It isn’t rare for one to come across the story of how women have been hit on, relentlessly pursued, molested, or raped by people they know, people they see as friends. This movie was like watching a rich, lavish, upper-class version of this story.
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016)
Cast: Aishwarya Rai, Anuskha Sharma, Fawad Khan, Ranbir Kapoor
Director: Karan Johar
The story is about two rich people Alizeh Khan (Anushka Sharma) and Ayan Sangar (Ranbir Kapoor). They meet each other at a party and proceed to make out. They stop making out and Ayan reveals that he has a girlfriend and feels guilty for cheating on her, Alizeh tells him that she too has a boyfriend who her father set her up with. They spend the night together, hanging out and telling each other about their lives. This is where we find out that Ayan is doing his MBA and wants to become a singer, thus developing a back story for his character. This is where we find nothing about Alizeh apart from the fact that she is nursing her broken heart (which her boyfriend from college broke by leaving her for someone else) in London by taking various courses. Bollywood once again reminds us that, this story is about Ayan figuring out his life as Alizeh plays the trope of being the caring female ‘friend/girlfriend/wife/mother’.
At the end of the night, Alizeh and Ayan plan to go on a double date because of a bet where both claim that their partner looks better than the other’s partner (yes, because we are at car show apparently). On the said double date though, Ayan and Alizeh find their partners making out with each other. Ayan is heart broken after this and emotes it via throwing a tantrum and rolling on the footpath, even though he did the same thing the first night he met Alizeh. To nurse his male-ego, Alizeh decides that they should go to Paris and spend time together. After a private jet flight, lots of singing, making Bollywood clichés (as both are ardent Hindi movie fans), Alizeh tells Ayan that he is her best friend, and he tells her that he is attracted to her but is okay with only having a platonic relationship with her and we never know if she is okay with him being sexually attracted to her because we only hear her trying to convince him that friendship matters more to her. Just a gentle reminder, this movie is about Ayan and the supporting actors, obviously.
Alizeh and Ayan have been shown as anti-heroes of typical gender roles up till now. Alizeh is shown to be sexually aware and have sexual freedom, Ayan is not afraid to show his emotions, and for once the girl is not head over heels in love with the boy. This, the only thing that was saving the movie up to this point, was soon to end.
On one of their last night outs in Paris, Alizeh meets her ex-boyfriend, (yes the same man she is nursing her heart over in London) DJ Ali (Fawad Khan) at a club. He follows her and tells her that he loves her and wants to get back with her, Alizeh belives him and tells Ayan to leave for London without her. Ayan gets a call from her a few weeks later, and she informs him that she is getting married to Ali. Ayan’s hurt male ego shines through like the sun at this moment as he asks her ridiculous questions like whether or not she has had sex with Ali, and then proceeds to get upset with her. The emotion is obvious: if she can’t love him, how dare she love another? Male entitlement toh banta hai, because women are not people with agency, they are objects. As he tells her later “agar tum meri nahi ho sakti, toh kisi aur ki bhi nahi ho sakti” (if you can’t be mine, you can’t be anyone else’s) and “Kya hai us Ali mein, joh mujhme nahi hai?” (What does Ali have that I don’t have). Towards the end of this painful conversation, she requests him to come for the wedding as her friend, and he agrees.
The little man-child (Ayan), reaches the wedding, spends most of his time drinking, and then eventually creates a scene on her wedding day. In her room, Ayan tells Alizeh that he loves her and that she should be ‘his’ (ownership of cars, phones, and women is common in the language of patriarchy and this is one such example) and then creates a scene when she tells him she only loves him as her friend. He walks out after he abuses her physically and shows her the finger because she refused to love him back. The problem is not that this isn’t possible and that men don’t behave in such a manner, because they do, but that post this, Alizeh still wants him as her friend and that he is still being shown as a lead character who should be sympathized with.
After this disastrous behaviour, Ayan starts dating an Urdu poet Saba (Aishwarya Rai), who leaves him when she realizes that he is still in love with Alizeh after Alizeh comes to their house for dinner. This was one of the only moments in the entire film where I felt like, in an encounter with a male, a female has the power to draw the line.
Alizeh meets Ayan the second time for this dinner, and then after she splits from her husband. Every time they have met Ayan has either tried to kiss her, abuse her, force her to love him, or all three. Whenever she refuses he throws tantrums. Alizeh though continues to explain to him that she loves him like a friend and continues to take the physical assault, EVERY SINGLE TIME. This is also repeated when he is nursing her after she tells him that she has cancer. Every single time he does this, his body language changes. There is anger, force, and physical display of rage. It is scary how often the same body language has been used to show power over women, to ensure that they are taught their place. The only part that is teachable is how Alizeh doesn’t cower down and agree to Ayan’s terms, even as she continues to take the abuse.
The last time that Ayan throws a tantrum and says “Ladka aur Ladki kabhi dost nahi ban sakte” (a girl and a boy can never be friends) and breaks things in her house and begs her to love him, Alizeh snaps and throws him out of the house. She leaves the city to go to her parents, but in typical Bollywood style, Ayan rushes to stop her at the airport. He finally (or so he says) understands that he would rather be friends with her than lose her entirely.
Karan Johar shows that indeed ladka and ladki can be friends, as long as ladki is in mortal danger, ladka has been refused enough times, he understands no means no, and doesn’t have to deal with rejection longer than a few months at a time (as Alizeh is dying of cancer and doesn’t have very long to live).
The movie failed to see that a movie is not promoting gender equality if strong women characters have to still put up with male entitlement and continue to mother men. It only means that the patriarchal order is being packaged differently and is trying to be re-established because men still have the upper hand in movies like these. As long as we teach men that these are acceptable forms of behaviour, we will continue making cinema an unjust space from the perspective of gender.
Going for this movie in itself was supposed to be an act of resistance. Resistance of the diktats of the Hindu right. After the Uri attacks and the growing tension at the border, Pakistani actors were threatened with violence unless they left the country and never came back to work here. The Motion Pictures Producers Association and Cinema Owners and Exhibitors Association of India banned Pakistani actors and technicians from working in India and screening movies which had Pakistani actors and professionals.
These diktats amount to ruining any progress that we have made on the relationship we have built with Pakistan. But with Fawad Khan’s comparatively small role, Urdu being almost the first language of this film, and hints at Anushka Sharma and Aishwarya Rai’s character’s being Pakistani, from a political stand-point this movie provided a hope for a future friendship with Pakistan. Apart from this aspect, this movie felt more like an act of re-establishing the patriarchal order rather than a political defiance.
Also read: A Feminist Reading Of ‘Pink’
Disclaimer: I have never made or been part of a movie making process but I have been part of a movie viewing process for a while. Thus no comments are made on any technical aspects of the movie, only the portrayal of gender dynamics has been commented upon.