BY GAUTAM DEKA
Imtiaz Ali’s 'Rockstar' polarised Indian audiences. Some loved it, and others hated it, but nobody could deny that it had genuine moments of brilliance. On its release, 'Rockstar' was less of a Bollywood film and more of an auteur’s work. With its unflinching journey through angst and rebellion, it has gone on to become a much-lauded cult film; everyone sees a Jordan in themselves, everyone sees a ‘rockstar.’
While at its heart, 'Rockstar' remains a love story, the film also engages with evocative philosophical debates about art and its creation. The first thirty minutes provide arguably the most captivating, direct commentary on art within the universe of mainstream Bollywood movies. At times messy and a little too on the nose, for the most part, 'Rockstar' is a compelling inquiry into the origin of art that traces where greatness and true creativity may come from.
The movie starts with Jordan struggling to reconcile the breezy, uninspiringly comfortable life he lived for so long. Early on, it seems as though he is looking for trouble to free him from his boring, milquetoast happiness. A flash-forward of Jordan (Ranbir Kapoor) portends that the easy-going good-guy we have just been introduced to is fated for rage and turmoil. Before we can ask ‘how’ and ‘why,’ the movie leaps back to the young Jordan who went by ‘JJ’ back then, and studied at St. Stephens College. Here, he is bewildered yet enamored by the glamour of Jim Morrison - how could Morrison flip off a crowd and still have them cheer him on?
JJ’s interest in Morrison is part of his search to plumb at the roadmap of the creative process for the greats. JJ’s first stab at making art serves as a defining lesson; he hesitantly climbs onto a small stage for his first audition, and someone shouts “You need stage presence! Personality!” JJ valiantly tries to look cool on stage. It does not help. Khatana, the canteen owner tells JJ that it is not shallow gimmicks, but pain and heartbreak that make a true Kalaakar (artist). At this point, we get one of the most memorable, humorous monologues of the movie in which JJ confesses that he has had a modest upbringing, hasn’t been adopted or molested, and never faced a life-threatening disease. He has no initiation into the harsh emotions Khatana deems fundamental to the creation of art and consequently decides that if those experiences hadn’t come the natural way, he would somehow bring them into existence. JJ impels himself to fall in love with batchmate Heer (Nargis Fakhri) and proposes to her just to know what rejection feels like. He seeks out love and anguish for his music but is yet to appreciate that heartbreak afflicts you when you would rather it not. Ali posits that suffering cannot be fabricated, its force is in its unpredictability, and JJ will have to learn this the hard way.
After Heer calls JJ out for his contrived courtship of her, JJ apologizes and lets go of his false veneer of edge and pain. Precisely because of the authenticity both Heer and JJ offer each other, they develop an endearing, tight friendship - with time well-spent watching a Porno, drinking country liquor together, and being, well, free.
Ali assures us that anguish or not, JJ is evidently a gifted singer, and it is not only pain but also talent that determines success in art. ‘Platinum Records’ came looking for him before tragedy strikes. Ali then pulls the ground out from underneath JJ. He knows straight off the bat that Heer is betrothed to another man, and their friendship is kept platonic. As they get closer and freer with each other, ultimately, and somewhat inevitably (this is a Bollywood love story) they fall in love. Heer is eventually married off per her family’s plans, leaving JJ devastated. Soon after, JJ’s family unexpectedly accuses him of stealing and throws him out of the house. Real anguish barges into JJ’s life uninvited.
He stays in various places after he becomes homeless and it is through these desperate attempts to find a bed to sleep in that JJ sees reality. He relishes authentic experiences with real people - he goes to slums and sings with the ladies there, he stays in religious buildings and inches closer to some artistic actualization. JJ, now Jordan, is a changed man. Ali emphasizes that what is important is not that the tragedies and the homeless stints are negative or unfortunate experiences, but that they are authentic experiences. There are no pretences when you are homeless and vulnerable, singing in the midst of a Dargah.
Imtiaz Ali thus creates two camps. Two philosophical camps with differing ideas on how to reach success and artistic excellence. The first camp is the authentic camp, represented by Jordan. Jordan is honest; he has gone through real distress and does not compromise his creative vision. Jordan is not even looking for success, music is a cathartic outlet for him and for his anger. Then there is the other camp, the flashy, shiny camp of the ‘Exterior,’ represented by Dhingra, the owner of Platinum records. His motto is ‘Image is Everything, and Everything is Image.’ Dhingra believes in manufacturing artistic personas, and that people are ineluctably attracted to the allure of the carefully constructed star.
Jordan sees fame overnight. He becomes a political symbol of freedom, which is possible only because of Jordan’s unabashed honesty and angst. When Khatana confronts Jordan about the reckless behaviour that has come out of this volcanic angst, warning him he will lose everything if he continues with it. Jordan replies poignantly by saying that he has lost control of himself and what he has become. Jordan is not putting up an act, it’s all too real, and the crowds are flocking to him.
Here, Ali echoes the thoughts of Aristotle (in Poetics) when he tells us that art is born when there are universal truths and patterns in a piece of work, truths, and patterns that people can recognize. Jordan is adored because people recognize the universal truths about anguish, rebellion, and freedom simmering in Jordan’s music, which is to say that they recognize themselves in his music. However, while Aristotle believed that part of the artistic process was to make the work extraordinary by eliminating imperfections, Ali makes clear that Jordan’s entire personality and his music are riddled with imperfections, and the gritty imperfections are what makes him truly great. Therefore, what happens when the universal truth that Aristotle speaks about is a truth about imperfection? I don’t know, maybe we get personalities like Jordan.
Additionally, Ali is in full agreement with Leo Tolstoy and his definition of art as sincerity. If Tolstoy were to watch 'Rockstar', he would not be surprised by Jordan’s magnetism and talent. For Tolstoy, the contagiousness of a piece of art depends upon how much sincerity bled into it (from What is Art, 1896). Jordan is anti-establishment, and so is his music. Jordan is honest, so is his music. Tolstoy writes, “the artist should be impelled by an inner need to express his feeling.” This is where art comes from - an inner desire to express for oneself and not merely to act on others. Jordan sings not for fame, but for his piercing need to express himself. Tolstoy does not tell us where does this need comes from; he attributes it to human nature. This is where the beauty of 'Rockstar' lies. Ali explains the process of artistry through his own work of art. Sure, the need to express is a part of human nature, but what moulds our nature, is experience. What Jordan goes through makes him an extraordinary individual, and his strength to articulate his heartrending with honesty allows him to create art that matters to people.
So, where does art come from? For Jordan, it comes from the visceral experiences of watching pornos, getting drunk off cheap liquor, singing in a slum, and spending nights at the Dargah. These events make an individual who they are and pave the way for their need to create art. Jordan spends the movie trying to find himself and piece together how he could join the pantheon of the greats. When he succeeds, it is after lacerating pain and heartbreak have entered his life. For others, Ali seems to argue through the movie, our experiences do not have to be traumatic; they just have to be real. In an age of formulaic musicians and corporatized artists, ‘Rockstar’ is a pointed (albeit occasionally ironic) call for authenticity in an industry that has dispensed with true expression in favour of convenient fantasies. Real art, Ali reminds us, comes from life.