By Romita Roy
Artwork by Charu Agrawal
This is a throwback all the way to an awkward phase in the early 90s when the lyrics “Tu cheez badi hai mast mast” were blaring from every general store and taxi cab stereo. I remember my 5-year old mind thinking, cheese…Cheez? So he calls his lady love a ‘thing’. The double standards sunk in when someone told me, “It’s impolite to hum this song in public by people from good families.”
Umm, then why didn’t someone object to it being written?
This was one of the early imprints of Indian masculinity archetypes in my mind. Enter Archetype A: The pelvic-thrusting lover who makes a game out of wooing his lady love no less boisterous than the Sunday village wrestling match, when met by refusal on her part proves his machismo by sweeping her off her feet. Literally. Because “hothon pe naa dil main haan hoyenga.” (the Hindi equivalent of no mean yes)
The rest of this milestone decade went by in a blur of ‘Malhotra industries ka waaris’ to diabetes-inducing family dramas when lo and behold, there was a Dil Chahta Hai. Was Akshay Khanna- a ‘mainstream hero’, an actual introvert who’d rather maintain a low-key profile? Was his love interest *pause for effect* an older divorced woman, whose admiration he didn’t care to win back? I was confused. I didn’t know if this was a mistake or green shoots of hope in a world of warped male narratives. The other half of me didn’t want to give that much weightage to reel portrayals of misogyny, or the lack of it.
Does it matter so much what Bollywood makes of its male characters? In a celebrity-worshipping nation like ours, the sad answer is yes.
Which is why it makes such a damn difference when the same celebrity, social propaganda notwithstanding, takes a stand about his views. This is not to say that gender-positive social commentary is sufficient, or even that a few good moments or well-placed statements here and there relieve the checkered pasts of many. But while Bollywood continues to insist upon kicking and dragging its heels all the way through even the mildest of Bechdel Tests, there is still some small corner of hope to be found in seeing some of its leading men approach gender equality with slightly less apprehension.
So, still basking in our post-Diwali glow, and with Christmas just around the corner, we thought we’d pass a little present your way: TLP’s Top Bollywood Baes of 2020. Because, is it just us, or does it seem like every time Dev Patel runs his hands through his hair, a little sprinkle of magic feminist fairy dust falls out?
Presenting the antithesis of prevalent masculinity archetypes by a few worthy men who aren’t sticking to the script when it comes to traditional male roles in Indian society.
The Anti-Cheetah archetype: Make the eternal chase defunct
We saw Siddharth Malhotra’s interview where he said “I genuinely feel that boys or men need to charm women and not chase them. In today’s time, a man has to accept women’s strength and admit to his weaknesses. That’s the basis of a modern-day relationship with a woman.” While I know there’s a counter-argument to a woman’s ‘need’ to be charmed, coming from an idolised Delhi boy it shakes the notion that there’s bravado in the chase. If the brawn-over brains hilarity called Splitsvilla is any measure, the idea of more female attention is equal to higher sperm count seems to be ingrained in the brains of masses. On the topic of the eternal chase, one has to bring up none other than the media-shy actor Siddharth Suryanarayan (remember Rang De Basanti?). He couldn’t have tweeted it more succinctly, “We’ve been selling a terrible dream in our films for long. That any man can get the woman he wants just by wanting her enough. Must change!” He goes on to write, “When a woman stalks a man in our films she’s a vamp. When a man does it he is a hero. It’s a complicated discussion. But it needs to be had.” Word.
I can’t conclude the topic of wooing a woman without bringing up the King of women’s hearts- SRK. A self-confessed die-hard feminist, it’s not my 90s crush bias when I get teary-eyed about Shahrukh’s speech at Davos, “[Women] work harder than I do. They come in four to five hours before I even land on the set. They are somehow considered secondary in the scheme of things of this film world. It’s a man’s world,” he said. “And in the end, I take all the credit and become the biggest superstar in the world. The beauty of it is that knowing how unfair it is, they have not reduced themselves and gone into victimhood. They have the courage, the bravery, the strength to realize, ‘You know what, this is how it is going right now. I do work harder than Shah Rukh. I am better than Shah Rukh. And it’s all right if he’s sitting now in Davos giving the speech.’ They know they are the real strength.” *Heartburst*
The Anti-Provider archetype: Men aren’t hunter-gatherers anymore
Anyone who’s read Sapiens knows conditioning is to blame for a man’s hunter-gatherer impulse to provide. The problem arises when it becomes a chest-thumping act of male pride, forcing one’s worth to be weighed in how well they provided the extra bacon. Unsurprisingly enough, a woman’s professional achievements if any, are sidelined in the process. This one dialogue from Dil Dhadakne Do hits home. When Rahul Bose’s character says, “I allowed Ayesha to run her business.”, Sunny (Farhan Akhtar, the few openly feminist characters in mainstream Hindi cinema) quips, “Why did she need your permission?” The simplicity of the argument is pure gold, yet is a blind spot for many who feel they ‘allow’ a woman to work for her entertainment.
In fact, one can’t be having this conversation without mentioning Farhan Akhtar at least once. Sort of the torch-bearer of the feminist movement in Bollywood, he cleverly named his humanitarian initiative M.A.R.D.- Men Against Rape and Discrimination.
He tweeted about the movie Veere Di Wedding, “There are heroes in this film. They are female. It’s unfortunate that the word ‘hero’ evolved to be masculine given that it’s actually gender-neutral. Definition: a person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.”
