In our discussions about Karan for his birthday, this movie keeps coming up. And it makes me want to go back and talk about it again, really digging in to how this film can tell us about Karan’s personal journey and how he sees himself.
This movie is about a man who falls in love for the first time with someone who doesn’t love him back, is inspired to go off and take that pain and turn it into amazing art, and then meets this person again and learns to accept their friendship love while still carrying the pain of wanting more and knowing it can never ever happen.
It’s Karan, right? He describes in his memoir the pain of the times he fell deeply in love with someone who doesn’t love him back. And we can see that in his art, in this amazing flourishing of stories about unrequited love, escaping into perfect beauty onscreen to get away from his unhappiness off screen. And we can see where he is today, valuing his half-love friendships for what they are. That’s a sad ending though, just as ADHM has a sad half-ending, and I hope Karan’s story doesn’t end in the same place he leaves Ranbir on film.
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is criticized, and rightly so, for certain flaws in the narrative. One is Ranbir’s overall sense that Anushka “owes” him love. Another is the way Anushka is dismissed by being killed at the end. And the third is that Ranbir ends the film in a bad place, seemingly still in love with her and not making any effort to get past that. I think all of these “flaws” come about because this is a queer love story that is playing it straight, make it into the film it is intended to be, more closely match the emotions Karan feels inside and tried to present onscreen, and it all makes sense.
Anushka “owing” Ranbir love plays into established gender dynamics. I truly don’t think that is what Karan wanted to say, that a woman owes love back. I think he is getting at what he has felt towards other men, that if he loves them THAT MUCH, how can they not feel anything in return? How can his love not inspire something from them?
Especially when they say they do love him, act as though they do love him, but then say it is just “friendship” love. I think that’s something a lot of people have felt, this overwhelming love and in return only friendship. This sense that it can’t be right, there must be some magical something they could do to turn it around. But for a man in Karan’s particular situation, that is exacerbated so much. For one thing, Indian culture has an acceptance for extremely close loving male-male friendships. That’s a good thing, in general, but while in America a man being willing to cross traditional gender roles in order to express love for a male would mean that his love is so overwhelming he cannot escape it, in India it means far less. I am sure Karan has many male friends who love him truly, but are not “in love” with him. And that closeness they feel, the talking every day and sharing their lives and holding hands and hugging kind of closeness, that is confusing for him. He doesn’t feel his friends “owe” him love because he is a man, but because it feels like they do love him, and he loves them so much, how can it not happen?
And then there is the end of the romance, Anushka’s death. I think this was a terrible decision, but I don’t think it was Anushka’s “punishment” for not loving the hero. I think it was a script decision to get to the point Karan wanted for the relationship. He wanted it to be clear that Anushka would never, ever, at any point, return Ranbir’s feelings. And for Ranbir to accept that reality and acknowledge that just her friendship love had value. He had to bring their friendship to a crisis point, and then resolve it in a way that leaves the audience sure they can never be together. Giving Anushka cancer and killing her did that. But the “real” story Karan wanted to tell, those same emotions could come about simply by accepting that your friend, who loves you and who you love, is straight. He will never return your feelings, it is not in him to return them. He loves you enough to walk away if you ask him to, and you have to decide if you love him enough to be able to enjoy the friendship and not ask for more.
That “loving you enough to walk away” is such a beautiful concept. In ADHM, he conveys it through having Anushka be divorced, sick, and alone, but still not reaching out to Ranbir because he asked her not to. In reality, this could be a friend of Karan’s who doesn’t reach out even when he is out of a job and needs work, or his parents die, or anything else bad happens, because he knows it is bad for Karan. The more important point is that if this was a gay-straight love story, walking away is a remarkable gesture of respecting the truth of Karan’s feelings without returning them. In most cultures, maybe every culture, the idea of a gay person being in love with a straight person is played for laughs. Ha-ha, so-and-so has a crush on their friend and sometimes says funny things revealing it. In India, queerness can be seen as perversion, as something “wrong” with you. The story Karan is telling here is “I am straight and can’t love you that way. But I believe you are in love with me, true love. And I believe that it is wrong for me to enjoy this friendship when it is hurting you that much. So I will sacrifice my friendship love for you in honor of your real love for me. I’m not laughing at your feelings and I’m not afraid of your feelings, I am empathizing with them”.
Look at ADHM versus KKHH. In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kajol never told Shahrukh how she felt. And when she wanted to go away, to try to forget him, he tried as hard as he could to stop her because her friendship meant that much to him. In ADHM, Ranbir tells Anushka how he is feeling and asks her not to seek him out. And she doesn’t. That’s more love than Shahrukh showed for Kajol in KKHH. It’s one thing to say “I love you so much I won’t let you leave me”, it’s something else to say “I love you so much, I will break myself away from you for your own good”.
What breaks my heart for Karan is the end of the film. I think the end is flawed too, but I think it is flawed because Karan himself still sees the world and his life in a really wrong way. He ends with Anushka dead, as totally out of Ranbir’s life as if she was a straight man and he a gay man in love with her. There is no possibility for the audience to take a lesson of “oh well, give it time, they will get together”. It is just not happening, ever. Ranbir has gone on a journey from realizing he is in love with his friend, to fighting and denial that she will never love him back, to acceptance of her true friendship love as a valuable thing even if it isn’t what he wants. And then he stops. That is it, the rest of his life will be spent missing this person he can never be with.
That is, truly, so horrible! And I think that is where Karan must be in his head right now. He realized he was in love with his best friend, he looked for clues and hoped the feelings were returned, he confessed them and was rejected, the friend walked away out of love for him and the pain it was causing, they got back together, they separated, over and over. And finally he understood that he would rather have this friendship love than nothing at all. And that’s it! He is a sad man who loves someone who can’t love him back that way, and that is the most he will ever hope for in life.
I don’t want that for my Karan! I don’t want him to obsess over the KKHH fantasy either, that someday his friend will return and love him back. I am glad he played with the KANK idea and rejected it, that he should marry someone “sensible” without love, he saw the disaster that would bring with it in future. But ADHM can’t be the end point, he can’t stop at “I will nurture my broken heart forever”. I want him to move on, to see that he has to let go of the unrequited love, that there can be someone else out there for him who he can truly love and be with and who will love him back. I want him to return to KHNH, the idea there that you can have a true real powerful love, and also a totally different kind of love, and they both have value.
ADHM feels messy and overly emotional, and with a hero who is shockingly immature and selfish. But I think that is what it is supposed to be, this is Karan’s most personal film, showing us the messed up misery that is in his heart. And if we change the hero from a privileged wealthy straight man, to an overweight self-hating young gay man in a homophobic culture, it makes so much more sense.