By Suprateek Chatterjee Nov. 14, 2016
Getting real musicians is great for lending Rock On!! 2 indie cred, but how about capturing the spirit of the scene properly? Where is the agony of playing shit gigs at shit venues?
In 2008, the week Abhishek Kapoor’s Rock On!! had released, I remember witnessing a relatively unusual phenomenon: Musician friends, who fashionably hated anything remotely connected to Bollywood, were actually excited about a Hindi film.
A junior from college, a fellow guitarist, gushed about how the makers had gotten crucial details right. Arjun Rampal’s character, the dour-faced guitarist Joe Mascarenhas, was allegedly holding chords that resembled actual guitar chords. Purab Kohli, who played the unnaturally excitable KD aka Killer Drummer, brings up the concept of time signature (the number of beats per bar of music) at one point, which particularly excited my Dream Theater-loving friend. Rumour even had it that, in this movie, electric guitars and synths were attached to actual cables, which were in turn connected to amplifiers – in stark contrast to the time-honoured Bollywood tradition of misrepresenting the electric guitar.
But the hype ruined the film for me somewhat. Yes, there was an admirable effort at detailing that I’d previously never witnessed in an Indian film. I’d liked, for instance, how Kapoor shot the song “Pichhle Saat Dinon Mein”, a slightly exaggerated but digestible recreation of a sweaty indoor gig. The soundtrack, although embarrassingly watered-down and generic, helped – along with that of Tashan and Life In A… Metro that released the same year – usher in acceptability for the rock sound in mainstream Bollywood music, a trend that continues to this day. But overall, Rock On!! was merely a repackaged and inferior version of its lead actor Farhan Akhtar’s own directorial debut, Dil Chahta Hai (2001), where the love for music replaced love itself as a catalyst for the story.
Bollywood has since grown up, albeit not by as many years. I have never rewatched Rock On!! and I highly doubt the movie has aged well. But its long-awaited sequel Rock On!! 2, which hit theatres last Friday, made me think more fondly of the first film, of which this version retains all of the bad and very little of the good. This time around, its guiding principle is closer to that espoused by Richard Linklater’s delightful School Of Rock (2001): One great rock show can change the world. As a film, though, it’s a melodramatic mess: a wire-mesh of criss-crossing storylines, underdeveloped characters, and laughably fake-sounding Hindi dialogues.
From experience, I can say that even veteran bands start sounding rusty if they go two or three months without a good jam.
Akhtar, now a bona fide rockstar, returns as Aditya Shroff, the lead singer and rhythm guitarist of Magik. He now sports a thick beard and occasional man-bun and lives in a village near Shillong, Meghalaya. His singing – something I have had a thing or two to say about in the past – is still awful, so he has decided to lumbersexual it up and run both a school and a farmers’ cooperative in the state’s idyllic Khasi Hills. However, he still secretly writes songs and plays acoustic guitar when not dealing with nightmares in sequences that were surely outsourced to Vishesh Films.
Joe (Rampal) is now, in stark contrast to the first film’s guitar tutor, a singing reality show judge and the owner of a nightclub called 12 Bar Blues. An admittedly cool thing is the presence of indie star Tejas Menon and his band, featuring guitarist Warren Mendonsa, at the club in an opening scene, which lends it some cred. Rampal’s fake-guitar-playing isn’t too bad: his power chord changes and pentatonic solos look believable enough. This is also true for the drumming by KD, now a jingle composer, whose day-job woes are depicted fairly accurately (although, if I remember correctly, he describes a hip-hop track as electro rock). The new entrants are Jiah (Shraddha Kapoor, in a character clearly modelled on music director Sneha Khanwalkar), who plays keyboards, and Uday (Shashank Arora), a sarod player who is hired as the band’s bass player.
This is where things begin to go south. Why is Magik unable to recruit a bass player, you ask? In a flashback sequence, we see that they did have a bass player, who happened to be Sheldon D’Silva – he of the lightning-fast fingers and trademarked hair-flip. Yes, one of the best bass players in the country appears in the song “Jaago”, which is set in a flashback sequence, but when the band re-groups years later, he isn’t considered for the position. Well, it’s not like they think it through – Jiah and Uday, who record “Tere Mere Dil”, one basic electro-fusion track together, not only manage to get a gig very easily at Joe’s club but also become part of the new Magik line-up right away, because that’s how easily bands are formed.
