One of the highlights of the Busan International Film Festival is its Open Cinema section. Its free screenings take place in the BIFF Theater, an outdoor venue with room for hundreds of spectators. This year’s program included Thomas Cailley’s French sci-fi The Animal Kingdom; Revolver Lily, a Japanese period thriller starring Haruka Ayase as a super-assassin; and the Bollywood musical Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani / Rocky and Rani’s Love Story.

Directed by Bollywood veteran Karan Johar, Rocky and Rani pits two top stars––Alia Bhatt and Ranveer Singh––in a screwball romance that unfolds on a massive scale. Singh is Rocky, a “filthy rich” heir to a laddoo pastry fortune. Bhatt’s Rani hosts a controversial talk show where she defends liberal causes.

You know the formula: meet-cute, enormous song and dance, stupid argument, another gigantic song, eventual reconciliation followed by an even bigger production number. Rocky and Rani delivers all that with aplomb, at one point sending its stars to the snows of Kashmir to apologize to each other in song.

But Rocky and Rani is much smarter than average Bollywood musicals. In this meta age, the film is constantly commenting on itself. A narrator points out when characters are lying, zippy graphics and animations repurpose scenes, and Rocky and Rani both find themselves grappling with new, unforgiving societal norms.

Watching a master director work out these problems with a top-flight cast and crew is, frankly, a blast. The crowd at the Open Cinema screening entered completely into the story, clapping during the songs, laughing with the jokes, enjoying themselves enormously.

Big-budget Bollywood films operate on a high level of technical proficiency. Karan’s direction raises even that bar: he orchestrates unimaginably complex dance routines, but his dramatic staging is just as intricate. The film is punctuated by seamless montages and complicated long takes, one nighttime shot on a highway tracking 360 degrees around the stars before following them down the street as they argue about marriage.

Karan and his writers slip a lot about patriarchy, matriarchy, class, economic inequality, sexism, gender issues, and consumerism into the narrative––”putting the pills with candies,” as co-producer Somen Mishra said.

“Karan has been making these big family dramas for decades now, but he also knows he needs to be updated to 2023,” Mishra went on. “A lot of the films he had done in the past he realizes were horrendously wrong in terms of gender politics. The world is changing. We have become woke. Gender and sexual politics need to be corrected, but not in terms of compromising the entertainment value. You come for the family romance and drama, those things.”

Karan had planned filming a historical epic, only to be thwarted by the pandemic. Instead he turned to what he thought would be a “quickie” romance that ended up taking almost three years to complete. Imagine the COVID protocols for hundreds of dancers on closed sets. Then production had to be halted when Bhatt became pregnant.

Bhatt’s had an amazing run of late. She has a small, crucial role in RRR; starred in a biopic about the notorious prostitute and political reformer Ganga Harjivandas; daydreamed about murdering her abusive husband in the comedy Darlings; played opposite her real-life husband Ranbir Kapoor in the Disney-financed fantasy epic Brahmastra; and showed up in Gal Gadot’s latest Netflix thriller Heart of Stone. She had to learn Bengali for Rocky and Rani, and dance in a sari in the snow soon after giving birth.

Singh, who had to learn to adapt his speech to play someone from Delhi, does an expert job with an essentially unlikable character, a poorly educated billionaire who never has to worry about the consequences of his actions. Rocky may not be learned (he can’t name the president, for example), but he’s clever enough to match wits with Rani, and his essentially sweet nature shines through.

According to Mishra, the two leads helped build their parts during development and were able to improvise on-set. When Rani complains that Rocky, with his “limitless hotness, protein shake, and open shirt,” is a cliché, he answers, “It’s okay, I was made to admire.” Singh improvised the line, “I’m fragile. Handle me with care.”

Karan handles the formula expectations adroitly, but with his writers he also expands what a musical can be by introducing a half-dozen significant costars, including Bollywood legend Dharmendra as a grandfather disappointed in love. The script tacitly endorses his extramarital affair, which Mishra admitted was a touchy subject.

“Infidelity is always controversial, especially when pop culture endorses it,” he said. “But it’s also about how you present it. People get into bad marriages, that’s reality. Our characters here never leave their spouses, but they find comfort in each other.”

Mishra was delighted at the Open Cinema turnout. “I was skeptical at first,” he said. “I thought maybe 500 people would turn up, but then it slowly started filling in. And it was mostly Koreans, not Indians. Maybe because K-dramas are so popular, it’s easy to relate to Rocky and Rani. Family issues––society issues––are basically the same everywhere.”

Rocky and Rani’s Love Story screened at the Busan International Film Festival and is now streaming in the US on Prime Video.

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