By Rohini Banerjee for Cake:
“What else do you want me to do to make you love me?” says protagonist Ayan (Ranbir Kapoor) at one point in Karan Johar’s latest film, “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil”. The words are directed at the female protagonist Alizeh (Anushka Sharma), who has (by then) constantly rejected his multiple romantic advances, and made it abundantly clear that she only sees him as a friend. But Ayan refuses to take a hint, which is not really a hint at this point but a clear ‘no’, and expresses disbelief that she doesn’t reciprocate his affections.
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’s male protagonist suffers from patriarchal social conditioning which tells men that they have a ‘right’ to a woman’s body and emotions just by the virtue of being ‘nice’ to them. And herein lies the problem.
Ayan is your requisite Nice Guy – sensitive, emotional, endearing (what Sam Adams of Slate calls ‘the beautiful male idiot’) – and because he is so, he feels entitled to a woman’s undisputed affections. He finds it incredulous that she cannot return his feelings as if it’s something truly unthinkable.
Ayan lacks any kind of machismo or overt physicality that is traditionally upheld as “masculine” by Hindi film standards. In fact, the very scene that introduces him to us shows his failed attempt at a hookup, a departure from the sexual confidence that’s usually a given when it comes to male characters in Bollywood. As the film progresses, Ayaan cries, rails, and comes across as heavily dependent and incompetent, and while his divergence from the hypermasculine is refreshing, he continues to exhibit insidiously creepy misogynist behaviour as a result of this divergence. While Saba (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), his older lover, calls him out on it and even cuts off ties with him once she witnesses his disturbing behaviour towards Alizeh, there’s no effort from Ayan to mend his ways, and he continues to whine.
This naivete and overt sensitivity that comes as a result of rejecting traditional masculinity blinds him to his own privilege. Since Alizeh gives him a shoulder to cry on, is unconditionally kind to him, and offers him companionship and warmth, Ayaan thinks that these are clearly the basis of romantic love. After all, Bollywood has repeatedly told us that a guy and a girl cannot remain ‘just friends’ for long, so of course, this is what leads to his unshakeable conviction that he deserves her reciprocation, even though Alizeh continues to insist otherwise.
Nice Guys like him populate contemporary Bollywood, balking at the knowledge that a woman may not love them back despite their “niceness” and then resorting to near-creepy and borderline abusive behaviour towards that woman. We’ve seen it in “Raanjhana” (where the male protagonist stalks, slits his wrists, and goes to truly terrifying lengths just because the woman won’t reciprocate his love), and we’ve seen it in “Rockstar” (where again the male protagonist cannot back off), and now we see it in “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil”.
“Friendzoning is bullshit because girls are not machines that you put kindness coins into until sex falls out”, wrote Tumblr user hexjackal a few years ago, in a post that still rings true. The friendzone is perhaps one of the most toxic patriarchal concepts that exist and it continues to get glorified in popular culture. Bollywood is a repeat offender, constantly reiterating the very principle that informs Ayan’s relentless pursuit of Alizeh’s affections – that there has to be something romantic or sexual between them for their relationship to be valid.
Alizeh’s history with romance is a tumultuous one, so it’s unsurprising that she would see friendship as the purer, less problematic relationship. Friendship gives her sukoon (peace) while junoon (passion) leads to self-destruction. This is why she prefers to remain friends with Ayan and in fact, says that she values this relationship much more than she would a romantic relationship. But Ayan would only be satisfied with romantic reciprocation. He constantly gaslights her and makes her feel guilty for not loving him back, throws multiple tantrums in the due course of the film for that very reason. He has zero respect for her consent, and for the fact that her ‘no’ actually means ‘no’.
Way too many real-world cases of stalking, harassment and abuse from so-called from men who have been rejected (or “friendzoned”) have surfaced, and in a way, mainstream Bollywood films (that can be extremely influential) are encouraging such behaviour, because they are normalising it. When we see heroes on screen who feel a sense of ownership or entitlement upon a woman’s body (and evoke sympathy for the very same character) and become emotionally or physically abusive when denied that ownership, then we are promoting something dangerous indeed – because we are excusing these acts, legitimising them even. Ayan’s story might end with him finally accepting Alizeh’s friendship and ceasing his romantic advances, but there are countless cases out there where men do not, and instead, continue to perpetuate abuse. Bollywood needs to stop encouraging this from the very beginning. It needs to stop stretching unrequited love to the level that it stops respecting explicit consent.
You’re not really a nice guy if you expect women to cater to your needs just because you’re one. Bollywood keeps giving us guys like Ayaan, while marginalising the woman’s narrative. The women, then, exist as plot devices, catalysts to have the hero ‘come of age’ or simply an object of unquestionable desire who doesn’t get much agency. Both Alizeh and Saba are potentially very interesting characters, but instead of being fleshed out, they fall prey to almost all of these tropes, and ultimately, Ayan becomes the character that we are made to root for – the guy who just doesn’t get it because he cannot see past his “nice guy” privilege. And that’s what’s mushkil about this entire situation.