Why Haven’t We Had an Internet Boyfriend from Indian Cinema?

When it comes to stars in their 30s and older, the Indian entertainment scene is sorted. But where are Gen Z’s breakout heroes?
Designed by: hou-hsein
Designed by: hou-hsein

Internet Boyfriend (noun): A famous or semifamous male person whom your entire Twitter feed has a crush on at the same time. Often a newcomer who at least seems like a feminist. Arrived on the scene with a breakthrough project that made the world go 👀. Can be in a relationship, despite Internet Boyfriend status. Can’t be married.

(Source: Glamour)

At a time when trolling goes hand in hand with virality and algorithms do their best to flatten people into easily-categorised data points, the internet can feel like a divided and divisive place. Until, that is, lust steps in to unite doomscrollers and casual lurkers — as it did recently with Prime Video’s hit film The Idea of You. Starring Anne Hathaway and Nicholas Galitzine, the romance was watched for 714.2 million minutes between May 3 and May 9, making it the most-streamed film in America according to Variety. While Hathaway has received her share of praise for the film, the internet began swooning over Galitzine from the moment the trailer of The Idea of You dropped. The British actor’s breakout role was as Prince Henry in Red, White and Royal Blue (also available on Prime Video). However, it’s his performance as pop star Hayes Campbell in The Idea of You that has propelled him into an elite league of “internet boyfriends”. Other members of that select set include Timothée Chalamet, Paul Mescal, Jeremy Allen White, and the male leads of Bridgerton

Created by the legendary Shonda Rhimes, who has given American television some fabulous women protagonists and heroes like “McDreamy” from Grey’s Anatomy, Bridgerton is one of Netflix’s biggest global hits and for its audiences, the show is a gift that keeps giving. It has delivered a new dashing hero who manfully opens himself up to the female gaze with every consecutive season: Regé-Jean Page in the first, Jonathan Bailey in the second, and now we have Luke Newton, whose glow-up has left many a pulse fluttering in anticipation of “Polin” (it helps that co-star Nicola Coughlan, who plays Penelope Featherington, cheekily dropped into an interview that she and Newton were so, ahem, involved while filming a love scene that they didn’t hear the director calling cut. Breathe, reader, breathe. The first part of Bridgerton season 3 drops on Friday).     

Nicholas Galitzine as the boyband member of our dreams in The Idea of You
Nicholas Galitzine as the boyband member of our dreams in The Idea of You

Not that we’re complaining about the contributions made by these Western actors, but it begs a question: Why hasn’t there been an internet boyfriend from the Indian entertainment scene? Older actors from South Asia — like for example, Shah Rukh Khan, Fawad Khan, Ranveer Singh and R. Madhavan — have regularly broken the desi internet, but the record is less impressive when it comes to younger, upcoming actors. It’s tempting to point towards the less-than-stellar writing that characterises so much of present-day Indian entertainment, particularly when it comes to romantic films, but Hindi films from the Eighties and Nineties are proof that stardom can be born of truly dubious storytelling and regrettable romantic tropes. Despite a profusion of content, Indian entertainment hasn’t just failed to produce a crossover star, but also struggled to give its male newcomers cult-level fan following even within the desi and diaspora ecosystem.  

Casting director Mukesh Chhabra, who discovered stars like Sushant Singh Rajput and Rajkummar Rao, confessed no one came to mind when we asked him to name upcoming actors between the ages of 20 and 30, who have taken the industry and the internet by storm in recent times. “That’s a very tricky question you’re asking me,” he said. “Because right now I don’t know who that person is.” Casting director Romil Modi, whose most recent project was Laapataa Ladies (2023), was more forthcoming. He offered Ishaan Khattar, Abhay Verma, Agastya Nanda, Vedang Raina and Sparsh Shrivastav as candidates. “I think the era that we are in right now, talent precedes looks and the understanding of a chocolate boy/internet’s boyfriend has changed very, very much as well, especially due to the internet itself,” said Modi. 

Vedang Raina's Archies avatar caused quite a stir
Vedang Raina's Archies avatar caused quite a stir

Thirst Trap (noun) : A photograph (such as a selfie) or video shared for the purpose of attracting attention or desire; also: Someone or something that attracts attention or strong desire.

(Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

In September 2023, Merriam-Webster added “thirst trap” to its dictionary. Defining it as a “refined twist on selfie culture”, Merriam-Webster elaborated in a blog post that a thirst trap is “used to entice a response, usually in the form of praise, compliments, or more explicit expressions of ardent desire.” 