Actor par excellence Irrfan Khan, who’s never shied away from enacting complex, layered characters said post his brilliant performance in The Song of Scorpions; “You are not complete without a woman’s role and that needs to be understood by a man. You cannot compare two genders and say that you are the weaker one or you the stronger one. Each gender has their own speciality and magic. They [men] still see women as an object of desire.” A powerful image that’s stuck with me is Anand Mahindra’s tweet that garnered millions of likes; of men and women at the starting line to success. The woman’s track is an obstacle course of kapde, bartan, bachche and the likes. He writes,” I’ve been helping to babysit my grandson this past week & it’s brought home to me the stark reality of this image. I salute every working woman & acknowledge that their successes have required a much greater amount of effort than their male counterparts.” Attributing his views to his background he adds “I could get a little overly impassioned about the topic because I am the son of a feminist author, the husband of a career woman and my two daughters are career women. So, my allegiance, I wear it on my sleeve.” Add all of that to Virat Kohli’s much-discussed recent decision to take paternity leave, and we begin to see the faintest threads of an interesting turn in the conversation.
The Anti-Pehelwan Archetype: Mard ko dard ho sakta hai
Men don’t cry is a rhetoric that’s been ingrained time and again into every youngblood of past few generations. But what happens when demi-god cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, worshipped by millions, writes an open letter on International Men’s Week claiming “there’s no shame in showing your tears.” He recalls a time in his career which led to an awakening of sorts, “There was so much going through my head in that moment. I just couldn’t keep it in. And I didn’t fight it. I let go in front of the world, and surprisingly, I felt a certain peace. I felt stronger for putting myself out there and grateful for everything that I had received. I realised I was man enough.” For youth used to the Roadies brand of endurance, of curse words to the brazen testosterone-soaked alpha male characters in Mirzapur; a role model of Sachin’s stature to make a statement of this kind means a lot. Another name that comes to mind, albeit way less influential is Ranveer Allahabadia of Beer Biceps fame. A Youtube star with a huge following who’s interviewed most of Bollywood, his journey of weight loss soon turned into a motivational series documenting struggles of the successful. Socially sensitive and spiritually woke, he’s the definition of influencers one would like to see more of. He speaks of his struggles openly, from his journey with depression to alcoholism. If things weren’t bad enough, he went through an ugly breakup, flunked a paper at his engineering college and was detected with a gall bladder stone. Ever since he’s become the champion of interviewing successful people about their failure story, creating a sort of online safe space to brandish one’s lows with aplomb.
A well-known global figure who rose to fame for his ‘chaiwala’ act, Dev Patel has always questioned the status quo with his ‘low-key semi-underdog roles’. Not one to fit into the regular ‘hero’ framework, he’s often tried to convince others (and himself) of his inherent “Indianness” "I get flak sometimes because people will say, 'Why aren't they giving these roles to a real Indian?' I wonder, What does that even mean? The only way I can converse with my grandparents is in Gujarati. Does that make me real enough? Or am I only allowed to witness the moments of prejudice and racism going through airports? Is that the only bit that I'm allowed of the culture?” His constant support of his kid co-star Sunny Pawar in Lion shows his nonchalance about stardom. Propping the kid up in his arms throughout the Golden Globes, he gives him more than his due credit throughout, “He’s so incredible in this film, and I share this nomination with him in a big way.”
The Anti-Martian Archetype: Men can be from Venus too
Siddharth Batra, Instagram influencer and South Delhi boy often drops gyaan on how to apply foundation and take a shower like a pro. The one to officially start the #GuyBeauty hashtag, he normalises the importance of men’s skincare in experimental dandy shirts. A self-confessed “fashion and grooming rule-wrecker” he claims to have gotten a fair share of hate on social media. Curse Words in his DMs and comments is something he’s used to. “My sexuality has nothing to do with why I choose to make beauty videos. Beauty routines don’t have sexualities,” he says. My social media account has seen various kinds of comments – expletives and even assumptions on my sexuality. But truth be told, I get 90% of positive comments. Beauty is a personal choice and doesn’t make you THIS or THAT. And breaking people out of their conditioning is difficult and time-consuming, but I’m hoping to change it a little with my Guy Beauty series.” That’s a lot of gumption for a 20-something to make waves in an industry that’s so far been reserved only for women. While it might make a lot of men out there uncomfortable, for guys who are interested in beauty and the finer things in life, it’s a breath of fresh air. The most heartening change has been the de-stigmatisation of the homosexual community by influential straight men. Long been portrayed as effeminate, humorous and just not man enough, the portrayal of gay men by mainstream cinema has been a noticeable change.
Bollywood veteran actor Manoj Bajpayee agreeing to play a wronged gay professor in Aligarh was a bold move that many didn’t see coming. Confessing there was a big risk to his career by doing the film that no other actor would have taken, he believes that the movie “will stop some subjects being taboo.” He took this a step further by penning an op-ed against Section 377. “(It) is a sign of a healthy society if each and every citizen of our country is given the rights to live and live in the manner they want to live,” he said in an interview. However, Ayushmann Khurana wearing the pride flag and lip-locking with a male co-actor in Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan really opened the gates for South Asian same-sex love representation. Twitterati flooded praise on the no-metaphor, open portrayal by Ayushmann and the guts to go ahead with a movie like that.
For a topic that’s always been shoved under the carpet- I know these are baby steps but hallelujah, it’s nice to see that the plot hasn’t entirely been lost. And while we’ve enjoyed watching these first forays into a fresher discourse, we’re keeping our eyes peeled for what comes next.