How Bollywood has slowly come to accept the Friendzone

The theme that has always underscored our cinema is that the hero and herione always end up in love. There has, over the years, been a significant shift in thought as <em>Ae Dil Hai Mushkil</em> culminates with Ranbir and Alizeh in platonic zen.

Updated - December 02, 2016 12:49 pm IST

Published - November 01, 2016 01:52 pm IST

This is a blog post from

“Men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way,” Harry Burns told Sally Albright many years ago, not realising that those words would be taken as the gospel truth.

For decades, movies have led us to believe this. And Hindi cinema isn’t an exception. Which is why Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil seems to be polarising audiences with its poignant celebration of the friendzone.

The boy, even if “he’s your best friend, ya” would ultimately see you in new light years later (according to Karan Johar in the late ’90s) and the girl would realise she loves the boy after a life-changing event (according to Imtiaz Ali, early ’00s).

But then, unrequited love derived from tragedies have been romanticised on screen for decades.

Indian cinema was born out of silent mythological dramas ( Raja Harischandra , 1913-early ’30s). Then came talkies ( Alam Ara , 1931 to early ’40s), musicals (through the ’50s and ’60s) and social dramas (’60s and ’70s) that gave away to family dramas (late ’70s to the late ’90s) before cinema turned the focus from the family unit to the individual ( Dil Chahta Hai , 2001) and slowly over the years, families stopped being the point of conflict.

Maine Pyaar Kiya (1989, Sooraj Barjatya) and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995, Aditya Chopra) catered to the parent-pleasing generation and gave us patriarchy-endorsed love stories — where a ladka and ladki who started off as friends became more.

When Amrish Puri said “ Ja Simran, jee le apni zindagi [Go on, Simran. Live your life],” and let go of her hand, the Indian patriarch finally came of age in Indian cinema.

A decade later, a younger filmmaker called Imtiaz Ali decided that young people had too many issues of their own owing to their confusion and they didn’t need the parents to play villains ( Socha Na Tha , 2005).

Ali was a product of the ’90s cinema — the cinema of the Chopras, the Johars and the Barjatyas. He knew that the mainstream format required a familiar cultural rootedness (the constants — Punjabi music and score, a friendship-turned-romance during a distant holiday away from family, the backdrop of the great Indian wedding) to introduce his brand and the variable, the great confusion of our times.

Maybe he stumbled upon it from personal experience and went on to make a completely anti-establishment film with Rockstar (2011) that displayed a middle finger to conventions and codes. His hero continued to love a married woman. It was like the classical Devdas/Ranjha type had had enough and decided to claim his Paro/Heer back from societal norms. The great confusion of our times is that we often don’t find the right labels for relationships.

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil has polarised reactions because it’s a difficult dynamic for the audience to get given the years of conditioning — that men and women cannot be friends. It’s a dynamic the hero himself does not understand.

Hence, ultimately, friends always turned lovers in our movies, no matter what. Karan Johar did this himself with his debut film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998). But over the years, Johar realised that this doesn’t always happen in real life.

In the ’90s, an American sitcom changed the dynamics of relationships in pop-culture for good by just reflecting reality. The show’s producers pitched their sitcom with the “Friends as family” dynamic. Ross and Rachel remained friends for a decade, no matter who they were dating or who else they married.

The Friends descendant How I Met Your Mother made Ted and Robin fall in and out of love for a decade before doing a complete U-Turn on its audiences even if meant cheating them with the most obvious ending.

Karan Johar may have borrowed the ‘Friends as family’ dynamic in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil too, except that his Rachel never loved Ross. Though he teases us with a possible romance, Johar gives us a strong protagonist in Alizeh Khan (Anushka Sharma), who can make her friend Ayan Sanger (Ranbir Kapoor) understand that he is a friend, which is “more than a relationship, more than family” to her. She stands her ground. Till the end. Because she cannot lie to him. That’s the biggest truth of her life.

The film has polarised reactions because it’s a difficult dynamic for the audience to get given the years of conditioning — that men and women cannot be friends. It’s a dynamic the hero himself does not understand.

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil might seem like Ranbir Kapoor, now as Popstar, a version of Rockstar, but the shift in dynamic is huge.

In Rockstar, Jordan (Ranbir Kapoor) and Heer (Nargis Fakri) loved each other — they had a sexual chemistry that transcended all societal norms and codes.

Ayan and Alizeh are friends even if one of them has feelings for the other. Friends till death does them apart.

It’s a different kind of love even if it’s not sexual or romantic. A kind of love that we all need in a world that’s getting increasingly alienated. A world where it’s easier to find sex than a friend-for-life.

The dating apocalypse is real. We can see it around us. Relationships and marriages fall apart after the chemistry fizzles out. Some make it work for kids and some live it out like a sentence. And there are some of us who have made up our own rules.

There’s plenty of passion around. What we truly yearn for is zen. A person we can call home.

Beyond age-old conventions, beyond fleeting relationships and regular friendships with random people on social networks, we anchor ourselves to the constants — the ones we need in our lives, irrespective of labels.

We don’t control or choose who the constants are. They just are.

We love them even when we hate them. Even when they date other people. Even if we are never in touch. Till death does us apart.

Karan puts it beautifully when he says “ Pyaar main Junoon hai, Dosti main sukoon hai [There is passion in love, and zen in friendship]”.

There’s plenty of passion around. What we truly yearn for is zen. A person we can call home. “I friend you” has never sounded more beautiful. Karan Johar has made a film that truly reflects our turbulent times where love isn’t always straight.

And, the Friendzone has come of age.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.