Rock On begins with a band setting up their equipment and tuning up for a practice session. There’s some clunky dialogue about the lyrics for a new song on Things We Never Wonder About In Life (you really feel the capital letters when Farhan Akhtar utters those lines), and another howler about how nobody takes over Magik (the name of their band), and they begin to play. Ho-hum.
And then a wonderful thing happens. The movie flashes forward ten years later to these people, no longer in the band, no longer in touch with each other (or even with themselves, it seems). One is an investment banker with a wife who loves him but wonders if she knows who he really is behind the walls he has built around him. Another works in the family business with his dad. The third plays the keyboard for Anu Malik. And the fourth seems to do nothing while his wife manages a fish business and keeps the home fires burning.
These scenes depict seemingly well-ordered lives that betray the past only in little ways. Like deep calming breaths taken in the privacy of one’s car. Or turning the volume down on a rock song playing on the radio. Or a blank, yet searching look in the eye, as if one is seeing not the present but a practice room ten years ago. These scenes are so quiet, yet so well observed and true that they draw you into these characters’ lives.
And that is how it goes, back and forth. Rock On seems to have some kind of dissociative personality disorder, wanting to be a movie about a rock band getting together after many years and an observation of these people’s lives. The latter is extraordinarily good. The good news is, the former is pretty good despite the occasional clunky dialogue and overt string-pulling.
Working with an ensemble cast (the most experienced happens to be Arjun Rampal, not exactly confidence-inspiring) who come up with surprisingly solid performances and a script that eschews melodrama for the most part, Abhishek Kapoor fashions a movie that is a lot more about regret and a chance at redemption than it is about music. The music is fairly ordinary, but it works because you care about these people and the joy they take in making it.
The acting is solid. Farhan Akhtar, debuting before the camera, turns in a fine performance as the lead singer turned investment banker. His performance is notable for what it doesn’t do, and the more he holds back, the stronger you empathize with him.
Arjun Rampal gives what is probably the best performance of his career to date. He was surprisingly watchable in Om Shanti Om, but this one expects him to do more by doing less. The scene where he and Akhtar meet after a long gap is amazingly well done. We know what they are thinking and so do they, and the movie makes a wise choice by trusting our intelligence and leaving it at that. A while ago, I wrote about the less-is-more principle wherein I asked: Why is Aamir Khan’s nothing better than Arjun Rampal’s nothing? I am glad to report that Rampal’s nothing has become pretty damn good.
Purab and Luke Kenny (on drums and keyboard) turn in competent supporting performances. While the movie is primarily about these men, Prachi Desai and Sahana Goswami turn in wonderful performances as Akhtar and Rampal’s spouses respectively. The latter is especially good as a woman who has lost her own dreams so her husband could continue brooding about his.
In his review of Rock On, Baradwaj Rangan starts off by saying that Farhan Akhtar has the perfect voice for rock music. In some ways, the experience of watching the movie is like that: there is the occasional bum note, but the overall experience is of hearing someone sing from the heart. And that makes all the difference.