If I had to take a wild guess, I’d say that after war, the man-child might just be Hollywood’s favourite subject to make movies about. Quite ironic that while one genre shows 18-year-old boys on the frontline, the other has 36-year-old men smoking weed in their mum’s basement.
Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd and so many of your beloved film stars kickstarted their career with the man-child, only to later move on to bigger, greener pastures that Oscars seem to love. But back home, playing the eternal Peter Pan is still too strong for Saif Ali Khan. The undisputed desi man-child, with perhaps Ranbir Kapoor as his closest competition, Saif has played the role almost half a dozen times, starting from Yeh Dillagi (1994) to his latest, Jawaani Jaaneman (2020).
Saif has been in experimentation mode of late — he was the first big name to transition to OTT with Sacred Games, played a revengeful sadhu in Laal Kaptaan and a grungy villain in Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior and will soon be seen in Amazon Prime Video’s political drama, Dilli. But despite all the good and exciting new work coming his way, a Jawaani Jaaneman is still a sweet deal, despite the same old premise which he knows too well.
The Hollywood man-child is a combination of multiple immaturities. He has a mediocre job just good enough to afford him his daily weed and party packs of Cheetos, the latest XBox bestseller and a subscription to Pornhub. He lives with his mom, who might often remind him that he needs to grow up but not harshly enough to drive him out of the home entirely. The one final thing and the only thing that our desi man-child focusses on is the commitment phobia and the unwillingness to settle down with a single partner.
In his films, Saif struggles with the extraordinary expectation on him to grow up and take ownership of his actions. He wants to booze some more, love some more, philander some more until the shackles of a relationship, (or a marriage, or a child) bind him down.
In Salaam Namaste, Saif knocks up his girlfriend (Preity Zinta) but wants no part of parenthood; in Cocktail, he can’t get himself to make things official with his too-sexy girlfriend (Deepika Padukone); in Love Aaj Kal, the idea of a transient relationship is the best bargain; and in Hum Tum, love is apparently for the idiots.
But almost always, the men in all these films—Bollywood or Hollywood—are changed (or coerced) into adulthood, not by some self-reflection or a realisation that it’s time to give up the shallow life, but by an external factor. It could be the sanskari girl who enters your life, or the man she eventually gets married to, or quite simply, the ultrasound of your unborn baby. The child always becomes a man by the end of the two-hour runtime. But the cycle continues with another film, and another, and then another.
In itself, it’s not a vice to not want to reserve yourself to a single partner. One’s consensual relationships, no matter the figures they run into, are nobody’s business. However, the brain tries and tries, so hard, to come up with a single case of switched genders. A woman-child, is rarer than a Friday without a single man-child release. I don’t remember the last time I saw Preity, Deepika or Rani Mukerji play a woman who won’t give up her philandering days for a Saif. The philandering woman almost never gets a cute, comedy role. She is the one staring into her bathroom vanity, her mascara runny with all the guilt streaming down her eyes after one night of promiscuity.
With Jawaani Jaaneman, Saif is revisiting the most crowded genre on his IMDb page. He plays a Casanova with no intention to settle down until the ‘external factor’, comes knocking on his door. The saviour woman this time is a pregnant daughter he never knew he had. While adulthood and responsibilities came too late for the father, they come in a little too early for the daughter. If that isn’t an ironic commentary on genders, I don’t know what is.
So far, nothing about Jawaani Jaaneman screams that it will be any different that the predecessors in his filmography. However, Saif makes different promises. “This story is about a man accepting his age, his responsibilities and his journey in life. I think the father is one of the most important people in our lives. A lot of people mess up being a father and create children that need therapy, that need friendship and that need all kinds of things to fix their problems because they are not ready to be responsible fathers,” he said in an interview. That’s all very nice. If only a film could teach women, mothers to be more responsible. Oh wait, there is no target audience for that.
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