Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Karan’s Most Explicitly Queer Romance?

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?

This definitely isn’t just a male-male friendship thing, DCH did a great job showing how it can play out male-female too. Dimple was not in a place to feel what Akshaye wanted her to feel, but she could still love him. Relationships are complicated, sometimes friendships are next door to romantic love, but it just isn’t there to cross them over. However, from what Karan has said about his life, he seems to be a person who inspires great love in his male friends, but just not the romantic love he wants, over and over and over again.

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.

Karan Johar: Shah Rukh Khan's character in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was ...
Just to be clear, I don’t think Shahrukh is one of those “unrequited loves”, at least not in the same way. Karan in his memoir says that is not true, and he finds it offensive when people say it is, Shahrukh is like a brother to him. But I also think Karan wishes he were Shahrukh, or anyone who is attractive and confident and (most of all) happily in a long term relationship. That’s what I see in this photo, Karan wishing he were handsome and confident and loved like that.

26 thoughts on “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Karan’s Most Explicitly Queer Romance?

  1. Wow Margaret, you are such an amazing ally! How many times have I come across this concept in the queer context. That: You won’t get over her if you don’t put some real distance between you. And if she’s a real friend, she’ll understand.

    Somehow I don’t really think that’s all that common in the straight world. (Can a man and a woman really not be friends?) And yet you get it. Thank you for that.

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    • What a nice compliment! Thank you! Also, have you read Strangers in Paradise? Amazing graphic novel series, and really grapples with that complicated emotion of being in love with your best friend and frustrated. Only with a happy ending (eventually).

      I was thinking while writing this about the one “straight” story I have heard that was almost the exact same thing. Only with the emotions at like 2 instead of a 10. Man and woman were friends for a couple months, she told him she liked him, he didn’t feel the same way, she checked again a couple weeks later to confirm since he seemed to like hanging out with her so much, he said still no, she backed off of the friendship. And I heard this whole thing just as the woman’s casual co-worker, it wasn’t even a painful secret she was keeping to herself. I guess without all the fear and secrecy and self-doubt, you can just have the conversation right away and avoid getting into such a terrible tangle. Being the social norm is so much easier!

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  2. If only this WAS a queer love story! I am already feeling for the characters as you’ve written, whereas I felt nothing for Ranbir. I had no sympathy for him right from the beginning, the way he is written, the film didn’t work for me for all the reasons you mentioned. I think whereas his other films work just as they’re presented, but can also be read in a different context which is equally interesting, ADHM as it is presented highlights all the negative aspects of one-sided love. Even SRK’s speech, making one-sided love sound like a noble, sacrificial thing didn’t sit well with me.

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    • Yes, agree! I think this is Karan’s most personal film, which is why the story just doesn’t work told “straight” the way his other movies do. He didn’t fudge with the script to give it a happy ending, or remove the messier emotions, it’s just him onscreen. Only, the straight version which makes no sense.

      On Tue, May 26, 2020 at 7:22 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. And who is Aish in this. When Shah says “unrequited love is a beautiful thing. It’s yours alone.” Is Karan talking to himself? I think this analysis is spot on and I do so wish Karan would find his happy ending in real life. I’ve always thought his mother is his main obstacle. Mpollak

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    • Oh right, I forgot about Aish! I guess she is an amalgamation of all the times Karan tried sex without love (casual one night stands, call boy, and the relationship he was in without being in love). There’s nothing wrong with her, and for someone else that relationship might be enough, but something is missing for him.

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  4. But but…in Kal Ho Na Ho the true love was still the impossible love, between Preity and “broken” Shah Rukh. Are you seeing Karan as Preity in this equation, where he gives up the impossible love and ends up happily married with someone who loves him and whom he loves at least as a friend and later as a partner? I would have seen him as the “broken” character whose love is so powerful it changes everyone around him, but he just gets to cry at someone else’s wedding. I feel like they way we see Preity and Saif in the end is completely through Shah Rukh’s eyes. They’ll support each other and take care of each other, but it’s still tragic because it’s not the true love that Shah Rukh and Preity feel for one another.

