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Family Swap

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Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani (2023)

Watching this gleeful, pointed Hindi rom-com makes it clear what’s been missing from most Hollywood movies lately: a sense of fun. It is abundantly clear that every single actor in this movie, even the villains, are having an absolute whale of a time. The characters even laugh! And it’s the kind of laughter that comes from enjoying yourself while doing good work that you know will be appreciated. This feeling of play goes a very long way to help the movie’s surprisingly radical medicine go down: equal rights for women are essential for a relationship to be a truly happy one.

Rocky (Ranveer Singh) is an empty-headed fashion-obsessed fuckboi, physically incapable of buttoning up a shirt, introduced through a dynamite dance number in which all the women in a nightclub, and their aunties, slobber all over him. His family, headed by his fearsome grandmother, Dhanlakshmi (Jaya Bachchan), owns a candy company and are rolling in money, though not happiness. Rocky’s mother, Poonam (Kshitee Jog), has been trampled on her whole life by her arrogant bully of a husband, Tijori (Aamir Bashir), and his sister Gayatri (Anjali Anand) has no self-confidence thanks to her weight and endless rejections on the marriage front. But Rocky loves them all, especially his poetry-obsessed grandfather, Kanwal (Dharmendra), who was bitterly disabled in a fall and barely speaks, until he sees a woman he mistakes for someone called Jamini.

Jamini (Shabana Azmi) turns out to be the poetry-obsessed grandmother of Rani (Alia Bhatt), a nationally-renowned journalist with her own TV show, introduced eviscerating a politician for his misogynistic comments about rape victims. They live with Rani’s parents, professor Anjali (Churni Ganguly) and dancer Chandon (Tota Roy Chowdhury) in a home so liberal the entire family discusses over dinner how sexually disappointing Rani’s exes were. Rocky approaches Rani in her office, wearing a rainbow-colored shirt open to the waist, and asks if Jamini and Kanwal can meet in the hopes of improving Kanwal’s health. When Rani stops admiring Rocky’s pecs, she agrees. The meeting goes so well Kanwal rises from his wheelchair and serenades Jamini with a ballad from an old movie; and Rocky and Rani decide to help their grandparents meet secretly around Delhi.

Well, you’ll never guess what happens next, though Rani dismisses it to her family as just a fling. Rocky is impressed by Rani’s intelligence; Rani is delighted by Rocky’s over-the-top charm; and they’re both surprised at how suddenly and deeply they fall in love. (The dance numbers, including one filmed on Kashmiri mountaintops, make it clear just how physically compatible they are, too.) Things go so well so quickly Rocky skips leg day to make it easier for him to get down on one knee to propose. But the incompatibility of their families makes them think marriage will never be on the cards. That is, until Rocky suggests a swap – that they each spend three months living with the other’s family, to see if things could work out.

And this is where the movie kicks into high gear, as the families’ differences contain enough bite to genuinely threaten their happiness. Rocky is astonished to learn Anjali and Jamini expect him to make his own coffee, while Rani is horrified at how Tijori ignores his father and browbeats his wife and daughter. Dhanlakshmi only agreed to the swap in order to crush Rani’s love for Rocky, but Rani’s calm assertion of her own worth and utter refusal to accept second-rate treatment is something director Karan Johar is squarely behind. That’s not to say he lets Rani’s family off the hook; their rudeness and snobbery towards Rocky is also called out, not least because his love for Rani is genuine and he had no idea the attitudes with which he was raised could be harmful. And the miracle is that scriptwriters Ishita Moitra, Shashank Khaitan and Sumit Roy keep things primarily light and funny without in any way ignoring the damage done. The central love story is backed by the sadder story of the grandparents, all played by giants of Hindi cinema, with a respect for life’s complications and disappointments that has almost entirely vanished from American movies, and which give this blockbuster a heft that Hollywood’s summer offerings simply do not have. It’s also very easy to look at thanks to Eka Lakhani’s endlessly delightful costumes, especially Rani’s gorgeous saris and Rocky’s blinding designer gear. Nitin Baid’s editing and Manush Nandan’s cinematography find a terrific balance between the whirling spectacles of the musical numbers and the quieter moments in the family homes. And special notice must be given to Abhinav Sharma as Rocky’s equally brainless BFF-cum-trainer Vicky, who steals every scene he’s in through every body-language trick in the book.

But a romantic comedy lives or dies on the core performances; and Mr. Singh’s willingness to use his physical appeal for laughs combined with Ms. Bhatt’s dimpled enjoyment at showing how an intellectual can be a sexual creature makes Rocky and Rani’s relationship go off with a bang. Ahem. As Rocky learns to reject the patriarchy and become his best self through the power of dance, Rani learns that (with the right guy) women don’t have to choose between a family and a career. Most importantly, when a story is this charming, this beautiful, this funny, and this fair-minded, the audience wins. Over the years Mr. Johar made his name through smash-hit romantic comedies that also moved the cultural needle forward. How glorious to see that he’s done it again.


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