Rock On!! is one of my favorite Bollywood films of all time, so when I heard a sequel was in the works I was thrilled. That elation turned to horror as I found myself watching 2016’s Rock On 2 on a cross-country flight. A piece of self-indulgent, masturbatory rot that nearly destroyed all of the warm fuzzies the first film instilled in me, Rock On 2 is glorified fan fiction, centering Farhan Akhtar’s character, Aditya Shroff, as an anguished, self-involved hero figure. Gone is the relatable human Adi from the first film, who sacrifices music to become a corporate drone and must find his way back to his dreams and his friends. In his place is a guy with so much manufactured manpain that he can’t be bothered to pay attention to his wife and child. Instead, he has to go work in a remote village in the far northeastern state of Meghalaya to atone for his perceived sins. Why is a businessman/rock musician opening schools and farm cooperatives and neglecting to wash his hair? Beats the hell out of me.
I didn’t know a brown guy could be a white savior until I saw this movie, and it left me dumbfounded — and furious. We get it, Farhan Akhtar, you’re India’s best and brightest Social Justice Warrior — but shoehorning that status into Rock On!! universe was a huge mistake. The original film was about friendship and about music. It was warm and personal and triumphant. Its 2016 bastard brother is about Aditya being so noble and tortured that every other character pales in comparison. There is scene after scene of Adi brooding as the camera lingers on his furrowed brow or his rippling biceps — and it takes entirely too long to get to the point of the film: a concert to help raise awareness for the impoverished and starving villagers that Adi’s been working with.
Just awareness. For whatever reason, it doesn’t seem to occur to anyone in the story that a concert can actually raise money. I’m guessing that an actual, logical, plot about Magik doing a real benefit would’ve gotten in the way of all the Adi-as-hero plot threads. And focusing on Magik as a band would involve giving equal time to KD and Joe, who are barely blips in this film. (Dear departed Rob is never mentioned, only remembered in a flashback and in the name of Adi’s five-year-old son whom he doesn’t bother parenting.)
Speaking of KD and Joe, Purab Kohli and Arjun Rampal are the saving graces of this lackluster film, despite having very little to do. I hung in there past the 40-minute mark because of them. Alas, KD really only serves as narrator, with no character development whatsoever. It’s pathetic. (Purab Kohli got more face time as a secondary character on Netflix’s Sense8 than he did in a movie where he’s on the posters.) Joe, meanwhile, is painted as a soulless sell-out for his gig as a judge on a singing competition TV series. His delightful wife Debbie barely has any lines, and his son Andy, now a teenager, shows up as a plot device at a critical point but doesn’t get lines at all. I wanted so much more about Joe’s family, about what KD was up to. But highlighting these beloved characters would take focus from Aditya and Shraddha Kapoor’s new addition, Jiah — whose sole purpose is to give credence to Adi’s epic angst and then offer him absolution. Though the team behind the film swears it’s not about an extramarital affair, the way Jiah and Adi are prioritized over his marriage to Sakshi (Prachi Desai) is pretty telling. Adi’s sweet wife from the first film is just another character gutted on the altar of his wounded soul.
You see, Aditya became the Hero of Shillong because a troubled young musician stalked him, demanding Adi listen to his CD, and then killed himself because no one gave his music a chance. Said young guy was Jiah’s brother, so when she comes in to Adi’s life, it’s to bring closure to something he’s been torturing himself with for five years. Why the death of a promising young man didn’t drive Aditya to, I don’t know, be a better parent to his own child is something that’s never addressed. Suffice it to say, this movie’s handling of suicide is offensive on a cellular level, reducing a serious mental illness to an issue of misplaced guilt and blame. Rahul’s death serves only to weigh on Adi’s manly shoulders and fuel Jiah’s music and Daddy issues.
Similarly, the Khasi villagers burned out of their homes exist only as props for Adi’s heroism and altruism, and they’re Othered like whoa in order to uplift Adi as their rescuer. If you check cast lists for the film on sites like IMDB or Wikipedia, none of the Khasi actors with lines are credited. It’s gross. And nothing about what Adi does in Meghalaya is truly root-worthy. Aditya’s a horrible, selfish asshole who treats his wife and child as afterthoughts and looks down on his friends because they’re not off white-savioring in the mountains like he is. The narrative even has Joe, who grew up poor, thanking Aditya for reminding him what it was like to go hungry. Ick, ick, ick!
The truly heartfelt and authentic moments in Rock On 2 are few and far between — usually in scenes that have nothing to do with Aditya or Jiah and, well, there just aren’t many of those. There’s a performance by a Khasi group at the big concert that is amazing and makes me long for what this film could have been. But, unfortunately, this movie is just a bloated ego trip with none of the Magik that made its predecessor so charming. I finished it because I was stuck on a plane and had nowhere else to go. And because Arjun Rampal looked really sexy. His cheekbones could’ve gotten top billing. Sadly, it’s producer and star Farhan Akhtar that gets that honor. Rock On 2 is nothing more than a vehicle for one person’s humanitarian rock-god fantasies. How unbelievably tone deaf.