Ranbir Kapoor and his Singular Softboi Charm
For multiple reasons, which include “shapely, waxed legs”, a “scanty towel” or the “feminine display” that was put on by Ranbir Kapoor in ‘Jab Se Tere Naina’ in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya (2007) — all terms used by Charu Gupta in the context of the song in Economic and Political Weekly — this song became my sexual awakening at age 11. Kapoor’s character was named Ranbir Raj, placing the weight of being the legendary actor-director Raj Kapoor’s descendant on Kapoor’s shoulders, but legacies felt secondary as all our attention zoned in on the towel-clad Ranbir as he danced, blushed and joyfully pranced around a room, gushing and singing about how his eyes met Sakina’s (Sonam Kapoor). His abs and chiselled face at generous display (apparently Kapoor was placed on a strict diet before the shoot of the song); flexing his back towards the audience as he interacts with Mona Lisa curtains in the bedroom, singing “Jab se deewana hua, tabse baigana hua (Since I fell madly for you, I don't have a grip on myself)”.
I, like much of the Hindi masala movie audience, outgrew the crush, but ‘Jab Se Tere Naina’s’ Ranbir standing over the window ledge, spreading the towel to his either side, without “apprehensions” (as Kapoor put it in Saawariya: In the Making), then pretending to tie it in the middle, only to take off the towel in a swift move, and place it around one shoulder as the camera zooms on his face with its wet, tousled hair — that has stayed with me with a vengeance. Both Ranbir the character and Kapoor the actor are keenly aware of the desirable terms in which he is presenting his body, as well as naked nod (forgive the pun) to his father’s Rishi Kapoor’s towel-dropping moment in his debut film, Bobby (1973), which was directed by Raj Kapoor. In terms of mood, the playfulness, complete with the wink, is sneakily reminiscent of Dev Anand. The scene in Saawariya is also an obvious homage to Kajol’s towel dance in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995), a reference Bhansali has acknowledged in the past, with the retort that we should have a man dancing in a towel in his bedroom as well.
Kapoor’s towel-clad love declaration in his private chambers is only one of the several iterations of the ‘shirtless man’ we have been subjected to, gleefully, in recent mainstream cinema. While millennial Bollywood had a profusion of songs flaunting shirtless heroes — some of the most iconic ones being Shah Rukh Khan’s ‘Dard-e-Disco’, Hrithik Roshan’s ‘Ek Pal Ka Jeena’ and Salman Khan’s ‘O o Jaane Jaana’ — in ‘Jab Se Tere Naina’, Kapoor’s lean physique did not evoke the same raw machismo.
Most of the other displays in mainstream Hindi cinema are part of the male protagonist’s quest to achieve masculine glory and reassert their gendered physicality and strength with a concerning amount of narcissistic vigour. The bulked-up torso is an endeavour of alpha male self-pleasure that borders on pornographic in the delight that it takes at unnaturally muscular bodies that glisten with as much testosterone as sweat. Veiny trunk-like forearms (Ghajini), prominent Kshatriya biceps (the Baahubali series), muscles threatening to explode out of a police uniform (Dabbang), shirtless bull fighting (Kalank), the bloodied bare upper body and half-naked brooding (Brothers), and more half-naked brooding (the Ek Villain series) — all these conform to a dominant idea of “maleness”. Many of these heroes have a backstory that allows for warmth and softness, but once the shirts come off, there is little room for playfulness. The body seeks to entice only those lusting for power, those who derive pleasure from the idea of domination.
Kapoor would also bulk up eventually, for Sanju (2018), his highest grossing film, in which he played a young Sanjay Dutt (who happens to be the son of his grandfather’s most memorable co-star, Nargis). Yet what appeared on screen was a portrait of vulnerability, rather than machismo; of youthful swagger broken by a system that sought to make an example of him.
Back in the Saawariya days, Kapoor credited his athletic frame to a high metabolism, presenting mid-2000s audiences with an apparently effortless muscularity at a time when the gym and wellness culture was beginning to gain popularity. “Making muscles and having a certain type of a body will make me boring after two years,” Kapoor had said to Pragya Tiwari in a 2011 interview while lounging on a mattress indoors, talking about his lack of interest in building a “star body”. “If I have a movie which requires me to be a certain way, then I will probably do it. Right now, I want to concentrate on stories of younger people.”
