What Does It Mean To ‘Be A Man’ In India? ‘Mardistan’ Director Harjant Gill Answers

Posted on September 20, 2015 in Culture-Vulture, Masculinity, Staff Picks, Stories by YKA, Taboos

By Shambhavi Saxena for Youth Ki Awaaz: 

Editor’s Note: As part of our coverage of PSBT’s Open Frame Film Festival And Forum 2015 in Delhi (15th-22nd Sept), Youth Ki Awaaz will be featuring interviews with the directors who are screening their films at the festival, along with a candid chat later with the organisers who make this excellent festival possible each year. With this year’s theme being ‘DIVERSE PEOPLE, DIVERSE STORIES’, the documentaries being screened include “those that document, narrate, follow, investigate, represent, challenge, advocate, affirm, empower, unsettle and sometimes disturb.” Scroll down for schedule details.

Given the strict codes of conduct, of honour, of expectations that shape how Indian masculinity is seen and enacted, “Mardistan” or Macholand could very well be a real place. A place with its own no-entry signs, its own police patrol, its own foreboding graffiti. Maybe Mardistan doesn’t exist as a physical landscape, but Harjant Gill’s film, of the same name, shows how it is a very real place, regardless. Gill follows four men as they navigate and negotiate with this landscape, exploring what it means and what it can mean to be a man in India. The director shared his vision of ‘Mardistan’ with us, which will be screened at the PSBT Open Frames film festival this year.

Shambhavi Saxena (SS): The film opens with Amandeep Sandhu’s explication that a huge part of being macho involves sexual violence or imposition of some kind that is not always directed towards women. Men who are subject to sexual violence by other men are seldom discussed. Why is that? Will this film open up that conversation?

Harjant Gill (HG): I hope so! I hope this film, along with Amandeep’s work, will open up a conversation about male-on-male sexual violence and rape, which is a very common phenomenon in Indian society, yet we refuse to acknowledge it. Sexual assault and rape is often about exerting dominance and power. The two are used as tools to pacify and control those who are weaker (either in terms of gender or along socio economic lines) and their victims can be individuals of any gender. While we acknowledge that rape and sexual assault against women is a major problem, and in some cases female victims are able to get support and hopefully some justice for the violation they have experienced, men who are victims of sexual assault and rape are mocked and ridiculed into silence. So they internalize the violence and hurt, and grow up to enact it on others weaker than themsleves. I think if one was to look carefully, one would find a strong link between men who are subjected to sexual and violent abuse growing up and those who grow up to become rapists, and perpetrate similar violence and abuse on to other. As a society, if we want to address the issue of rape and sexual assault against individuals of any gender, we must acknowledge that men can and often are also victims of sexual violence and rape.

SS: Given that critical conversations about the construction of masculinity are presently restricted to academic circles, do you think ‘Mardistan’ is a film every Indian man ought to watch?

HG: Again, I hope men watch the film, and see it less as a scathing critique of Indian masculinity, but more as an opportunity to voice the kind of feelings and thoughts about what it’s like to grow up as a man in India – the kind of conversations that popular media has refused to engage in. So yes, I want men to see this film, and I want to them to relate to the different shades of masculinity that are featured in the film, and hopefully realize that there’s more than one way to be a man, and being a man shouldn’t equate to dominance or violence or control. I am an anthropologist and an academic by training. It would be very easy for me to write about this stuff in an academic journal article and have it read only by other academics. Instead, I’ve gone through the effort of taking my doctoral research and making it into a film, precisely because I want average (non-academic) Indians to see it and engage with it, which is why PSBT and DD are ideal venues for distribution of this film.

SS: One of the men in your film, Tarun Dhamija, identified rappers like Yo Yo Honey Singh as influencing his idea of “what women want”. Do you think many of us are undervaluing the role pop culture has played in maintaining a problematic gender binary?

HG: I don’t think Yo Yo Honey Singh has the ability (on his own) to influence an entire generation of Indian men like Tarun. But when we have no comprehensive sex education, and a government who is more interested in silencing and foreclosing any conversation or space about healthy sexuality and gender behaviour, then rappers like Yo Yo Honey Singh are the ones whose voices are being heard. Instead of being concerned with censoring pop culture, banning websites, and unleashing the morality police to control our younger generation, which time and time again has turned out to be a futile pursuit, we ought to provide them with healthy understanding of sex, sexuality, and what it means to be a man and woman. We need to get over our collective shame around these topics, and have a frank conversation. In this sense, we have undervalued the role of comprehensive sex education that promotes healthy sex-positivity, rather than shaming our youngsters into silence. Otherwise there’s always someone like Yo Yo Honey Singh to fill that void.

SS: Tarun seems to embody many of the characteristics one associates with macho-ness. It was interesting to see the more introspective side of him as a person. Was it difficult getting a young college student to open up about the system of masculinity he is a part of? What did engaging with the topic so self-reflexively have on him?

HG: It took a while, the excerpts featured in the film are from two different interview that were about 3 hours long, in total. Once we established a sense of trust, he was able to talk openly and freely. This interview was perhaps the first time that he has thought critically about the power and privileges he enjoys being a man in India. He had not considered the fact that while he was free to move to a city like Chandigarh, pursue his career at a university of his choice, experience the kind of life that a metro has to offer, these options were not available to his younger sister, who is expected to live at home in his village till marriage. During the interview he recognized the privileges Indian men take for granted, and the different ways in which women are disenfranchised and oppressed. I hope this realization had some effect on him, and that he would think twice when confronted with similar scenarios in the future, in his own life, perhaps with his own daughters.

SS: With Dhananjay, the question of homosexuality effectively complicates the masculinity prescribed by the heteropatriarchy. How does his story tie up to the larger discussion of one-size only masculinity in India?

HG: If anything, Dhananjay’s story reveals that there isn’t one simple way of being a man with the heterosexually-oriented, patriarchal structures of family and marriage. While many gay and bisexual men are oppressed by it, they also discover ways to resist and circumvent these structures on control and power. Indian masculinities cannot simply be reduced to a binary sexual preference, gay or straight, it implicates family roles and responsibilities, as well as learning to live with the contradictions necessitated by larger institutions like marriage, family and religion.

SS: These films have what some may identify as ‘adult’ content, but do you think it is important for schools and colleges to have screenings of these kinds, to prompt young men to think about the ways in which their lives are being shaped?

HG: I really hope so. If we can’t even talk about openly about the issues this films brings up, and be able to show it to our youngsters without worrying about the “adult content”, then there is no hope for future generation. The internet, along with popular media, has made it virtually impossible to disregard dominant discourses around sex and sexuality. Our youngsters will learn about sex and gender one way or another – we can leave it up to the internet and TV to fulfil their curiosity, or we can take an active role in their education and offer them healthy, sex-positive example of what it means to be a man or a woman like the ones featured in this film so they can have more balanced understanding of sex and gender. The choice is ours.

SS: Your film has presented viewers with an alternative construction of masculinity that is non-violent, responsible, duty bound but respectful and loving. Why do you think society has so far been unwilling to accept this alternative construction?

HG: I don’t think our society is unwilling to accept this construction. If anything, the film is a representation of variations and shades of masculinity in India. Instead of dwelling on the working-class-Indian-man-as-the-monster/rapist figure in a way that simply further dehumanizes the perpetrators of sexual assault and violence, so we can justify their execution, I am trying to show lives of Indian men as I have understood them, as I have witnessed growing up as a man in India.

Catch Gill’s film at 4.30pm, 21st September at the India International Centre, on Max Müller Marg, New Delhi.