2011 was an interesting year for the Hindi film industry. We saw films like Zoya Akhtar’s reintroduction to road movies, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Rohit Shetty's first instalment in his cop universe, Singham, and unexpected offerings like Delhi Belly, Dhobi Ghat, Tanu Weds Manu, and No One Killed Jessica. On the other side of the spectrum, perhaps in a different universe, there was Luv Ranjan’s Pyaar ka Punchnama too. But towards the end of the year came Rockstar—a film that was going to change the tides of conversation, especially what we knew of Imtiaz Ali as a filmmaker and Ranbir Kapoor as a performer.
In recent years, I don’t think there has been another filmmaker whose work has been as divisive as that of Imtiaz Ali, eliciting such polarising reactions from the audiences to confirm one thing—his cinema, whether we like it or not, is able to have a uniquely potent impact.
So much so that it gave birth to the ‘Imtiaz Ali Love Story’—a genre of its own—even when his stories were not always trying to be that of love. While many complain that Ali recycles the same story repeatedly, it is something that the filmmaker actually takes joy in doing. Ekko ek kahani, bas badle zamana, right?
Up until this point, Ranbir Kapoor's filmography had seen more flops than hits, except for huge successes such as Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani (2009) and Rajneeti (2010). Rockstar was the career-defining role that allowed him to prove his mettle as an actor.
For a generation, Rockstar proved to be the film that would open the doors to conversations about the gaze of the film and the portrayal of ‘toxic masculinity’ that perhaps we as an audience were not even consciously aware of. The film did have its share of criticism. Even today, people either consider Rockstar to be a life-changing film for them, or they hate it.
One of the key criticisms of the movie was undoubtedly the imbalance in the treatment of the male and the female characters. Kapoor’s Janardan Jakhar, or Jordan, was regarded as a toxic man-child character who goes on to achieve prominence and is the “Rockstar” of the film.
But, in my opinion, it is one of the few films that perhaps got the portrayal right. The story was set to be that of a tormented artist, obsessed with pain, who loses everything in the process; his music too.
When we are discussing toxic masculinity in films, the dialogue is incomplete without discussing the female characters. One of the greatest shortcomings of Rockstar was Nargis Fakhri’s casting as Heer. The imbalance becomes increasingly visible when we have on the other side a performer like Ranbir Kapoor. That took down the female character by a mile, to begin with. But I tried to convince myself that it was perhaps intentional, as the fragile and delicate flower-petal-of-a-person, Heer, represented an idea of love and not the person that the protagonist was in love with. She was just a concept that Jordon was obsessed with, and she served that purpose alone. It probably made sense because we see the film through Jordan.
However, why Rockstar works is that it truly is a tragedy and not a glorified love story. The film, by no means, is a happy ending. He continues to be an unhappy, self-destructive rebel without a cause. The theme of longing and separation is common in almost all Imtiaz Ali films. Even before she dies, Jordan has become an embodiment of Ranjha to his Heer. When I look back at the film now, Jordan really is the villain of the film that the filmmaker chooses not to reward.
Take in contrast, Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Kabir Singh. The female protagonist is pregnant with Kabir's child, who is clearly portrayed to be a toxic abusive man-child, but they eventually end up together whilst love ballads play in the background.
Imtiaz Ali, multiple times, has admitted that the film is not perfect and has defects. He also goes on to say in a couple of interviews that Heer and Jordan would definitely not be together; they never were in the film either. He also expressed that Jordan, today, would have quit music, leading a simple life somewhere in the mountains.
I consider Tamasha (2015) to be an evolved version of Rockstar. The visual language becomes stronger, the characters become fleshed out, but the debate that the film brings, remains the same. Why Tamasha works better for me is also because of the female protagonist of the film. Deepika Padukone as Tara is able to bring to the table what Fakhri probably couldn’t.
Here, Tara translates into an actual person and not just an idea of love. She is a character of her own. Who knows, the song Heer Toh Badi Sad Hai from Tamasha might actually be a homage to Heer from Rockstar. While criticism was plenty about Tara only being a ‘manic pixie dream girl’, I really don’t think that was the case, and it did take me a few years to fully see that. The story ends in a happy ending. Unlike Rockstar, love doesn’t destroy you but helps you realise your true potential.
Ranbir Kapoor, with these two films in the centre, has become the poster child for characters that are considered to be manchild-esque. Rockstar was followed by Barfi (2012) and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013). While Barfi garnered immense critical and commercial success, the latter—although a super-hit, culture-defining film—could not escape criticism for his character Kabir Thapar or Bunny.
The following years also saw what went on to become the biggest failures in Kapoor’s filmography—Besharam (2013), Roy and Bombay Velvet (2015). The year 2016 had Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, which according to me is the only character that the criticism would be warranted for. His character Ayan Sanger is Jordan Lite. In the guise of a heart-wrenching tale of unrequited love, the film is just about a guy who doesn’t understand consent and can’t handle rejection. The film, however, with good-looking people in good-looking locations, was a hit.
Might I suggest another film that was released the subsequent year—Meri Pyaari Bindu—which was just as beautiful as it was aching, and managed to capture unrequited love without Ranbir Kapoor’s sad piercing eyes singing into the camera.
If you haven’t noticed a pattern yet, allow me. We like Ranbir Kapoor playing the spoilt man-child on screen. I don't blame us, he does it so brilliantly. Rockstar and Tamasha continue to be his best performances even today. Jagga Jasoos (2017)—where he plays an earnest and sweet character—failed spectacularly at the box office. It was a massive risk—a musical that he co-produced—which he poured his heart into. When experiments such as these fail, it's almost like the audience discouraging the filmmakers and actors to try different things and take risks.
Brushing aside these Ranbir Kapoor characters with a mere man-child tag is perhaps not the best way to look at them. What they truly represent is coming-of-age, more so of the viewers rather than that of the characters in the film. We have grown with these films and we look at them differently with each passing year. What movie from a decade ago would not be problematic today? Cinema is supposed to be a document of its time and the kind of art accepted at the time. Sometimes, you are able to appreciate art only at a specific time in your life, probably because it resonates with you for that period. Sometimes, you find faults in stories that you grew up loving. Ranbir Kapoor’s characters have done that for an entire generation.
Ved from Tamasha and Bunny from YJHD symbolise the cultural gaps in time; they capture the dreams, frustrations, and aspirational freedom of our generation. And that is perhaps why we watch films—for a romanticised representation of our lives. Sometimes the characters are the best, most righteous versions of us, cooler than we can ever be; sometimes they are the flawed, shameful ones.