My cup of feel-good runneth over.
In an odd twist of fate, I watched Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani and season 2 of Heartstopper, the LGBTQ+ teen drama series on Netflix, on the same weekend. (SPOILER ALERTs for those who have not watched either.)
At first you would think the twain can never meet. One is a high-octane Karan Johar extravaganza about mismatched and star-crossed lovers, family values and cultural stereotypes, shot through with bling and nostalgia. The other is the hit series about school romance (gay, lesbian, bi, trans, asexual and more) set in contemporary England. In a world where teen series are bristling with sex and drugs, its protagonists kiss and cuddle. They should have been insufferable. Instead, even cynical viewers have fallen in love with the tenderness of it all.
Both are love stories that foreground families and acceptance. However, there is something else they unexpectedly have in common. To me, both felt like cinematic group hugs for all those who have been bullied in the school yard and at home.
In Heartstopper, it’s one of the protagonists—Charlie. He is outed in eighth grade, bullied relentlessly. In season 2, he seems to have put that trauma behind him as he revels in his new relationship with the leader of the school rugby team. He has a supportive family, a posse of close friends and gets to go on a dream trip to Paris but the scars left by the bullying still run deep, though they don’t define him any more.
In Rocky Aur Rani, the bullying storyline isn’t about the protagonists. Chandon Chatterjee is Rani’s father, a man whose passion and profession is dancing. It’s a passion which makes him the butt of jokes and ridicule. His own father once tried to beat the dance out of him with a belt. In a film that is all about love stories, young love, old love, the most tender moment involves none of the main love-lorn couples in the film. The movie finds its heart-stopper moment when the two men, as different and chalk and cheese—the brash young Rocky and the urbane older Chandon—let their guard down together.
At the show I had gone to, the audience, which had been laughing, chuckling, tittering, suddenly fell silent. And when the scene ended, I heard people clapping tentatively, then a little louder and then whole-heartedly. Some might have appreciated the dancing. Or the Sanjay Leela Bhansali-style opulence of the Durga Puja set. This was Kolkata, after all. But I think that most of us understood that Rocky Aur Rani had quietly became a story not just about mismatched and star-crossed lovers but about letting go of the pain of being bullied.
Tota Roy Chowdhary plays Chandon Chatterjee in the film. He told The Indian Express that while his phone had not stopped ringing since the film released, his favourite scene was not the much talked about Durga Puja pas de deux. It’s the scene that leads up to it, when his character is asked to perform at a sangeet ceremony and becomes the butt of a humiliating joke, jeered for being a man who dances. “I knew I had to do this not just for myself, I had to do this for all performance artistes who are catcalled for not conforming to traditional concepts of masculinity,” said Roy Chowdhary. I remembered a friend of mine, Ashok Jethanandani, who was learning Bharatanatyam in the US. A fellow dancer told him he should focus on the more “masculine” tillanas, not the lyrical javalis. “It looks kind of awkward for a man to be dancing Radha’s part,” she said.
This pain is obviously something Johar wears close to his own heart. He has written about his own experiences of being bullied in his memoir, using his sense of humour as armour against a world where he did not fit in as someone who was both overweight and effeminate. Later, when he played a small part in a television serial, the actor Lilliput took him aside and told him that people would make fun of him because his hand gestures were very effeminate. Johar writes: “That stuck with me. I stopped acting.” He told his father he was taking computer classes but in reality enrolled with a voice coach who taught him to bring a baritone into his voice and cut down on the “girlish” hand gestures.
There is a tendency to romanticise our school days, especially when viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of the school WhatsApp group. But the truth is school can be horrible for those who can’t quite fit in. When Vikram Seth was invited to give the Founder’s Day address at his alma mater, Doon School, in 1992, he didn’t mince words. “I had a terrible feeling of loneliness and isolation during my six years here. Sometimes at lights out I wished I would never wake up,” he told his undoubtedly startled audience. He said he was “teased and bullied” because he just liked to read and was not interested in games, gangs and groups. He shared this story not to gain sympathy points but to reassure someone like him who might have been in the audience, that it can get better.
I could have been one of those kids. I liked to read and was not interested in games, gangs and groups. But luckily I was good in studies and enjoyed debating and quizzing. It all helped protect me. I was different but it was a kind of difference others admired in our all-boys school. Some other boys were not so lucky. I remember a quiet boy who was often teased and bullied for being a little effeminate. I would not tease him but I did not have the courage to stand up for him either, afraid that would blow my own cover. Years later, I reconnected with him as an adult. When I asked him if he wanted me to include him in the school WhatsApp group, he shuddered and said school days were the last thing he wanted to relive.
Every time there is a suicide in some posh school, the subject of ragging gets media attention. Many of us think some garden-variety bullying builds character. But as former US president Barack Obama said as part of the It Gets Better project, which aims to empower LGBTQ+ youth: “We’ve got to dispel the myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage.” And, most importantly, “what I want to say is this. You are not alone. You didn’t do anything wrong. You didn’t do anything to deserve being bullied”.
We cannot ever create the perfect world where everyone always feels safe. Children can be cruel and will pick on differences to figure out who is the runt in the litter. Some of those who get bullied eventually come into their own. I imagine many of those who once bullied Karan Johar now try to curry favour with him. And all those who bully do not turn into horrible, violent, spouse-beating monsters either. But the shadow of that experience must live on in both sides.
At one point in Heartstopper, Ben, one of the boys who treated Charlie badly, admits he was messed up and asks for his forgiveness. Charlie looks him in the eye and says he hopes he will become a better person but he does not feel the need to absolve him to allow him to feel better about himself. “I’m glad you realised what you did was wrong but you don’t get to ambush me into forgiving you.” Charlie does not owe Ben forgiveness.
When I heard that, I understood why my friend didn’t want to join our school WhatsApp group, so we could all pretend we had moved on and the past didn’t matter any more. It never stops mattering.
The best we can hope for is that like Chandon Chatterjee in Rocky Aur Rani, it does not stop you from dancing either.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host. His handle on X is @sandipr.