Ae Dil Hai Mushkil **Dir: Karan Johar. With: Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma, Fawad Khan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. 142 mins. Cert: 12A
From the controversy, a movie emerges. A Diwali release from superstar Hindi director Karan Johar was always likely to attract column inches, yet Ae Dil Hai Mushkil has landed more than anybody anticipated: India and Pakistan’s latest impasse has made Johar’s decision to cast Pakistani actor Fawad Khan the hottest of hot-button topics. Threats of suppression were met by a video message in which Johar sheepishly confessed he’d misread the national mood and, like many colleagues, pledged not to hire Pakistani creatives in future – an industry climbdown some found disappointing for coming so soon after last year’s bridge-building megahit Bajrangi Bhaijaan.
What’s odd is that the movie itself turns out not to be some incendiary provocation, but squarely Bollywood trad, a globetrotting weepie unlikely to offend anyone but the most entrenched. This is the tale of Ayan (Ranbir Kapoor) and Alizeh (Anushka Sharma), Hindu and Muslim respectively, who meet as barhopping students in London and bond over 80s film references and philandering other halves. Over several years, the pair tour the continent, twirling from Parisian café to Viennese nightclub, Ayan’s burgeoning singing career shaping the narrative, Alizeh’s DJ ex (Khan) standing between the pair becoming anything more than just good friends.
Johar’s insider status ensures the film never lacks for dazzling distractions: fun celebrity cameos, leads with a nice, bickering chemistry. Sharma’s terrific spikiness – neatly captured in Alizeh’s cacti fetish – draws something more resilient out of Kapoor’s generally drippy matinee-idol persona: it’s Ayan’s story, ultimately, that of a big kid forced to grow up the hard way. Yet everyone’s solid work gets undone by a clumsily handled plot turn that suggests a failure of nerve around the central relationship. The real interloper’s name isn’t Khan, but cancer, which proves as deadly for the movie as it is for any of its characters.
A wider problem at this stage may be separating film from furore. The movie’s message is that Hindus and Muslims can happily co-exist. The message its maker issued last week suggested that this may not in fact be possible in the India of 2016, which – even before the chemo kicks in – renders the film’s questing optimism tentative at best. You can’t entirely blame Johar, who’s seen his glossy bauble kicked around as a political football, but his backtrack does feel like an acknowledgement of this project’s essential fragility – that, however polished its pieces and players, it stood no chance upon encountering harsh reality.
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is now playing in cinemas nationwide.