Opinion: Ayushmann Khurrana Films Normalize Deception in Relationships
Updated: Aug 15, 2020
For the self-styled social activist of Bollywood Ayushmann Khurrana is a bit too comfortable with deception and manipulation. His on-screen romantic relationships are strewn with lying, manipulation, gaslighting, guilt-tripping, love-bombing, victim blaming, triangulation and many other patterns of mental abuse. In too many of his films he keeps actively deceiving his partner and comes clean only when he is forced to do so. Even when his behaviour cannot be strictly classified as deception he still comes off as a pushy overbearing partner who has zero sense of boundaries or personal space. Almost all Bollywood films generally feature toxic relationship dynamics but Ayushmann's films keep on trying to justify these abuses in the name of "The guy has issues" and "I didn't want to lose you". They actively try to make us sympathize with the character and establish the fact that the deceptions are natural consequences of one's fears and insecurities when in fact they are not. Psychological issues should not serve as excuse for manipulation and films should not try to use the extent of deception as a measure of love's intensity. Let's try analyzing Ayushmann's on-screen romances film by film starting with the truly deceptive ones, then the mildly abusive ones, and finally the exceptions. I will start with his more recent films because supposedly at the beginning of your career it is okay to accept whatever role comes your way.
Truly Deceptive Relationships:
Bala fails to let Pari know of his baldness before marriage despite ample chances to do so. He is "trying" to tell Pari about it from the moment they decided to get married, yet is able to only contemplate it through the entire Pakki Baat (cultural equivalent of engagement) and the entire marriage preparations. Bala's whole family is complicit in his lie. Three days before the marriage he sends Pari a measly text and doesn't even try to confirm whether or not she got it. Not only does Bala have zero understanding of Pari as a person, the audience is expected to sympathize with his "Tumhe khona nahi chahte the" ("I didn't want to lose you") sentiments and ignore the fact that he and his family duped a girl into marrying him. It doesn't end there. After Pari leaves him and he visits her house Bala is focused more onto justifying his actions than presenting a sincere apology with an acknowledgement of the severity of his deception. He even asks "Kya paap kii hai humne?" ("What wrong have I done?") and argues "Itni si matter ke lie kahe raaita fela rahe ho tum?" (Why are you getting hyped up over such a tiny issue?"). These indiscretions could simply have been Bala's flaws and not the filmmakers had the film not portrayed Pari as a vane, insecure, looks-obsessed teenager whose only complaint with the situation is the baldness. Pari's mother, the only one concerned about the fraud has been turned into a caricature. Bala throws away stacks of newspapers from poor vendors into the water without paying them. The blackfaced (let's not start) feminist lawyer Latika takes up the defense of his fraud case ridiculing her commitment to both feminism and law. She conveniently forgives all the humiliations she has had to face her entire life due to Bala long before he apologizes. Throughout the annulment trial focus is maintained on the baldness and not the fraud, with Bala's hesitation to remove his wig supposedly serving as sufficient justification. With dialogues like "Zabardasti pyaar thodi karwaenge?" ("Will I force her to love me?") Bala gets to play the bigger man. Through characters like Latika's aunt and Pari's father the filmmakers keep on trying to minimize the deception.
Honestly, if Bala covers up his bathroom mirror in order to hide his own bald head he needs a therapist, not a wife. It would be great if filmmakers could stop exploiting mental health problems for their apparently comedic values.
Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017)
Where to start? Coercion, physical violence, triangulation, gaslighting, love bombing Bareilly Ki Barfi has it all. Chirag forces Pritam first into providing his name and photo for his book and then in participating in his scheme to win over Bitti. The filmmakers partake in this abuse by minimizing Pritam's fears and insecurities, and devaluing his struggles. Chirag then goes on to manipulate and lie to Bitti constantly while claiming to be in love with her. I won't cite instances of this abuse because that is basically the entire film. No point in explaining the obvious manipulation either. With song sequences highlighting Chirag's pain the film tries to make us sympathize with this blatantly antisocial character. The best part is that all this while Bitti had been carrying out her own scheme too to "test" Chirag's love, along with Pritam who turns out to be his biggest ally even after getting dunked in a barrel of water *facepalm*. Both Bitti's parents are magically okay with the deceptions and even celebrate it as labours of love in front of the entire wedding party. It is the perfect ode to the lyrics-"Tujhe goli maarun, jaan bachaaun; Goad sulaaun, neend udaaun; Kaat ke rakh doonga agar toone judne se roka."BTW all the wedding preparations were made and guests invited on the assumption that Chirag will obviously immediately marry Bitti. I'd rather watch Sharknado.
