The boys are back, but will they rock the screen once again? Rock On 2 reunites Aditya Shroff (Farhan Akhtar), Joe Mascarenhas (Arjun Rampal) and Kedar Zaveri ak.a. KD (Purab Kohli) whose journey-to-their-true-selves story resulted in 2008’s wonderfully warm, relatable and inspirational Rock On directed by Abhishek Kapoor.
Back then, after being pulled in many directions away from their music, they had come together as the band Magik along with a fourth friend, Rob Nancy (Luke Kenny). Eight years later, Magik has dispersed, Joe and KD have managed to make careers for themselves in music and Adi is in Shillong desperately trying to exorcise a traumatic memory while helping the local people through a farmers’ cooperative.
Rock On worked on the strength of its solid writing by Pubali Chaudhari and Abhishek Kapoor, the credible situations, heartbreak and hope they conjured up with their words, Kapoor’s spot-on direction, the chemistry between the four male leads (a pleasant surprise since none of them were acting stars), the novelty of a Hindi film revolving around a struggling Indian rock band and the true hero of that venture: Shankar Ehsaan Loy’s throbbing, pulsating soundtrack. It was evident that this was a milieu the team understood perfectly. Everything seemed to fit just right.
With such a formidable predecessor to live up to, Rock On 2 should have doubled its efforts to draw viewers in. Instead, its problems lie right at the conception level. Chaudhuri and Kapoor’s story from which the former has derived her screenplay (with dialogues by Akhtar) comes across as a half-hearted shot at cashing in on a successful brand. The sequel has appealing individual elements and moments, but in its entirety it feels semi-baked.
Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, as Maria from The Sound of Music might have reminded them if they had asked: Adi’s motivation for leaving Mumbai remains unconvincing. That’s because we do not, in the first place, get to understand the motivation for his behaviour that led to tragic consequences five years previously thus causing him to seek an escape from the big city and bright lights.
In Rock On, it was true that Adi, spoilt rich kid that he was, was initially impervious to the feelings and insecurities of those around him – leading to the break with Joe, for one – but he had evolved through that film and you will remember in the end the group had formed a talent search agency to find and promote new musical artistes.
(Spoiler alert for this paragraph) Revved up as they were at that point, driven to help those who had struggled like them, how did he (and they) so soon turn so disinterested in the plight of the people for whom they had launched that agency, which was the mainstay of their careers as we understood it at the end of Rock On? What explains Adi’s attitude in particular, his apathy towards that one singer-composer who approaches him repeatedly? Is it arrogance or indifference? If it is the latter, then what exactly was their agency doing? And for that matter, why does that boy pursue them alone without exploring options? (Spoiler alert ends)
With no answers in sight, the film kicks off on a contrived note and there is little that director Shujaat Saudagar can do to lift it off the ground. The completely contrasting battles being fought by new entrants Jiah Sharma (Shraddha Kapoor) and Uday (Shashank Arora from Titli), the reason for her fears and his desperation, the secret behind the reclusiveness of her father Pandit Vibhooti (Kumud Mishra) all tug at the heart strings, but are not given sufficient depth. There is another sidetrack about the commercially led compromises talented artistes feel compelled to make, but that gets only a fleeting mention.
Worse, the sub-plot about Adi’s efforts to rehabilitate several villages in Meghalaya after a natural disaster unwittingly smacks of condescension. Instead of insightful detailing, what we get is a touristy visit: DoP Mark Koninckx’s spectacular shots of spectacular locations, but not a single local resident who is fleshed out well enough to make a lasting impression.
The people of Meghalaya are shadows, not substantial characters here. They are either victims or villains, thrown in as a matter of convenience to take the story forward. The villains are the enemy within. The victims have no agency, they take no initiative and they sit around suffering, thus leaving it to the great mainlanders and their chieftain Adi to save them and vanquish the bad guys. It reminded me a bit of simpering heroines in old Hindi films who would stand around helplessly, waiting for the hero to rescue them from the gangster’s underground den.
If you view this aspect of Rock On 2 in the context of the alienation of the entire North-East from the rest of India, the treatment of the region in the film is almost offensive. Thing is, Rock On 2 seems to have had no political ill intentions. It is evident that Meghalaya serves no purpose for the maker/s beyond the picture-postcard visuals it offers. With almost no locational specifics in the screenplay, the film could just as well have been set in any other non-urban, naturally stunning location far from Mumbai without the change making an inch of a difference to the narrative.
Meghalaya is not all that is given short shrift. No one utters a single line throughout about the late Magik member Rob (after whom Adi’s child is named), and Joe’s wife Debbie (Shahana Goswami in a guest appearance) is dispensed with via a single line about her going off to France. For what? Why? Who knows? Akhtar’s dialogue writing for Jiah and Uday too is strained.
With so many superficialities in the writing, Rock On 2 runs up against hurdles that were forgivable in Part 1 because of that film’s wholesomeness and overall effectiveness. Abhishek Kapoor had managed to use Akhtar intelligently, camouflaging both his acting and singing limitations in excellent packaging and positioning. Here though, since director Saudagar is building on a weak foundation, Akhtar’s every deadpan expression and the sub-ordinariness of his singing voice stick out. It does not help that Rock On 2 bears the added burden of Shraddha Kapoor singing as Jiah. To be fair to her, she is not a terrible singer, she is just ordinary.
I understand Saudagar’s compulsion to let Akhtar sing in this film, He is, after all, the producer. Besides, the use of his voice – polished and straightened out with the benefit of the technology that recording studios offer these days – was an experiment that clicked in Rock On. But why oh why wasn’t a professional singer used at least for Jiah?
Not surprisingly, the most enjoyable part of Rock On 2 is the finale concert in Shillong where we get to hear back-to-back performances by real singers, not actors aspiring to be singers. Redemption comes in those late moments through, among others, Usha Uthup and Meghalaya’s Summer Salt Band performing the delightful Hoi Kiw, and of course Shankar Mahadevan himself. They are so lovely, that when they are followed by Akhtar and Kapoor doing a so-so remix of the original film’s title song, that too is fun to watch because the pulse is already racing and the adrenaline is already pumping. In that moment, less than the flaws what I noticed was this: Akhtar is no great shakes as a singer, but seeing him move on stage is a reminder that there is no question this man loves music. I wish he would play to his strengths rather than remind us of his weaknesses.
Shankar Ehsaan Loy’s compositions for Rock On were fantastic. Their work in Rock On 2 is a mixed bag in the nice-but-not-great mould. I refuse to blame them. The blame for this film’s average-ness lies entirely at the doorstep of the writers.
Rock On 2 is not insufferable, it is just hugely disappointing. They should have given it an alternative title: How To Fritter Away Goodwill For A Fondly Remembered Brand in 139 Minutes and Seven Seconds.