Toxic masculinity is no longer unchallenged in Bollywood. The heroes of this genre, who once wore their stalker sensibilities in Dabangg style, have discovered Bharat and Kesari (please note the forthcoming releases of Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar). The man child embodied by Ranbir Kapoor probably made his very last appearance in Sanju, a misguided attempt to whitewash the king of all man-children, Sanjay Dutt. And the New Age Man who was as much a creature of post-liberalisation consumerism as he was of Hindutva inspired family values has just grown old, at least as old as Shah Rukh Khan.
There’s a welcome new experimentation with the masculine ethos that has taken its place, embodied by the ordinary man in touch with his weaknesses, usually played by Ayushmann Khurrana. There’s another sort of masculinity that is emerging on screen, and if the box office numbers are anything to go by, it is hitting the mark. The Urban Neanderthal loves his buddies more than his girlfriend, and his mother more than anyone else. Kartik Aaryan, a 28-year-old trained engineer, son of doctors from Gwalior, has played him successfully in at least four films, with Luka Chuppi being the latest.
Mixing deep-seated misogyny with latent homoeroticism, Aaryan has managed to claw his way up the greasepaint pole in Bollywood, even landing a spot on its unofficial pinnacle, Koffee With Karan, season 6, with his Luka Chuppi co-star Kriti Sanon; brand endorsements with Emami Fair and Handsome and Envy 1000; and hosting gigs at IIFA Awards in 2018 as well as the forthcoming Zee Cine Awards 2019. And if rumours are to be believed, a star child for a girlfriend.
And all this in the age of #MeToo, when male actors are tripping over themselves to be politically correct. Much of Kartik’s appeal lies in his being able to articulate the angst of the men left behind by the women’s movement. Men who cannot understand the new attitudes and the new empowerment that women flaunt and prefer to see them in the binaries that they grew up with — gold digger vs good girl, Sita vs slutty, and saint vs shrew. As Onir, a director who went beyond the traditionally defined roles for men in movies such as My Brother Nikhil and I Am, says: “It is easy to mock something men are increasingly insecure about. It’s the same narrative one finds on social media vis-a-vis women and the #MeToo movement.” He believes filmmakers should not endorse such regressive values even if it makes money — but perhaps that is the very reason Kartik is a success. As Subhash Ghai who directed him in Kaanchi: The Unbreakable says: “Usne meri naak rakhli. My film didn’t do well but he is a hardworking actor and deserved to be successful much earlier.”
In both Pyaar Ka Punchnama and its sequel, imaginatively titled Pyaar Ka Punchnama 2, Kartik Aaryan plays one of three boys who stick with each other through thick and thin, refusing to be divided by their girlfriends, who are characterised by their expensive tastes in shopping and vacationing. It is no spoiler to reveal that the boys remain committed to each other in the end, as the girls leave, even admitting that “Maa ka pyaar hi sacha pyaar hota hai (Only a mother’s love is true love)”. In a well-received monologue in Pyaar ka Punchnama, Kartik articulates the Urban Neanderthal’s view of women: “Problem hai ki wo ladki hai…Main bata raha hoon in ladkiyon ko koi khush nahin rakh sakta (The problem is that she is a woman and no one can keep a woman happy). A happy woman is a myth.” And this after the poor boyfriend has charmingly sacrificed everything for her — remembering her birthday, her dog’s birthday, her New Year, “jo kabhi tumhara bhi New Year tha (what was once your New Year too)”.
This ‘mard ko dard hota hai (men can feel pain)’ but only another mard can understand it, as in the relationship between Sonu (played by Kartik Aaryan again) and Titu in last year’s hit, Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety, directed by the man made famous by the Pyaar ka Punchnamas, Luv Ranjan. Kartik’s character spends the entire duration of the movie breaking up his flatmate and beloved friend Titu from Sweety whom he believes is interested only in his money. But as Sweety tells him: Dosti aur ladki main hamesha ladki jeetti hai (Between women and friendship, women always win).
The Urban Neanderthal is again in full flow in Luka Chuppi, with Kartik’s character Guddu Shukla very happy to be the star of a cable news channel in Mathura, who falls instantly in love with the ambitious daughter of the head of a Right-wing party, Sankriti Raksha Manch. He wants marriage, she just wants to live in. He lives quite happily in a joint family, she finds so much love and niceness suffocating. She pours the wine, he quietly drinks it.
The woman talks endlessly, demands too much, argues forever. As Kartik’s character says so gallantly in Pyaar ka Punchnama 2: “Inko sex ke baad bhi baat karni hoti hai. Meetha khane ke baad koi soup peeta hai kya? (Women want to talk even after sex. Does anyone drink soup after desserts?)” No woman is good enough for Kartik and Company’s Urban Neanderthals. Given a choice they’d rather spend the days with their best friends and if they have to go home at all, it is to their mothers.
Not surprisingly Kartik Aaryan will be reprising the ultimate male chauvinist’s fantasy, Sanjeev Kumar’s role in Pati Patni Aur Woh, playing Lucknow’s Chintu Tyagi, an “aashiqmizaaj pati“.
Editor’s note: Neanderthal has become a catch-all slang to mean regressive. But despite the bad press they receive, Neanderthals survived thousands of years and recent discoveries suggest that we may have misunderstood the species.