Kapoor’s body could be perceived as the physical archetype of the fit, privileged urban male who could easily afford gym memberships. For most of his 16-year career, the actor has chosen everyman-esque characters that contrast his own real-life privilege. Kapoor’s trademark coming-of-age narratives — often memed on the internet for being repetitive, sexist, experimental — generally reject bravado and exhibitions of physical strength, replacing them with self-reflection.
This might be changing. His last few films have seen him veering towards a more superhero-inspired persona, like in Shamshera (2022) and Brahmastra (2022). Conforming to the standard narrative of alpha machismo, the climax of Brahmastra includes an inferno that burns the shirt off Kapoor’s body (but not his trousers), to show us the actor’s torso as an exhibition of his indomitable power. Even the romantic comedy he chose to do, Luv Ranjan’s Tu Jhoothi Main Makkaar (2023), had Kapoor playing a more stereotypical and macho hero. At his most vulnerable, Kapoor’s Mickey stoically drives around the Delhi-Gurgaon stretch with just a glint of tear in his eye. There is a gendered restraint in this response, and also a complete absence of naivete. When Mickey is playful in Tu Jhoothi… it’s mostly in service of an elaborate con that is actually a bid to defeat Tinni (Shraddha Kapoor) at her own game.
A tiring kind of banality has descended upon the discourse around cis, heterosexual men’s limited understanding of what makes them sexually or romantically desirable. The persisting resonance ‘Jab Se Tere Naina’ has everything to do with Bhansali’s ability to yank out an actor’s potential to acquiesce to his vision, which has always sought out the cracks in the masculine armour. His heroes, even when they are the alpha-est of alphas, fall to their knees, felled by beauty and heartbreak. He’s one of those few filmmakers who traverses into bedrooms and inner lives to tap into what makes the viewer ache, lust, yearn or giggle. The fact that the visuals from a song from Kapoor’s debut film remains more memorable than, for example, the ballads from one his latest releases (even the one that pairs him with his real-life wife, Alia Bhatt) says a lot for how persuasive both Bhansali’s and Kapoor’s performance of that character were.
There are a few traces of the song’s soft masculinity in Kapoor’s other works, like Anurag Basus’s Barfi! (2012) for example, which was released to both critical and commercial acclaim. As the titular character, Barfi, Kapoor is goofy, with an innate impulse to love in a way that is accommodating and generous. Whether he is dilly-dallying with Shruti (Ileana D’ Cruz) in the lush forests of Darjeeling, or tenderly washing Jhilmil’s (Priyanka Chopra) feet, caked with mud, in a green paddy field, an extreme gentleness underscores these interactions. There are also the Ayan Mukerji collaborations, Wake Up Sid (2009), which had a lukewarm reception at the box office, but gained cult-like following over time, and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013), one of the biggest hits of his career. The protagonist of the former is a man-child coming to terms with the consequences of taking his privilege for granted. In the latter, Kapoor is an ambitious man who realises the repercussions of his dreams coming to fruition. Seen critically, both use women as vehicles of self-realisation, but when seen generously, a symbiotic relationship surfaces, where the man’s likability lies in how well he is able to endear himself to the woman.
It would be presumptuous to assume what kind of masculinities and muscularities the actor’s upcoming films will embody, but there certainly are signs that Kapoor is turning towards the hero of which he was once sceptical. His next film is Animal, directed by Sandeep Reddy Vanga, who also directed the controversial Kabir Singh (2019) and Arjun Reddy (2017). The poster of the movie shows the actor lighting his cigarette, carrying a bloodied axe under his arm, his body punctured and wounded at multiple places. The teaser, released earlier in the year, showed him on a murderous spree, presumably with the same axe.
It is possible that the lanky boy who was professing his love to his crush has been abandoned in pursuit of a bulked-up anti-hero hoping to survive in this purgatorial economic landscape, with a heterogenous combination of the self-reflection that has become characteristic of him, and the bravado he apparently wanted to reject. However, it would arguably be nicer to have (comparatively) fewer men wield axes to murder other men, even if they wear the same white towel and generously offer up their upper torso for our viewing as Kapoor does in the song 'Hua Main', from Animal, and have more of them plop on the swivel chair, and laugh and blush at the prospect of being in love, as the camera zooms on their helpless giggle while they contemplate their first crush.
It is also, perhaps, an indictment of our times, that these displays of surrender, softness and a vulnerable masculine exist in fleeting moments, away from our immediate grasp when we are crafting masculinity for our films. The towel dance, for better or worse, remains singular and we remain both grateful and poorer for this singularity.