Dream Girl (2019)
A seminal waste of premise, Dream Girl portrays literally every character as a fool except for Karam. After stalking Mahi for quite some time he finally manages to get her affection. He keeps on lying to Mahi about his profession, his daily schedules and himself. Coming clean to her should not have been a very big deal since Karam's voice acting skills are pretty well-known and appreciated. Still he finds no reason to reveal his job to Mahi before things blow out of proportion and she is about to leave him. Mahi, who first noticed Karam for his progressive feminist views, forgives him on the spot. For a film that sports a big-ass speech on loneliness Dream Girl keeps on ridiculing the loneliness of its characters. Consequences like Mahinder getting beaten up by Toto's gang and Rajpal and his wife misunderstanding each other are merely comedic collateral damage. Karam stopping Mauji from hitting Mahi establishes him as a Mard (Man) regardless of his voice. I won't harp about everybody instantly forgiving Karam after his speech as there was nothing to forgive in the first place. It wasn't his fault that everyone started falling in love with a voice over the phone whom they pay to be nice to them. Let's not get into the repulsive caricatures of Muslims and feminists.
Nautanki Saala! (2013)
The precursor to Bareilly Ki Barfi this corny rom-com revolves around three love triangles gone wrong. Ram Parmar (RP for short) is a hopeless narcissist who believes he can solve anything with his magic words and charm (a theme present in almost every Ayushmann Khurrana character). He keeps lying to his girlfriend, his new love interest, his theatre producer and mostly to his "BFF" Mandar whom he saves from a suicide attempt. Not only does he never pause to reflect on how his actions would affect Mandar (you know, the guy who tried to hang himself), he even compromises with his theatre. The lies as expected get too many to handle and RP lands into a very untherapeutic therapist's chamber who advises him to simply apologize to everyone including himself. The words "Life me kabhi kabhi naa, bas ek sorry kaafi hai" ("Sometimes in life, just a sorry is enough") resonate in the background. Give me a break! The film laughs at Chitra's genuine concerns and through Nandini states that climbing onto a girl's balcony and ogling at her undressing is perfectly cool as long as there is Sachcha Pyaar (True Love). Nandini and Mandar forgive RP and plan a grand reunion even before RP had the chance to apologize or show the slightest bit of remorse. Sometimes I feel I am the crazy one.
Vicky Donor (2012)
Vicky Donor is a commendable attempt at exploring the struggles of infertile couples if we ignore the cringeworthy Bengali and Punjabi stereotypes and Chaddha's obsession with eugenics who declares "Aryan race ka sperm count is the best in the world" just before claiming "I am a man of science." Vicky conveniently forgets to tell Ashima that his real "business" is sperm donation and probably would have never told her had she not turned out to be infertile. Thankfully, in this film the girl actually gets pissed and leaves him, after which Vicky seems genuinely repentant. Ashima's father though actively engages in victim blaming which ironically becomes the words which finally lead to her considering giving Vicky a second chance. Ahsima's words "Baba was right, I was insecure" is plain irresponsible filmmaking, especially if you consider the fact that she has already gone through a divorce once. Ashima's forgiveness and acceptance seems to come from a sincere place of understanding making the reconciliation real enough. Although not a bad film in itself Vicky Donor starts off the pattern present in all the above mentioned films.
Andhadhun (2018) and Gulabo Sitabo (2020)
Although both Andhadhun and Gulabo Sitabo are steeped in deception and conflict, the stories require the characters to be so. The films never try to normalize or justify the characters' antisocial tendencies. While Andhadhun becomes an ode to the "survival of the fittest" ideology Gulabo Sitabo serves poetic justice to a greedy old man and his opportunistic tenants. Watch Andhadhun for the plot and Gulabo Sitabo for the direction.
