Rockstar: Film Review

Bollywood film with A.R. Rahman soundtrack captures the magical power of music. The power of love? Not so much.

Music by Oscar winner A.R. Rahman carries a convoluted love story, made in India, about a rising star.

EMERYVILLE, Calif. — Rockstar is that rare popular film that captures the precise moment when music draws a man into the realm of the divine. That moment — set to a haunting Sufi song by A.R. Rahman — is drawn so movingly and with such affection by director Imtiaz Ali that it’s almost possible to forgive Ali’s blunders in handling the rest of the film.

Rockstar is a story of a man struggling to find himself, spiritually and artistically, yet it’s billed as a love story, and that’s the trouble. The love story angle is so disjointed and overwrought that it will likely alienate viewers expecting the deft touch of Ali’s earlier hits, Jab We Met (2007) and Love Aaj Kal (2009), so prospects seem rocky for this star at the box office.

Delhi boy Janardan (Ranbir Kapoor) and exotic Kashmiri girl Heer (newcomer Nargis Fakhri) meet as students in a Delhi college. Heer dubs him “Jordan,” and the name sticks. Jordan is a bit of a nerd, but he has music in him; the one thing he’s missing, according to an old friend, is angst. “Nobody can make great art until they’ve experienced real pain,” says his friend. 

When a family misunderstanding ends up with Jordan thrown out of his family’s home, he seeks refuge at Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, sleeping on its floors with other city outcasts and eating the simple, free food from its kitchen.

Gradually, the charity he experiences there and the power of its Sufi music change Jordan, and — guitar in hand — he learns to hone his craft by playing for whatever audience will have him, be it a shrine full of Muslim worshippers or a Hindu gathering, random listeners on the street or even the prostitutes in a local brothel. These scenes are the absolute high point of the film, sparked with Rahman’s inspired music and convincing guitar and vocal performances by Kapoor (with the dubbed vocals of singer Mohit Chauhan).

The love story doesn’t easily fit into this scenario at all. Jordan and Heer are given some charming dialogue and a forbidden-slash-doomed love affair to work with. But though Fakhri, a Queens, New York-born model of Pakistani and Czech descent, is lovely enough, she’s too vacant to have much of an impact, much less come off believable as the muse to awaken the artist within Jordan.

Technical aspects are well handled, especially Anil Mehta’s camera work capturing the grand vistas of Kashmir, Dharamsala, Delhi and Prague (the film was shot in association with the Czech Republic’s film commission). Guitar wunderkind Orianthi Panagaris (This Is It) lends her blazing licks to the film’s background score as well.

One incongruous image sticks in the mind. During the film’s most blistering rock anthem, Jordan sings to an audience of Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s home in exile. The careful viewer will note that a banner in the background that reads “Free Tibet” has been digitally blurred out — at the orders of India’s censor board, reportedly bowing to Chinese government pressure. 

The song Jordan sings in the scene, “Sadda Haq,” speaks about freedom and truth. Director Imtiaz Ali has not spoken out publicly about the issue, but young Indians have been vocal in appreciating its irony.

Opens: Nov. 11, 2011 (Eros International)
Production company: Shree Ashtavinayak Cine Vision Ltd.
Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Nargis Fakhri, Shammi Kapoor, Shikha Jain, Piyush Mishra
Director: Imtiaz Ali
Screenwriter: Imtiaz Ali
Producer: Dhilin Mehta
Director of photography: Anil Mehta
Production designer: Sumit Basu
Music: A.R. Rahman
Lyrics: Irshad Kamil
Sound designer: Dileep Subramaniam
Costume designers: Aki Narula, Manish Malhotra
Editor: Aarti Bajaj
Unrated, 160 minutes