their welcome — such as meta-references to his own films and songs, and by-now-predictable “surprise” guest appearances by top Bollywood stars including Shah Rukh Khan and Alia Bhatt (and what sounds a lot like an uncredited Priyanka Chopra in a voiceover). When one of the characters is diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, eyes will roll rather than tear up.
Despite the iffy script, two of the film’s performances pack a punch — Ranbir Kapoor, as always graceful and expressive, lives in his character, conveying a young man’s confusion and unrequited love with an honest, heartbreaking gaze. The youngest in a long line of Hindi film royalty (his father is Rishi Kapoor, whom the younger Kapoor even spoofs in a hilltop song sequence), Kapoor also invests his lipsynced onscreen songs with real passion. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan glows onscreen, seeming to relish this role of an irresistible beauty with a take-charge approach to sex.
Anushka Sharma seems to be trying too hard to be breezy, but Fawad Khan — a Pakistani heartthrob whose casting is an ongoing source of controversy given India’s current hair-trigger tensions with its neighbor — adds a rooted presence to his role.
Composer Pritam puts raw emotion into the film’s songs, aided by vocalists Arijit Singh and Amit Mishra, though the filmmakers made an unfortunate decision not to subtitle them.
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (English: This Heart is Complicated)
Production company: Dharma Productions
Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Anushka Sharma, Fawad Khan
Director/screenwriter: Karan Johar
Producers: Hiroo Yash Johar, Karan Johar
Executive producer: Marijke deSouza
Director of photography: Anil Mehta
Production designer: Amrita Mahal Nakai
Costume designer: Manish Malhotra, Anaita Shroff Adajania, and Samidha Wangnoo
Editor: Manik Dawar