Right away, let me say Rock On was a pleasant surprise. I went in mentally prepared for the bad GIR concert which a friend of mine was convinced this movie would be. Instead, what I saw was something in the Chak De India way - stay within Bollywood’s confines, but do it convincingly. If the girls in Chak De wielded a mean stick, the Rock On boys have you convinced that their air-guitaring and drumming is nothing as airy as one would expect from a genre whose previous cultural reference point in this regard was the soul-scarring image of Rajesh Khanna playing a guitar (in a discotheque!) only to throw it over to that other rock ‘n roll icon Mithun.
The ensemble cast turn in performances ranging from good to surprisingly good. The rhythm section is a great study in contrasts - Kenny, low-key and moving, Kohli, providing a vital comic kick whenever the pace threatens to flag. As leader of the band, Akhtar mostly glares a lot but lights up on stage, and Rampal, who is the real surprise of this movie, inhabits the role of the quiet, moody guitarist as if he had been waiting for it all his life. Its also refreshing to see the role of the free-loving minx go to Koel Puri instead of some bimbette, she takes the bit role and fills it with a knowing sex appeal and dancing eyes and a slow drawl. Only Prachi, pretty but woefully unhip as Akhtar’s wife, can’t quite shake off the soap star inside.
Despite the movie’s premise, its pace is reflective and the director gives his characters time to sort their heads out. In such a situation, had the onstage scenes fallen flat its likely the movie would have too. That doesn’t happen - the band is believable on stage, if slightly pansy by actual rock band standards (but perfect as a sort of English language Euphoria). The build-up to the final concert may be a shower of clichés, but that doesn’t alter its poignance a bit. Another thought struck me later – both this movie as well as Chak De were about chances wasted in youth and grabbed in desperation later. If, as these filmmakers seem to be saying, there are to be second acts in Indian lives, surely the time is due for a second wave, a new wave of movies made in India, with a scything originality and sureness of vision atoning for the sins of the past, and painting a visionary map for the future.