Editor’s Note: This post is a part of What's A Man, a series exploring masculinity in India, in collaboration with Dr. Deepa Narayan. Join the conversation here!
Bollywood is one of the largest film industries in the world and an intrinsic part of Indian popular culture. Within this culture, Bollywood has shaped the lives of many young and impressionable people who have grown up watching it in many ways—affected their way of thinking, outlook, and self-perception among other aspects of formative growth.
A staple of mainstream Bollywood is the archetypical Hero, a majority of whom are written and acted out based on constraints. These constraints come out in the form of traditional masculine gender norms. Going beyond the celebration and enabling of toxic masculinity and misogyny in films like ‘Kabir Singh’, there are many subtle and not-so-subtle ways that the mainstream Bollywood hero has peddled constraints and gender norms to those who identify as men.
Before taking a deep-dive into the drawing of the traditional Bollywood hero, it’s important to raise the question of whether gender norms are good or bad, and what exactly do we classify as gender?
Kabir Singh was a film that celebrated and enabled the toxic masculinity prevalent in India.
According to J. Ann Tickner, scholar and political scientist, a feminist understanding of gender is “a set of socially and culturally constructed characteristics that vary across time and place.” Simply put, gender and gender norms cannot be viewed separately. Gender is simply what society and culture view an ‘ideal/real man’ to be and what an ‘ideal/real woman’ to be.
A fundamental example could be confidence, aggression, and strength are associated with being ‘manly’. Here arises the question of why are gender norms bad? The answer is two-fold.
In a gendered patriarchal society throughout history, ‘positive’ characteristics are associated with men, and ‘negative’ characteristics are associated with women. As gender does not exist in a vacuum, the reasoning for this division is so that men can achieve, occupy, and control powerful positions in the public and private sphere over women. i.e., gender norms allow patriarchal society to continue flourishing as they are born from this patriarchal mindset.
The second reason is that these gender norms act as a form of constraint and control over all genders. People are shamed, ridiculed, and looked down upon for not behaving a certain way.
Movies like Mard (man) starring Amitabh Bacchan portrayed a very limited and toxic ideal of what men should be.
Cinema has always been a mirror reflecting society. Bollywood, therefore, reflects Indian society, and therefore the Bollywood hero reflects masculine gender norms. Here, filmmakers face the crossroads of choosing to portray men according to constricted norms and tropes or break the mould. Unfortunately, most choose the former.
Here, along with holding a mirror to society, Bollywood also enables the perpetuation of gender norms because of the role it occupies in Indian society. There is a culture of hero worship of Bollywood stars with actors like Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, and others enjoying a cult-like following of young impressionable boys and men.
With all this in consideration, one can see how the Bollywood drawing of the Hero affects Indian men to behave in a certain way, and those ways more often than not fall into the constraints of masculine gender norms.
“Mard ko dard nahi hota,”(men don’t feel pain) a pivotal line from 1985’s Mard has become commonplace in Indian men look at how they supposedly should behave. Men shouldn’t feel pain, and if they feel pain, they shouldn’t express it and keep going. The articulation of feelings of emotional and physical pain is seen as a weakness, and men have to learn how to bottle it up. This has been the trope of 100s if not 1000s of Bollywood action movies, where the Hero is simply one-dimensional.
He is ‘strong’, resolves conflicts through aggression, does not display ‘feminine’ emotions, and is solely responsible for the ‘honor’ and safety of his partner. Many Bollywood movies go towards this trope, from the Sholay and Mard of yesteryear to movies like Dabangg of today.
Within this, there is also another idea that is instilled in young men that men should only show emotion when it comes to romantic relationships. A line from the movie “Once Upon A Time In Mumbai Dobaara” that captures this idea is “ladki jab roti hai, bahut saare reasons hotei hai. Lekin jab ladka rota hai toh reason ladki hi hoti hai.” (women cry for a variety of reasons, men only cry for women)
Another idea that subconsciously affects those who identify as men are the physical appearance of the Hero. From a young age, men are shown that to be deserving of attention and admiration; one has to look and act in a certain way to be the ‘ideal male’. Couple this with the sidekick who has features that are not socially ‘desirable’ and is there for humiliation and comic relief, it combines into a dangerous and toxic outlook of how men think they should look like and body negativity.
Bollywood movies like ‘Ranjhanaa‘ glorify stalking. Bollywood has a long and problematic history of glorifying stalking and harassment.
Another area where Bollywood is miles behind is the representations of romance. In terms of romance and relationships, much has been said about how Bollywood depictions of romance and relationships perpetuate the idea of men having control, power, or possession over women. A lot of mainstream Bollywood reduces women to having no agency or free will. (item songs, the damsel in distress trope, and so on).
Another trope around the Hero’s relationships that ties into how men perceive they should be are that of being successful, rich, and wealthy to ‘get’ women. An example of this trope is Entertainment starring Akshay Kumar, but the idea of less-wealthy men being less worthy is present in a lot of movies. Where similar to entertainment, the movie revolves around how the man tries to get the attention of his love interest by trying to improve his fiscal conditions.
The overdependence of romance as a plot device also affects men. Giving an example of this might be impossible since nearly every Bollywood movie focuses on how the Hero achieves fulfilment by finding love. An idea that one needs to consider when thinking about this is what about aromantic men? What about asexual men?
Films constantly pushing down this idea that romance is needed for a complete life will only further alienate those who are asexual and aromantic. Couple this with the fact that there is barely any representation of aro and ace people on the Mainstream Bollywood screen.
One needs to also understand that in many parts of India, people do not have the resources on gender that many of us reading this have the privilege to access. The film, being a relatively understandable medium to disseminate is what many can access and will therefore be shaped by it.
Therefore, even as I write this article, many Indians who identify as men are consuming and absorbing the content that Bollywood churns out and internalizing a very constrained and restricted idea of what men should be. These ideas are also further internalized by the patriarchal Indian society and will eventually stunt the emotional growth of men and also distort how they view women.
Bollywood has a role in doing better. To be better in drawing both male and female characters beyond hideous gender tropes. To better represent gender minorities and to have people from said minority actually represent these characters. To stop fetishizing, mocking, or, exoticizing same-sex relationships.
The film is indeed a mirror of society, but it is also true that Bollywood can affect the way society and men perceive themselves if it tries. It is 2021, stop giving us the strong greek-god men who don’t cry and do more to show men that they can be themselves.