There’s a moment in Karan Johar’s latest blockbuster Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani, which marks a tectonic shift in mainstream Hindi cinema’s perception and representation of gender dynamics. The macho, flamboyant and boorish hero Rocky Randhawa (Ranveer Singh) dances with a delectable combination of elegance and energy along with his future father-in-law, Kathak dancer Chandon Chatterjee (Tota Roy Chowdhury), to ‘Dola re dola’ from Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas.
On the face of it, the song-n-dance set piece might seem like a homage to Bhansali. It also appears to tick all the boxes of expectations from Johar’s quintessential grandiose brand of cinema: spectacularly dressed men and women, a splashy Durga Puja pandal for the backdrop with psychedelic shades of red accompanying the high-powered choreography.
But there’s more here than mere kitsch and bling.
The cocky manly men of Hindi cinema have rarely rendered dainty and delicate steps of classical dance forms on screen in this liberating manner. It might not have been openly stated but quietly underlined as too womanly an act, thereby perceived to turn them into “less of men”. This a reflection of our society itself that, like Tijori, the father of Rocky, often pejoratively refers to professional male dancers as “nachaniya”. An issue that playwright Mahesh Dattani also touched upon in his dance Like a Man. As a character in the play states: “A woman in a man’s world is considered progressive, but a man in a woman’s world is considered pathetic”.
The South, perhaps with its respect for and patronage of classical music and dance, has not been so circumscribed. Kamal Haasan played a Kuchipudi dancer in K Viswanath’s Telugu film Saagar Sangamam (1983), and Mohanlal embraced Kathakali in Shaji N. Karun’s Malayalam film Vanaprastham (1999).
However, in the patriarchal scheme of things in Bollywood, the heroes do the bhangra, jive, swing, and hip hop but stay away from presenting even so much as a mudra of Bharatanatyam. Uday Shankar’s Kalpana (1948) and V Shantaram’s Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje (1955) would be rare exceptions, the former having been made by the legendary practitioner himself and the second starring the well-known Kathak exponent Gopi Krishna.
‘Dola re dola’ has been a song of sisterhood and female solidarity, a celebration of a shared love for a man and the sheer abandonment and freedom offered by dance. With a few fluid moves, the male rendition of it breaks the rigid walls of gender identity and role-playing and no one better to have embraced his feminine energy than an insouciant Ranveer Singh, who has anyhow been challenging perceptions and prejudices with his outrageous sense of style and the way he chooses to dress. The message at the end is simple: “Talent has no gender”. And, if the audience reaction to it in a show I watched in the middle of a working Friday is anything to go by, the approval has been nothing short of thumping.
What’s more, this song-n-dance number is not an instance in isolation. Several such elements make RRKPK much more than the glitz, glitter, and all things jazzy it is packaged in. They offer a welcome break from the hyper-masculine narratives that have dominated our cinemas of late, giving us a woman’s man for the hero for a change. Most so, they collectively cock a snook at orthodoxy, refreshing in the overbearingly conservative, reactionary age. At times a bit too on the nose but largely with good humour, playfulness, joy, sentiments and intellect intact.
Something few would have expected of Karan Johar. In the popular imagination, he has been the purveyor of impossible fantasies and an upholder of the status quo. Now we are attaching shocking adjectives like “topical”, “political”, “woke”, and “subversion” with him.
Be it Alia Bhatt’s Rani Chatterjee being a combative, questioning journalist who is fast disappearing from the media landscape or Jaya Bachchan as the crotchety Randhawa matriarch channelling a version of herself seen in the interactions with the paparazzi in those Instagram reels, the meta moments go beyond the references to films and tug of nostalgia for old Hindi film songs, to amusing nudge and wink at the actual.
The film takes the mickey out of countless things around us—from Shashi Tharoor’s vocabulary to Emraan Hashmi’s kisses, from Kolkata Knight Riders’ ‘Korbo lorbo jeetbo’ to Mamatadi’s ‘Khela hobe’. There’s talk of “objectification” and of “consent”, “fat shaming”, “cancel culture”, and “misogyny”.
I remember that the editors had fun playing with smart headlines for one of my earliest pieces on Johar’s films: “Kitsch kitsch hota hai”, “Kitsch and kin”. RRKPK would easily deserve a “Kitsch 2.0”.
Yes, there are still the stereotypes of the boisterous Punjabis and pretentious Bengalis. However, there is still that trademark chiffon-clad heroine in the snows of Kashmir, with the hero sporting designer pullovers in song sequences that are filmed like escapist apparitions. The window dressing is the same, but there’s a change of heart. The director, who turned Kadwa Chauth into a pan-India festival, now has a dialogue where the boy’s family humbly requests the girl’s parents to accept their son as damaad (son-in-law). Beti bahu talk be damned. The extravagance of the White House of Randhawas and the ethnic haveli of Chatterjees is home to not-so-lovely realities of their own. Johar’s body of work may have largely been all about “loving the family”, but here there is an open admission of dysfunctionality even in the most progressive bastions.
Yes, all still ends well with some wholesome hope and healing, but only after some power structures have collapsed and relationships have been renegotiated. They talk about old wine in a new bottle. With RRKPK it’s more like Johar has served a new wine in an old bottle.