In reality, the indie scene is a close-knit network wherein musicians collaborate with each other if they’re friends and/or are fully convinced of each other’s abilities. It’s highly unlikely that two “senior” musicians would watch a couple of fledglings with little to no stage presence play one song and offer to play away with them without so much as a quick word.
It’s contrivances like these that annoy the scenester and occasional musician in me. At present, I manage to play maybe two or three minor gigs a year, but it’s a fascinating world I’ve been part of for upwards of a decade. However, it pains me to see that Rock On!! 2, a movie about that very world, doesn’t take the trouble to flesh it out properly. Getting Tejas Menon, Pentagram, and Usha Uthup in your movie to give it indie cred is all well and good, but how about capturing some of that spirit properly?
Where are the endlessly delayed jam sessions, the post-gig spliffs, the gig promoters, and artist managers? Where’s the agony of perfecting the mix and master of your album/EP until the very end and the (entirely real) struggle to get people to hear the damn thing on SoundCloud or BandCamp for free? Where, in heaven’s name, is the agony of playing shit gigs at shit venues where the sound is bad and the crowd utterly unresponsive? In the Rock On!! universe, all gigs are attended by enthusiastic hand-pumpers.
The first film at least got a bit of that right. One of the best scenes in it was one where Magik, forced to take up any gig they could to earn money, were reduced to playing songs like “Saanson Ki Zaroorat Hai Jaise” at a garba night. In Rock On!! 2, they’re all affluent, and gear is easily available. Still, the screenplay and director Shujaat Saudagar make no attempt to credibly depict the friction between band members who’ve been playing on-and-off for so long, nor does there seem to be any rustiness in their abilities or tightness as a band. From experience, I can say that even veteran bands start sounding rusty if they go two or three months without a good jam. Here, Magik can achieve studio-quality tightness seemingly at will.
And good lord, there are the songs. We go from “Aasman hai neela kyon / Paani geela geela kyon / Gol kyon hai zameen” to “Neela aakash jo ek samandar hai / Usmein kahi koi aisa sitara bhi hai / Jisme dusri ek duniya ho basi / Jisme ho jaagti zindagi” (nice try fellas; we believe in aliens now). Any musician worth his or her salt can hear the Melodyne on Akhtar’s vocals; Kapoor’s voice, although probably also touched up, comes across as infinitely more tolerable. There’s an awful flashback song called “You Know What I Mean” that rips off Maroon 5’s “Sugar” video. Not only does it have the most cringeworthy rock chorus of 2016 – from any part of the world, I’d wager – but we’re also subjected to visuals of Kohli banging a lone snare drum and dancing around while the soundtrack plays a full beat. If one great rock show or song can indeed change the world, this is the one that could give you an instant coronary, I guess.
But nothing prepares you for the final act of the movie. After a massive fire guts all crops and the school Adi had built, the band decides to hold a benefit gig in Meghalaya itself. The corrupt government officials who started the fire decide that the best way to stop this gig is to hire goons and pull a Metallica in Gurgaon, rather than, I don’t know, use departmental influence to deny them permission.
The one-day music festival is being held out in the boondocks: If it’s a benefit gig, you want to make it as accessible as possible to moneyed city folk, not the opposite. Uthup plays a Khasi song; the Pentagram boys belt out “Tomorrow’s Decided”; and after some minor and totally unnecessary drama, Magik shows up and plays songs they seem to have only just written to rapturous response from the crowd.
Ultimately, Rock On!! 2 is a slog largely because, aside from all these issues, it’s also a convoluted, half-baked story that is ultimately meant to fortify Akhtar’s inexplicable rock star status. The story of a band, even a successful one, has tremendous potential for drama in terms of ego clashes, conflicts over musical direction, and douchey rockstar behaviour. Here, ego clashes are resolved with convenient man-bonding, conflicts over musical direction don’t exist, and all of these guys are depressingly well-adjusted.
Take your sanitiser elsewhere, Bollywood; leave my indie scene alone.
The author is a freelance film critic and features writer who has been writing on cinema, music, and popular culture for more than eight years. He has written for Mumbai Mirror, Hindustan Times, The Huffington Post, The Times Of India, Mid-Day, Time Out Mumbai, Elle Magazine, and FirstPost, among others. When not ranting on the internet, he makes music, mostly rock-infused electronica. When particularly frustrated with humanity, he stuffs a backpack to capacity and boards a plane without a real plan in place.