The Soft Masculinity of Imran Khan & Why We Miss It

If you keenly follow Bollywood news and memes on Instagram, you must’ve seen a certain hashtag going around: ‘Laut Aao Imran’. The love for actor Imran Khan has seen a resurgence lately. A random comment Imran left on actress Zeenat Aman’s post caught attention, and as soon as people noticed his presence on social media, they started showering him with love and pleading with him to come back to the movies. Even though there are many admirers of Imran’s eloquence and wit, people primarily miss him due to the kind of films he was in — the romcoms that he was the poster boy of.

And it all started with his debut, Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na, released in 2008. Written and directed by Abbas Tyrewala, it is a classic feel-good film because of its loveable characters and sincere portrayal of how confusing yet wonderful youth is. Imran played the main lead, Jai Singh Rathore a.k.a. Rats, opposite the vivacious Genelia DSouza, a.k.a. Meow.

We were so used to seeing male leads being rough and tough, possessive of their lovers, and always on the lookout to prove their manliness, that our doe-eyed, lanky Jai Singh Rathore arrived like a breath of fresh air. To me, Jai seems like a ‘man written by a woman,’ and by that, I mean that Tyrewala expertly crafted a hero who was averse to being heroic or macho at any given opportunity, setting the tone for new ‘heroes.’ Jai was sweet, smart, funny, and secure in himself, which quickly turned Imran Khan into the nation’s boyfriend.

He followed the hit film with two experimental duds at the box office: Kidnap and Luck. Although the movies achieved no commercial success, they did hint at the kind of grey characters Imran was interested in portraying. In his brief career, Imran seemed to straddle the lines between mainstream and offbeat cinema. Take Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu for instance, which, at the time of its release, missed the mark with box office numbers. However, over time, people have come to appreciate the open ending and Shakun Batra’s vision to keep the leads simply friends. This might have been anticlimactic in 2012, but nuanced love stories of its likes have since gathered a cult following since then. 

There also came along a string of experiments like Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola, Once Upon a Time in Mumbai Dobaara!, and Gori Tere Pyaar Mein, all of which failed to impress audiences and made them question the scope of Imran’s acting prowess. However, there were times when Imran’s gamble paid off, with Delhi Belly, for example. The film was a dark comedy, a genre rarely explored by Indian filmmakers and rarer still by actors who shared Imran’s popularity. Although the movie was embroiled in controversy for its use of harsh language, it was appreciated in equal measure for its originality. The youth were especially attracted to the sexiness and slightly inappropriate humour of a film that many weren’t allowed to view, me included. 

Then, there was the constant comparison with Ranbir Kapoor, who made his debut the previous year with Saawariya. The two actors were often pitted against each other. Media and fan clubs alike competed over who the ‘next superstar’ would be, but the two actors remained unbothered by the chatter and shared good camaraderie. They appeared on Koffee With Karan in 2010 and discussed their respective journeys in the industry. While they engaged in some fun banter in the episode, Imran wasn’t shy about admitting that he believed his contemporary to be a better actor. In an industry driven by perceptions and selling your brand, it was refreshing to see a young actor say that.

He was openly committed to his then-fiancé and never felt the need to keep the rumour mill churning to stay in the public eye. He came across as a sorted guy, someone we might know and like. Being an actor was not his whole personality, and he had passions beyond being a ‘superstar’, which came to fruition when Imran went on to write and direct a short film, Mission Mars: Keep Walking India in 2018. The film centered on Indian scientists’ tireless pursuit to realise the dream of The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM).

Interestingly, Ranbir said in the episode that Imran seems like the guy who would leave films at the peak of his career. And sure enough, the year that Ranbir gave his biggest box-office hit YJHD, Imran gave his last acting performance in Katti Batti (2013). A decade later, the commercial success of the Ranbir Kapoor-Shraddha Kapoor starrer Tu Jhooti Main Makkar is a testament to the fact that we crave our out-and-out romantic comedies, which have since reduced in volume.

What Ranbir said on KWK may have been in jest or maybe he recognised in Imran what many people did not: that he wasn’t as swept up by the charms of the entertainment industry as others. He came across as relatively unaffected by soaring highs, sweeping lows, and constant comparison with peers.

Out of the twelve movies that Imran starred in as a leading actor, his most loved ones were romantic comedies. Imran’s popular characters were characterised by their urbane sophistication, gentle manners, and soft masculinity. The men he portrayed were no heroes, just people going about their lives, finding love by chance, and then grooving to some wonderfully coordinated dance sequences with them. 

While the ongoing trend is for male actors to play hyper masculine and macho saviours like Rocky Bhai, Kabir Singh, Tiger, Pathan, Vikram, Vedha, and so on, there is a dearth of gentleness in our onscreen men. A gentleness that was tremendously loved by women, has now been reduced to ‘simping’. So, a big reason why zillennials are writing sentimental Instagram posts about Imran Khan is that he reminds us of the simplicity and tenderness of bubblegum romances.

These movies are often labelled “Chick Flicks” because women avidly consume them. More so, the tag relegates these films to frothy rom-coms that lack depth and cinematic substance. However, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Romantic comedies make up the primary genre that stages women on equal footing with their male counterparts. In such films, female protagonists share the same degree of gravitas, are given the same screen time, and are essentially put in the centre of the story.

Fictional women get happy endings in these movies; they aren’t merely muses who must be protected, saved, or avenged. This is why the genre is loved and prized by women universally for the vicarious hope it offers. The hope is that a person like Gelato from Break Ke Baad will pack your bags when you’re moving to Australia. The hope, that a guy would be as fun to do wedding shopping with as Kush from Mere Brother Ki Dulhan. And of course, the hope that a sweet guy like Jay will do everything in his power to cheer you up after losing your pet—cue kabhi kabhi aditi zindagi mein yu hi…

When I come across ‘Laut Aao Imran’ posts on my Instagram feed, I know that people are nostalgic about much more than the actor. We miss secretly enjoying saccharine love stories; we miss the music that elevated such films to a core memory; we miss the gentler times; and of course, as the Venn diagram would tell us, we miss Imran Khan.

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Urvashi Janiani

Urvashi is an India-based writer, who gave business studies a fair chance, only to realize she’s meant for the arts, film being one of her favorites. Having completed her Master’s in Media and Communications, she has since been experimenting with various forms of the written word. From content and creative writing to dance and poetry, Urvashi is glad to become the jack of all trades and hopes to master at least a few. The only thing longer than her daydreams is her list of films to watch.


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