What Ayushmann Khurrana’s Dream Girl Gets Right About Modern Masculinity

Bollywood

What Ayushmann Khurrana’s Dream Girl Gets Right About Modern Masculinity

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

There’s a scene in the otherwise disappointing Dream Girl where Karam (Ayushmann Khurrana), the film’s lead, along with his best friend Smiley (Manjot Singh), observes his long-widowed father (Annu Kapoor) sleeping alone in the hall. They marvel at his ability to have lived without companionship for most of his life, not resorting to the comforts of technology, even. It is a fleeting moment of tenderness in a slapdash movie that otherwise reduces loneliness to a gimmicky afterthought. In the film, the loneliness of men emerges as a site of great anxiety that is sublimated through comedy. 

Set in Mathura, Dream Girl is about Karam – a young man, so desperate for a job that he pretends to be a phone sex operator called Pooja – becoming the titular “dream girl” for men in and out of his life. Given that it is a heteronormative Bollywood film that cannot accommodate sexual interaction between men, emotional release becomes a way of articulating their relationships. But by accepting emotional support as a part of male social dynamics, the film does something new: it registers demands for masculinity to develop emotional literacy. Stock characters from the “Life Cycle of the Indian Male” – the callow oat-sower, the virgin bumpkin, the henpecked husband, the widowed father – make an appearance in Dream Girl.

dream-girl-aayushman-khurrana

In Dream Girl, the central romance is so inconsequential that the couple is engaged before the interval, signalling that this is really a film about the men.

Pen Marudhar Entertainment

Prima facie, the movie’s politics are not particularly progressive: female characters have little to do, a woman’s frustration with patriarchal romantic culture and possible bisexuality is reduced to jokes about “misandry,” and mardangi is ultimately invoked as a sheath. But perhaps these flaws are minor in a year that saw its most successful film glorify a hero who embodied the worst excesses of patriarchal braggadocio. In Kabir Singh, the titular Kabir is repressed, rageful, and indifferent to the feelings of others, most gallingly, his supposed love interest. In Dream Girl, the central romance is so inconsequential that the couple is engaged before the interval, signalling that this is really a film about the men. That’s not necessarily the worst thing: when male loneliness is played for laughs, it is underlined with a nervousness about the crisis of masculinity. The burden of bank loans compels Karam to take up this job – unemployment is emasculating and doing women’s work only marginally less so. In the context of a precarious financial situation, debt and insecurity are key motors for the queering of roles. It’s against this backdrop that Dream Girl’s portrayal of men and their relationships with each other makes sense. 

How do men cope with loneliness in the company of other men? What is a model of manly bonding that is based on being a patient listener? The comically bad verse of a maritally frustrated, shayar manqué constable (Vijay Raaz) gives us a clue: Shayari is the OG language of male melancholia. It entails the expression of intense emotions, often about loneliness transmitted orally or scriptorially to an audience or readership of other men. And in the film, it is the male phone sex operator masquerading as a woman who lends an ear to his execrable poetry. Just like how in shayari, the gender of the lover and the beloved is ambiguous, in this case, the blanket of technology allows for a similar queering: It’s as though men can only open up to each other if one of them “performs” femininity. In Dream Girl, Karam’s womanly voice becomes a mediator, a site of male fantasies about intimacy and homosociality; the telephone line crackles with the romance of male confidence. Unwittingly, callers begin to fall in love and glimpse an end to their loneliness (an attempted suicide indicates the strength of this passion).

In Dream Girl, Karam’s womanly voice becomes a mediator, a site of male fantasies about intimacy and homosociality.

This yearning for an attentive listener is part of the quest for alleviating loneliness, a desire for being not just seen but paid attention to. Historically, men have unburdened and women have listened. In Dream Girl, emotional availability – coded as feminine – are at a premium, attainable only by running up huge bills on the phone to a shady call centre. The commodification of care and companionship is hardly a new phenomenon. In the era of #MeToo, in which a term like “toxic masculinity” dominates interpersonal dynamics and an acknowledgement of women’s unwaged labour is becoming mainstream, men are increasingly expected to “share the load”. Unintentionally or not, Dream Girl captures this expectation, not least by casting an actor like Khurrana who has made a career out of playing a Bollywood hero comfortable with mocking traditional manhood. 

For instance, Karam actually feels shame because of the nature of his job, but he too is transformed by it, eventually recognising its importance in the lives of his clients. In the climax, he laments the loss of social bonds and emphasises the role of communication in maintaining these. The speech feels forced, but it drives home a simplistic point that it was unmet emotional needs that drove people to seek out his service. It wasn’t about getting off, it was about being gotten. In the absence of dirty talk, the film frames heart-to-hearts as what the callers crave, something patriarchal culture predominantly denies male relationships. Both Karam’s observations about his father and his climactic declamation about loneliness suggest an acknowledgement of the value of affective labour. 

In many ways then, the definition of masculinity in Dream Girl feels like an antidote to the brashness of Kabir Singh. Even though it is riddled with problems and is far from being feminist, it is a rare “men-centric” film that tries to confront some of the vexations about modern-day masculinity. Dream Girl is really a film that briefly (and perhaps not too well) imagines men who listen, who empathise with vulnerability, and who must learn to relate to each other in ways that have long been socially assigned to women.  In that sense, another interpretation of the “dream” in Dream Girl is that the film is really about imagining a male universe and what men might sound like if they learn to speak at a different pitch.

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