Just as the term “thirst trap” has been mainstreamed into language, the act of thirst-trapping has also become prevalent, and Indian brands as well as male celebrities are doing their best to cash in on this trend. Last month, cricket commentator Ravi Shastri put up photos of himself in a bathrobe on X (formerly Twitter) with captions like “I am hottie, I am naughty, I am sixtyyyy” and “Does this photo qualify as a thirst trap?” (The answer is no.) Speaking to the media before the release of Kho Gaye Hum Kahan, actor Adarsh Gourav said his chief motivation for doing the film was to be able to post thirst trap photos on Instagram. A recent campaign by Nykaa sees actor Aashim Gulati attempt to inaugurate “hot boy summer” by casting smouldering glances, winking at the camera, and chomping on a chilli. 

Chintan Rachchh, known and loved for Netflix's Class
Chintan Rachchh, known and loved for Netflix's Class

Fortunately for all concerned, there are better examples of desi thirst traps. Netflix has done its bit with shows like Class, which introduced audiences to Gurfateh Pirzada and Chintan Rachchh; and Mismatched, whose hero Rohit Saraf with his puppy-dog eyes has a mystifying hold over Gen Z. Dil Dosti Dilemma’s Kush Jotwani shares “post-workout showers” on Instagram in sharp contrast to the sweetly PG-13 hero he plays on the show (streaming on Prime Video). While April saw temperatures that made it the hottest summer on record, there was a very different kind of heat wave that made the rounds when actor Saif Ali Khan’s oldest son, Ibrahim Ali Khan Pataudi revived his Instagram account with photos for an ad campaign. While the recent photos show him chaste and (mostly) clothed, they’ve also reminded the desi internet of his first upload from 2020, which was distinctly spicier. Even though no one has even glimpsed Ibrahim as an actor, the virality of his photos raises questions about Chhabra and Modi’s argument that audiences are looking for more than visuals when hyping up celebrities on social media. 

Worthy as these young actors may be, few newcomers to the Hindi entertainment scene have commanded the kind of unanimous rapture that previous generations of heroes have enjoyed. The last set to command widespread fandom (and lust) included Aditya Roy Kapur, Varun Dhawan, Siddharth Malhotra, Ranveer Singh and Ranbir Kapoor. Kapoor’s towel from his debut film remains iconic. Countless fan edits are made even today as odes to Roy Kapur’s ‘tortured artist’ appeal in Aashiqui 2 (2013). Remember when we were firmly divided into Team Varun (Dhawan) or Team Siddharth (Malhotra) after the release of Student of The Year (2012)? 

Ibrahim Ali Khan's Instagram debut made waves
Ibrahim Ali Khan's Instagram debut made waves

Today, these heroes are all in their late 30s or 40s, which makes them significantly older than the average age of the Indian audience. A 2019 survey by Ormax Media found that a chunk of India’s movie-going audience (24%) — meaning those who watch films in theatres — is aged between 15 and 21 years. While there has been a steady stream of newer and younger women celebrities — from Kiara Advani to Kriti Sanon — they’re invariably paired with significantly older co-stars. In contrast, similar levels of stardom have eluded heroes who are in their 20s, which means a whole generation of young audiences are being nudged towards channelling their daddy issues into fandom as the objects of their affection are not from a similar age bracket, but decades older. We’re not being ageist. It’s wonderful that there are roles for older actors which don’t demand they masquerade as young adults who are barely out of college. However, for an industry to thrive, it’s important for new talent to get both opportunities and the spotlight. From an audience’s point of view, the shortage of young male newcomers suggests limited representation. 

Chhabra pointed to heightened competition, especially in streaming, as the reason for many actors being famous, but few being bona fide stars. “There are so many actors in this digital boom. There isn’t one single actor [that stands out], because everyone’s doing so well,” he said. Modi agreed, saying, “There is actually now an influx of such young incredible looking talents just waiting for the right opportunity, which I’m sure will come in time.” Chhabra also said that for an actor to become high profile and cross over to find new audiences, he needs mainstream projects that will act as launchpads. “The right kind of films need to be made, the right kind of scripts need to be written so we can launch people. If you don’t have a good script, how can you launch them?” said Chhabra, before admitting, “I'm still looking for that person.”

So are we. 

Related Stories

No stories found.
www.filmcompanion.in