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Bollywood Representation Of Manhood Over The Years: Has Anything Changed?

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Bollywood has always offered more screen-space to men, highlighting their charisma and machismo to convey the implicit, ideological message that the hero is supposed to be the saviour. This does not seem problematic at the surface-level, but the stories we witness are never only about the characters. They are also about us, who we are and who we are supposed to be; and this belief that a man needs to exude strength and prowess has become such a universal norm in society that the definition of manhood has become rigid and immutable through the passage of time.

A cursory glance at Hindi films over the past two decades reveals that the film industry has never ceased from promoting hegemonic, toxic and suffocating ideals of masculinity.

Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995)

Raj loves Simran, Simran loves Raj. They want to get married. But the story is never this simple.

Raj needs to behave like a vulgar, bad boy. He will violate her personal space and play cruel jokes on her. But surely, once he falls in love, he will become a gentle, romantic hero and slog crazily to win the confidence of Simran’s family. This kind of storyline serves two hidden messages — the boy needs to be good to win the heroine’s confidence, but he also needs to be lewd and rugged enough to pass the essential test of manliness.

ddlj-srk-kajol

This might sound like reading too much into the scenes, but films are a product of the larger social context that we inhabit, and the society that we live in never fails to tell boys that shedding tears is a girly business. It makes you appear weak and takes away your heroic charm and appeal.

We invent, invigorate and retain the essence of patriarchy despite the change in social norms and context. This is because we have internalised the belief that maleness always, and invariably, needs to imply power.

Chhichhore (2019)

A boy, too scared of not securing a good rank in an entrance exam, dies by suicide. He is lying on the hospital bed and his aggrieved father, as the last trace of hope, recites to him the tale of his college days when he was a young man in a hostel and his group of friends had to battle the tag of ‘loser’ that was stamped on their heads by the campus environment.

The story conveys the message that every obstacle in life can be countered with goodwill and hope, and that one need not give up. But in the process of doing so, it also subtly encourages a number of scary, but socially prevalent beliefs.

There is a scene in this film where a father brings his son to the hostel and tells the guys over there that his son is too pampered and effeminate, and requests fellow college students to ‘make a man’ out of his son. In the film, this is equivalent to hurling a string of abuses in every breath and cultivating numb stoicism within oneself that can aid one in quelling any emotion of fear or anxiety in the face of danger.

Even nervousness, in a man, is shown only when it erupts within the pursuit of some socially-validated project, such as plotting a revenge against someone or wooing a girl. Otherwise, fear and nervousness make you look unmanly and are a strict no-no. There have been other Hindi films such as Munna Bhai MBBS and 3 Idiots, which have glorified the culture of bullying and ragging within boys’ hostels in universities.

Stories like these, although teach cheerfulness and optimism, strengthen the idea that some extent of violence, aggression and shaming of tender or sensitive instincts in boys is forgivable, and rather essential to make ‘men’ out of them. Making jokes and talking using slang words among close friends is a natural tendency among people, but when abuses are hurled at somebody’s way of being, it is an attack on a person’s self-worth.

Our culture is so inherently patriarchal that boys, whenever they are victims of any sort of bullying or abuse, are constantly taught to don a ‘manly’ self and appear tough and resilient so that people around them do not cross boundaries. But the pain suffered in the process is closeted and buried out of fear of escaping shame.

We have naturalised the trope of ‘Prince Charming’ and ‘damsel in distress’ so deeply that there is no vocabulary fit enough to convey male vulnerability within the culturally-ingrained script of masculinity. Our films are so invested in the task of sustaining toxic notions of masculinity that any hint of male vulnerability within stories is carefully crafted and moulded into pangs of reckless action, heroism, sex-seeking adventures and alcoholism — Kabir Singh and Love Aaj Kal being the latest examples.

The movie Kabir Singh is offensive at multiple levels, but it would suffice the purpose of this article to state that if there ever was any doubt regarding the position a man could ideally adopt in a hetero-romantic relationship, Kabir Singh completely erases it by solidifying the notion that man is an aggressive seeker, and even his trauma can only direct him towards sexually violent and torturous acts.

Love Aaj Kal (2020)

The film is built upon the theme that it is hard to find love in the modern world where individuals are so complex as human beings that it is always uncertain whether two people would ever be able to bring and manage their interests together. But it is very intriguing that all this anxiety, confusion and fear about loss of selfhood happens only to the woman. It takes several conflicting emotions and experiences for Zooey to come to the realisation about what she wants, but Veer is singularly devoted to the cause of seeking his notion of perfect love throughout the story.

Raghu, who is narrating his tale, parallel to Zooey’s, about his younger days, says that he wishes to go back to the person he was once — someone who could go to any extent to chase his love-interest. That’s just a code-language to say that a boy, when in love, should not fear getting beaten up, or worry about his well-being and security. He ought to be singularly devoted to the cause of doting on the heroine to ‘prove’ his love.

There is a scene where Zooey asks Veer if he suffers from breathing problems, with the hope that a yes would mean that he is serious about her, as Raghu had told her that he used to have a similar experience during his days of hopeless desire for his lover. The encoded message is that if your ability to withhold pain is greater, it might become easier to convince the girl that you are serious about her.

Kedarnath (2018)

Amid this hopeless chaos, the 2018-released movie Kedarnath, which was set within the context of the Uttarakhand floods of 2013, subtly depicts a different model of narrative. The hero is not so much in action. The heroine was bold and expressive of what she wanted and made deliberate attempts to woo the guy. The guy was introverted and sensitive, and took his time before he could realise what he wants. When he felt cheated, he was heartbroken and revealed so.

This may not sound like an outlier in 2020, but a tale where the hero does not buy into the obsessive need of proving his manliness with his act and shows kindness to people around him because he is a nice person, and not because he wants to look nice to the girl is an outlier. This was a breath of fresh air that needs to be reiterated to an audience that somehow believes that grace and dignity are such inherently ‘feminine’ concepts that there is no need for them within all-male spaces.

This is why a guy who appears all chivalrous and gentle in front of his love-interest becomes aggressive and rowdy within a boys’ private space or hostel because he doesn’t feel the need to extend a basic amount of kindness and sensitivity to his male companions when the girl is not watching him.

Toxic masculinity and victim-blaming are so rigidly entrenched in our psyche that we remember to tell a boy when he starts becoming too shy or sensitive or needs to stand up for himself. But we never teach men that it’s rude, invasive and, at times, lethal to make jokes that could kill somebody’s self-esteem.

The lesson of unflinching heroism has been taught to boys for too long. Perhaps, it is time to start teaching them other important lessons — like getting in touch with their feelings, being able to identify if they feel sad or depressed, being able to accept for themselves that they may feel the need to cry sometimes, and most importantly, that it should not be a problem if they are not the saviour in every story.

Sometimes, being at the receiving end of action could also be fun, and embracing tender or sublime emotions within moments of dilemmas, even if they make you appear passive, could be rewarding in their own ways.

Action is anyway overrated.

For, in reality, boys don’t always win the world. Sometimes, their world breaks apart.

Note: Originally published here

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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