    To your question about whether there are straight love/friendship stories that end with breaking the friendship because it’s too painful for one of the people in it, I would say definitely yes, I have a version of that with one of my exes. We were friends for a few years after we broke up, but it wasn’t sustainable because his feelings were so strong. Not entitlement, just not able to understand why it didn’t go both ways. This persistent “why” that has no answer because it’s not a thing you can reason with.

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    • I always saw Karan as Preity! And I suspect he did as well, for one thing he wanted to cast Kareena in that role, and he’s talked about how Kareena in K3G was him. But, on the other hand, I think Karan’s films may reveal more about himself than even he sees. The passionate love that can never be, I think Karan sees himself as Preity there. Especially with her being uninterested in love before then, family struggles, hard life, and then this passion comes like a bolt out of the blue, but just can’t quite work. However, I think you are on to something with Karan as Shahrukh. I think that is how he sees Shahrukh in his life, not the passionate love part, but the guy who makes everyone happy. But I also think that is how Karan acts, like that is what he tries to be, and somehow on a subconscious level the feeling of being on the outside looking in at life came through in how he shows Shahrukh’s character, especially in the last twenty minutes or so.

      On Tue, May 26, 2020 at 11:46 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • When I was watching scenes from KHNH the other night, I was imagining Kareena instead of Preity, and she would have been great in that role.

        I can see Shah Rukh being Shah Rukh, though it seems kind of dark then that he kills him off.

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        • Come to think of it, he kills off Anushka too, in ADHM. Maybe in both cases it means “removing them forever as a possibility in my life”?

          On Wed, May 27, 2020 at 8:03 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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        • Also, isn’t it nice to have a community where you can say things like “when I was watching scenes from KHNH the other night” and we all nod and go “yes, of course, that is something that is totally normal to do on a regular basis”?

          Liked by 2 people

  5. I was not unhappy with the ending of this film. If she wasn’t going to pretend to love him while she was dying, had she lived she really would never, have ever, loved him. Hard to make that point without the death. I liked this film, but I watch Hindi films for a zest, vivacity, thrill of living that I don’t find in other films. This film did not have that zest. I felt like I was watching an American movie in Hindi.

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    • Isn’t it funny that Karan made this movie and Student of the Year back to back? Like he had to get all the crazy fun out of his system with SOTY, before he could settle down and make this Serious film.

      On Wed, May 27, 2020 at 1:33 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  6. “He ends with Anushka dead, as totally out of Ranbir’s life”

    In my opinion, it still sucks and the movie would be so much better if Anushka met some other guy and moved with her life, this time being happy. In that way, Ranbir would be forced to admit she will never be his, and maybe move also? If she is dead he can pretend there could be a chance. Besides it’s all too “if I can’t have her, nobody will have her”, and it’s not a good way to react.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh yeah, I think it’s a bad ending too! I just don’t think it is “punishment” the way it is sometimes described. I think it was a decision made to get to the point of “she will never love him”, not that they wanted her to die. If she had fallen in love and got married again, then there would be that “but wait, she married before and it didn’t work out, maybe….” lingering doubt for the audience. You know what would have worked? Make her gay! Have her explain to Ranbir that she realized why her marriage didn’t work out, and why she doesn’t love him, it is because she was trying to be something she isn’t, she is actually gay. And then she could get with Alia’s character from her cameo appearance, and Ranbir would have to understand that it could never be and decide if he could live with that. Yes, I like that ending.

      On Wed, May 27, 2020 at 8:26 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I don’t know..For me both killing her or making her gay is helping Ranbir to feel good about himself, treating him like a little child, who we don’t want to hurt. He is an adult, and he must understand that no means no, and he can’t always have what he wants. He should deal with it as we all do.

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        • So just have her divorce Fawad and be sad and single, but still not interested in him? Until he finally realizes that is okay? I feel like all their interactions towards the end are saying the right thing, the big fights and stuff, just with Cancer over all kind of spoiling things.

