WARNING: THIS REVIEW HAS MAJOR THIRD-ACT SPOILERS. It’s tough to talk in-depth about my feelings for this film without also revealing how the plot resolves itself. If you’re spoiler-averse, bail out after the first few paragraphs. (There’s another warning below, just before the big spoilers begin.)
Approximately two hours into Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (“This Heart is Complicated“), during the performance of the emotionally charged title track, one feels the first pangs of concern. How is writer-director Karan Johar going to craft a satisfying ending to his tale of unrequited love, which to this point has been compelling and unexpected? As the song ends, Johar’s film uses narrative crutches to limp along to an ending made all the more disappointing because of the story’s squandered potential.
What Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (“ADHM,” henceforth) has going for it, at least early on, is a cast of interesting characters. Ayan (Ranbir Kapoor) lives in London, dutifully pursuing an MBA at his dad’s request at the expense of a singing career. Ayan is absurdly wealthy, as is every other character in the film, allowing for impromptu jaunts to scenic European locales.
Ayan meets Alizeh (Anushka Sharma) at a party, and they find in each other kindred spirits fond of quoting film dialogue. A knowledge of older Bollywood movies will enhance the experience of watching ADHM, but it is not necessary. Terrific subtitle translation substitutes Western equivalents for specifically Indian references. For example, Bollywood bombshell “Sunny Leone” becomes “JLo” for the sake of international audience members. (Unfortunately, song lyrics are not subtitled in English.)
Although both are already in relationships — Alizeh with boring Faisal (Imran Abbas) and Ayan with tacky Lisa (Lisa Haydon, who is utterly hilarious in the film) — Ayan and Alizeh prefer each other’s company. Ayan begins to fall for beautiful Alizeh, but she makes it clear that she’s not interested. She’s still heartbroken over another man, Ali (Fawad Khan), and only wants Ayan’s friendship.
Ayan spends the rest of the film struggling with his unrequited feelings, distracting himself by having an affair with Saba (an incredibly sexy Aishwarya Rai Bachchan). Adding Saba’s lovelorn poetry to his heartbroken music jump-starts Ayan’s singing career, propelling him out of his extended adolescence and into self-possessed adulthood.
This is where those nagging feelings begin. Ayan somehow needs to resolve his feelings for Alizeh. It would be too convenient to have Alizeh change her mind and fall for Ayan, especially since she maintains throughout that she’s not attracted to him. Finding a way to put Ayan’s feelings in narrative context presents a considerable challenge.
LAST WARNING! MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE’S FINAL ACT ARE BELOW.
Unfortunately, Johar chooses the second easiest possible option: he gives Alizeh cancer. Removing Alizeh from the mortal world absolves Ayan from having to learn how to live in a world where they’re both alive yet apart. It also provides yet another frustrating example of a male writer using the death of a female character to advance the development of his male protagonist.
There are further sexist overtones to the way Ayan treats Alizeh while she is sick. He repeatedly exerts physical control over her body at the exact moment when she’s lost control of her body to cancer. Without Alizeh’s consent, Ayan removes her hat in public to reveal her hairless head. He makes her dance when she doesn’t want to. Ayan tries to kiss Alizeh, and he screams at her for rejecting his advances. He’s enraged that she won’t have sex with him, even though she doesn’t have long to live and he’s taking care of her.
That raises another point about the stupidity of the cancer subplot. Alizeh refuses to tell Ali or her family about her diagnosis, choosing to endure it alone. That’s not how cancer works. It’s an exhausting, all-hands-on-deck endurance test. Certain doctors require you to bring a guardian to help you get home from your appointment safely; they won’t let you take a cab. No one faces cancer alone willingly.
So much of ADHM is about Ayan growing out of his immaturity into the complicated realities of adult relationships, but there’s no wisdom to be found here. In the end, Johar chose the path of least resistance. He has more insight to offer than this. I’m sure of it.