Cruel Camera

The perils of Ayushmann Khurrana’s woke cinema

In Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, Ayushmann Khurrana plays a gym trainer with a trans girlfriend, played by Vani Kapoor. For all their gestures at progressive politics, Khurrana’s “social-issue” films remain opportunistic and problematic. Courtesy Guy in the Sky Pictures
31 December, 2021

In his latest film, Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, Ayushmann Khurrana plays a muscular gym trainer with a trans girlfriend, played by Vani Kapoor. Soon after Kapoor’s character comes out to him, Khurranna’s character is asked by his friends about the couple’s sex life: “Kiya kahan se?”—Where did you do it from? He replies, condescendingly, “Jahan se sab karte hain”—Where everyone does it from. The construction of this joke, which is also a highlight of the film’s trailer, is undeniably demeaning—a play for laughs at the expense of the trans characters. The underlying transphobia is “corrected” by the end of the film, but that is meant to be a surprise. What the audience expects, and what is meant to pull crowds to the cinema, is the cruel punchline and all that it contains.

In Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, released in 2020, Khurrana plays the openly gay Kartik. The romantic comedy revolves around the struggles of Kartik and his partner, played by Jitendra Kumar, to have the latter’s family accept their love. The film was warmly received for its effort to bring a difficult subject into the mainstream and for mining entertainment from the ignorance of its straight characters. But while Khurranna was lauded for his performance on the screen, off it he fluffed his lines. “We are really proud that we are supporting the community,” he said at a press conference to promote the movie. “Our country is very progressive as it has legalised same-sex marriages.” The actor soon apologised on social media—with an image of himself waving the rainbow LGBTQ flag—for conflating India’s recent decriminalisation of homosexual intercourse with the legalisation of gay marriage, a step that it has yet to take.

On 30 November, shortly before Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui hit theatres, Khurrana shared a magazine cover on his Instagram page that showed him with his nails painted black and his eyes sporting a good amount of kohl. “Game Changer,” the headline read, and the actor added a caption of this own: “Gender Fluid.” Again, Khurrana did not quite hit the mark. For one thing, it is reductionist, if not offensive, for someone who has never exhibited a gender-fluid identity to claim it on the basis of just nail-polish and eye make-up. For another, there is a view that LGBTQ characters should be played by actors from the LGBTQ community—one that Khurrana has never cared to address in any of his gestures at progressive gender politics.

Saviours are not new to Hindi cinema, especially in the form of romanticised masculine heroes. The last decade, however, has seen the dominance of two distinct types of them: the strident nationalist and the small-time social reformer. While Akshay Kumar has emerged as the emblem of the former, Khurrana has quietly styled himself as the latter. His typical character is a likeable beta male, at ease in the milieu of small-town India, confronting small-minded prejudices often painted as quaint rather than toxic. Khurrana himself is a character actor, earnest yet unremarkable enough to not let any film become entirely about him. Kumar is the exact opposite: even in films with a reasonably weighty cast alongside him, Kumar’s character is always the genius, the man with the plan, his patriotism second to none. So devoutly has Kumar essayed this role that he has also delivered renditions of it beyond the screen, as a glittering creative ally to the Bharatiya Janata Party and its Hindu nationalism. No similar allegation can be levelled at Khurrana for what he does off-screen, but his brand of “social-issue” cinema has proven to be no less opportunistic than Kumar’s jingoistic genre—and ultimately, also problematic.