          On Wed, May 27, 2020 at 9:26 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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        • I love your write up of this and agree with you that this was allegory of Karan’s love life.

          But I still can’t help but hate the ending. I would be fine with Anushka getting married again, and I would also be fine with her just continuing to move on with her life and dating. It was so clear to me that she doesn’t have romantic feelings for Ranbir.The audiance will believe she will never love him, once Ranbir (Karan) realizes that she will never love him. Or even if he is still hopeful, he comes to terms with it because she said so. I just think killing her in the end was a cop-out. Anushka is dead for what? Ranbir’s sake. So, Ranbir can finally believe what she has been saying all along and then to continue being in love and use the tragedy toward his music and success. It felt a little bit like fantasy-fullfillment of all the times Karan’s love has been unreceiprocated, which makes be sad in real life, but still not happy about the ending of the movie.

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          • Maybe this film is a sign of Karan’s own work-in-progress? He can’t really believe, in his heart, that these relationships have no hope. Not so long as the other person is alive.

            On Wed, May 27, 2020 at 9:35 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Yeah, I absolutely think that is the case. Which, again in real life makes me sad, but just annoys me in the movie.

            Also, regarding your other comment to Angie, I don’t think single = sad. Ranbir can still be her friend or not, up to him. Anushka could have an hopeful ending. And, to me, I think its exactly what you said, I am fine with the fights and the movie was saying all the right things. I think that’s why the cancer and and dying are so much more annoying and ruin the whole thing for me. Well I am hoping this pandemic has put Thakt on hold indefinately and Karan instead directs another big family romance that shows his progress and happiness post children.

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          • Looking back on the film, the progress of their fights after they get back together is just right. First the joy of rediscovering this friendship, especially after both going through such a hard time without it. Then the increasing pressure Ranbir puts on her for romance, and Anushka gently pushing back. Finally him going for a hug that is one line too far, and then this big fight over “what does it hurt if I want this one little thing from you? If it doesn’t mean anything to you, why should you even mind? You say you love me as a friend, but you are hurting me!” And the resolution of him fully accepting his responsibility for his emotions and convincing her that he will be happy with only friendship forever. Only Karan used the cancer to drive up the drama of it all, and then killed her.

            Maybe he could have made it a less fatal cancer? There are loads of those nowadays. Like, if she had a good 60-70% survival rate after 5 years, but still was really sick right now and needed a caregiver, and it was a little scarey, and encouraged the drama and hard conversations to start up. And then we could have had a happy ending of showing them going back to Paris as friends, with her hair starting to grow back and treatment over.

            On Wed, May 27, 2020 at 10:20 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • I would have LOVED that ending. It means Ranbir realizes she is never going to love him romantically, but they still love each other as friends, and that love is equally important. It would mean he would get over himself and be there for her unconditionally, as a friend. It would show growth and care, and pure love. If only, Karan would consult you in the future!

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          • YES! Karan can’t end any of his movies, he needs me there just to finish off the last bits.

            On Wed, May 27, 2020 at 10:43 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  7. I can definitely get behind your take on a queer romance, and how it would have made the film more interesting. I still think I would have had the same problems with it though, “Ranbir’s” treatment of “Anushka” and the ending, even if it was gay.

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    • What if (and I’m just spitballing here), we got some real sense of Ranbir’s damage thanks to how society treats him? Like, what if we started by seeing his father coldly reject him because of his queerness? So we have this backstory of Ranbir being wealthy but lost, not really believing in love. He’s with a boyfriend who abuses him and takes his money because he thinks that is all he deserves. “Anushka” befriends him and saves him from the boyfriend. That makes him start feeling like he is loved and belongs for the first time, and all of that goes into why he is so obsessed with Anushka and unable to move on. Ending of course would be different, you don’t need death to explain an impossible relationship when one person is gay and one person is straight. But Ranbir’s whole self-pitying struggle I would find so much more sympathetic if it came from a self-hating gay man who had never known love or believed himself worthy of love, versus from a cisgender rich dude.

      On Wed, May 27, 2020 at 4:13 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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