To thumb through Luv Ranjan’s filmography — from the sleeper hit Pyaar ka Punchnama (2011), the commercially unsuccessful Akaash Vani (2013), the carbon copy sequel Pyar ka Punchnama 2 (2015), and the off center blockbuster Sonu ke Titu ki Sweety (2018) — is to thumb through the increasing confidence of actor Kartik Aaryan. An everyman who suddenly ripped the fabric of Pyaar ka Punchnama with a five-minute rant about women being eternally unfulfilled (it went viral, with more than 12 million views YouTube so far), his characters would slither away from being relatable to being aspirational over the course of a decade. The hair that was always covering his forehead in his debut, sometimes combed to the side during dates with women, would become slicked back, electrocuted into standing on end, thickened by product and labour. Abs would mushroom. Muscles crested and troughed in definition. Tank tops would populate the wardrobe. The styling became slim fit. Initially Cafe Coffee Day, the dates would later take place at Costa or posh Italian restaurants. Ranjan’s films have made Aaryan one of Hindi cinema’s most popular actors. And while part of that popularity is Aaryan himself, part of it is also the men he has played on screen.
The frustration in Luv Ranjan’s male protagonists, and by extension in his writing, is that because they can’t understand women, women become cruel. And since the perspective is entirely male, we never get to see what it is that women think of men, and what they make of male inscrutability. After a while, his films tend to descend into a montage of inaccessibility. Each side is closed off to, and trying their best to outsmart, the other. A competition of despair.
Rather than love or romance, the one thing that brings men and women together is the desire for sex. Perhaps, it is the only thing that brings them together. A character in Pyaar Ka Punchnama 2 even wears a t-shirt over his perennially-flexed body — this is a film where you literally wear personality on your sleeve — that reads, “In the end, it’s all about s*x”. But this sex is never erotic or romantic. It’s just a vehicle for humour or drama. It’s as though eros is unimaginable.
Ranjan’s films lean so very seductively, bosoms baring, towards the hip-thrusting party anthem, but at their climax are kisses that have the chastity of a church song. Drained of their hormonal bluster, the kiss in these films is never erotic or enticing, but just a feckless pressing of lip to lip.
But this is strategic. If he brings in eros, the film will make a case for desire, for coupling, for heterosexuality. But heterosexuality is a problem, that much is clear. That heterosexuality cannot be avoided, too, is clear. So the solution isn’t homosexuality, but homosociality. Where men can discuss, freely, openly, their salaries — he makes Rs. 34,000 a month, the other makes Rs. 40,000, but he makes Rs. 3,00,000 — and not allow the differences in their salaries to affect their friendship. The one who earns most, pays most; simple. It is created as an idealised space where the ego recedes, where the ego finds no reason to express itself.
Both Pyaar Ka Punchnama and Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety end with the men back together, single, as friends, their friendship thickened by the women’s betrayal, with the former film literally having all of them in bed in one cuddle-sandwich. That while they need women, they want men — because only men can understand men. The only woman men need is their mother — the woman who loves “bina kuch pooche, bina kuch maange”, unconditionally. Pyaar Ka Punchnama 2 ends with all the boys eating food, a drink in hand, calling their mothers, telling them they love them, “Bas maa ka pyaar sachha hai; baaki sab bekaar hai.” That only a mother’s love is true, all else is waste. (Interestingly, in an interview with Film Companion, Ranjan said it was his mother who got him interested in storytelling.)
The dynamic between Ranjan’s fictional men hints at a profound idea that touches on social realities of masculine loneliness and masculine grouping — but for the discomfiting detail of this being built on the edifice of feminine, crocodile tears. Even when women start off as interesting stereotypes — like the woman who refuses to let the man pay for everything, always insisting on going dutch — it descends into a sloppy silhouette of a woman becoming a leech on her boyfriend’s bank account and emotional landscape. Women exist to entice men away from common sense.
Ranjan has often held up his film Akaash Vaani (2013) as a counter to the observation that his perspective is misogynist. If he and Kartik Aaryan were truly misogynists, how could they make a film on marital rape in which the woman finally stands up to her family, her husband, and goes back to her college sweetheart? And shouldn’t fingers be pointed at all those who didn’t show up for Akaash Vaani, but made the effort of watching — ironically or unironically — Luv Ranjan’s other films?
But the problem isn’t misogyny, as much as it is what men do with women who are always characterised as opaque (while men, in contrast, are transparent). The problem is that Ranjan’s cinema has, instead of trying to lessen the inscrutability of women, made it more pungent, more hazy, and commodified it into a genre that can, at best, be described as incel cinema. Cinema that asks and by asking comforts heterosexual men — do you really need women?
There are a lot of accusations you can, rightfully, fling at writer-director Luv Ranjan’s cinema. That he tends to see women as manipulative. That he tends to see men as losers, “chutiyas”, capable of effortlessly falling for the trap laid out by these decked-up, shrewd-eyed women. That even when he briefly turned saccharine and made a weepy Akaash Vani, femininity was seen as an opposition to masculinity, as something men just won’t get, can’t get. Why does she act the way she does, wonder the men while scratching their heads, itching their balls.
But the more grievous, egregious narrative crime is how he makes heterosexuality look so boring, like two genders constantly butting heads; like a wall talking to a spoon; neither understanding neither, neither capable of understanding neither.
And it is because heterosexuality looks so boring, the kiss so saltless and sexless, the love so fraught and fungible, that the happily ever after in his films are always men with men, buddies thumping each other’s back. When the woman in Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety tells a man “Dosti aur ladki mein hamesha ladki jeetti hai," poor thing, she doesn’t know she is in a Luv Ranjan universe. That between a girlfriend and a buddy — a bro and a hoe — it is always the bro who triumphs.