The bad boy is a good trope. Compelling, an airtight construance and a cliché that resonates across genders, it is a knitted commentary of absurd justifications of impunity by horrible men, and of the sexist imposition women have to navigate of being moral harbingers. This patriarchal context might frustrate due to its paradoxical run — and our pop culture is certainly abundant with narratives that seem to flit between deciding whether these are about women’s agency, or their conformity — but it's still hard not to turn into a puddle when faced with Varun (Ranveer Singh) from Lootera (2013) or Jordan aka Janardan Jakhar (Ranbir Kapoor) from Rockstar (2011). These two heroes, though distinctly different in the tonalities of their masculinity, are cut out of the same patriarchal cloth. A Varun, arguably, is only one substandard lecture on heartbreak and a few concerts away from Jordan.
When Varun willingly concedes to the law enforcement waiting outside Pakhi’s (Sonakshi Sinha) Darjeeling residence, to be subjected to a fatal bullet at the end of Lootera; and when Jordan from Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar (2011), in a self-sadistic bid to penalise himself, opens himself up to a drubbing in a European country, a dejected subtext rears its shrivelled head. It is the tragedy of bad
men boys, who are seduced by their quests of notoriety, only to expel the contexts around their pursuits to such a vast degree that the reverberations are discerned only after the graspable chance at romantic love slips.
Rockstar was a semi-hit which cemented Kapoor’s standing as an artist who takes his craft seriously. Its hero is a man lusting uncritically for a distinctive greatness for his music. In what is a prickly cliche, Janardan is suggested by a mentor/friend figure to pursue a heartbreak so that the affliction can inform the authenticity of the art he creates. The anguish from the said heartbreak, resulting from a fleeting dalliance with a girl named Heer (Nargis Fakhri), propels Jordan on a self-destructive streak. By carving out a singular space for himself as a musical artist (at this point, he becomes ‘Jordan’), he has brought upon himself the cruel indictment of seclusion. Suspended in the toxic pull and tug of heartbreak and infamy, he can only create a chopped relationship with the world where vexation surfaces in bursts.
Jordan is momentarily assuaged when he and Heer connect. It neatly falls into the bad-boy-finds-redemption-in-romance trope. But in a ruthless twist, Heer dies after a pregnancy which results from their coupling. We are privy to a cynical series of montages of Jordan’s concerts after Heer’s death — he has been wretchedly boxed by his own ambition, with the bad boy persona dystopically folded into his ‘brand’ as a star.
Jordan screams indiscriminately at the security guards protecting his concert venue, at the fans who flout boundaries, at past friends who only want to take pictures with him because of his celebrity. Jordan sings, in a crescendo, about generic angst against systemic structures with a barrage of charged men at his concert with whom the lyrics manically resonate (these include a dig at climate activists who do not see him as part of nature). Jordan physically assaults the paparazzi who compound the status of his fame, of his alienation.
Varun in Lootera, a commercial flop but one that enjoys a cult-like following, provides a softer contrast to this indiscriminately raging testosterone energy. The film follows his story as he, a conman, and a fellow colleague traverse into a landlord’s (Barun Chanda) haveli to steal precious artefacts. During this long charade, Varun bonds with Pakhi, the landlord’s daughter, romantically, but ultimately betrays both Pakhi and her father when he follows through with his original agenda. In the second half of the film, we have him on the run from the police, but locating himself again at the chronically sick Pakhi’s doorstep in Darjeeling. After accidentally killing his colleague while he was surrounded by the officers of the law, and learning that Pakhi’s father passed away due to a heart attack — the insinuation being Varun’s betrayal had a disproportionate bearing on the older man — Varun surrenders to the police. The last scene has him on his knees, as a bullet is fatally struck at his chest.
Varun indicates a more sober notion of the bad boy. He is restrained in his questionable exertions, calculatedly dispersing his gaze at the haveli he intends to loot; his voice barely above an adequate decibel level. He tells Pakhi that barring her, everyone else in his life has only used him (he uses the word “istemaal”), but it was his and Pakhi’s romantic dynamic that made him feel that his worth came from beyond his usefulness. Varun melancholically surrenders to the untenable confines of love for the woman who loses her father, and a chunk of their wealth due to him, with softer, atmospheric ballads enunciating those inner swarmings. Later, he lashes out at his past lover, Pakhi, for her inability to latch onto the dissonance underpinning his actions.
Not to draw an equivalence between the anger of the two, but there’s a noteworthy contrast between Varun’s outburst and Jordan’s anger. The latter borders on a dangerous grade, always on the verge of spilling out. It is lavishly inflicted upon those who are never made privy to his interiorities, and childishly channelled towards the world, rather than taken upon as an invitation to investigate the self more closely. Varun, on the other hand, stuffs his heartbreak, and guilt, within. An anti-Jordan, you could say.
Jordan, with his sustained rage, is only a stone’s throw away from Kabir Singh and Arjun Reddy territory. These men, some greyer than others, are chiselled within an ecosystem that dangerously leaks the extent to which they can revel in their impunity. V. Geetha, in her seminal 2013 Economic and Political Weekly essay on the issue of impunity wrote: “There is a complicity here, which is as much about our shared hatred and contempt for marginal people, as it is about the unjust powers that are parcelled out, and yet in hold in common view in this instance by the state and civil society”.
How these filmmakers engage with this bad-boy-finds-redemption-in-romance trope, can at least serve us an inkling of the allegiance to the accountability they imagine for these men. Motwane’s preoccupation, clearly, leans towards internalising the consequences of their delinquency, and then taking a self-punishing approach. Ali’s preoccupation is not to imagine accountability as much as to pronounce the tragedy of a celebrity reduced to a money-spinning product. Between the two, a Pakhi and a Heer, negotiate for different variations of agency. In both romances, one half of a couple dies, and a bittersweet, hopeful buoyancy is only true in one of the cases.