Mildly Abusive Ones:
Another film where deception in the name of love is common practice from all the three lead characters. First Mohit and Mayera try to deceive Mayera's father V. K., then V. K. and Mohit unite to hunt for jobs behind Mayera's back, and finally after their breakup V. K. manipulates both Mohit and Mayera into revitalizing their love for each other. All three characters are equally annoying and in this film too (once again) the truth comes out only when the deceptions get too much to handle for the parties involved.
Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan (2020)
The films forays into multiple territories (homophobia, inter-caste marriage, scientific innovations, sibling rivalry, lookism) and fails at all of them. Focusing on the relationship dynamics we find Karthik to be an incredibly overbearing and pushy partner who prefers to live in an idealized dream world than the real one. He doesn't allow Aman his own space or time, tries to make his decisions for him, calls him a coward for not acting exactly like Kathik and barges into his family with zero regards to personal boundaries. The film is significant for featuring a major Bollywood star in a gay kissing scene, though this is exactly the kind of LGBTQ films that nobody needs or wants.
Bollywood films usually always sport generally sexist and abusive trends which get enhanced coming from so called socially conscious films. Before getting into the exceptions here are some other patterns that Ayushmann Khurrana films can do without-
· grand mess-ups
· extravagant song sequences
· Indian middle class stereotypes
· love at first sight
· obsessive ex or wannabe girlfriend
· slew of shallow stupid characters except for Ayushmann himself
· issues exaggerated to resemble psychological disorders
Films that do not follow this pattern:
Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015)
Dum Laga Ke Haisha is the most sincere of Ayushmann Khurrana's films which delivers on the comedy without relying on grand rambunctious mishaps or overused middle class family stereotypes. It effectively establishes the fact that Prem's real issues lie not with Sandhya's weight but with his own failings and low self-esteem. Both Prem and Sandhya are relatable characters and their interactions feel authentic. Their issues have been explored without turning them into severe mental disorders. Although the film does follow the Bollywood formula of spectacular victory in the final race it takes care to make the couple reconcile much before the actual win.
Shubh Mangal Savdhaan (2017)
Except for one scene where Mudit barges into the women's washroom stall to look for Sugandha when they haven't even got to know each other properly, Shubh Mangal Savdhaan is an honest take on erectile dysfunction. The film adequately captures Mudit's frustrations and realizes that sexual issues affect both parties involved. Sugandha's attempts at turning Mudit on by acting "sexy" and Mudit consoling her resonates with an emotional depth rarely seen in Bollywood films. Even though the film keeps going back to overused comedic tropes it is careful not to warp the central issue of the film. The ending is especially remarkable which understands that sexual or relationship issues do not get resolved magically but with time, understanding and mutual cooperation.
Badhaai Ho (2018)
An okay one-time watch which hovers in neutral territories neither disappointing nor impressing. Although the film could have dived deeper into the premise Badhaai Ho deserves points for never resorting to shallow entertainment. Neena Gupta and Sheeba Chaddha's performances and Ratheesh U. K.'s production design provides the film with a much needed elegance.
Meri Pyaari Bindu (2017)
A believable Forrest Gump who writes instead of running Abhimanyu is unduly obsessed with a toxic careless Bindu who likes to "enjoy" life to the fullest, often at the expense of others' emotions. The film doesn't try to mask Bindu's obvious selfish narcissistic nature although it doesn't explore it either. The entire film takes the tone of Abhimanyu's inner world who is quite content dreaming of an eternally unavailable Bindu. Not a film I would recommend, but it isn't especially harmful like Bala or Bareilly Ki Barfi either.
9 (69.2%) out of the 13 films listed here sport a pattern of emotional manipulation and deception, 7 (53.8%) of which try to normalize it. This kind of numbers cannot be attributed to chance factor only and is what can be called statistically significant. I have not included Article 15 (2019) and Hawaizaada (2015) in this post as I am yet to watch them. If you have noticed any other toxic patterns in these films, or the films of any other director or actor or writer please let me know in the comments.