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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.