Indian cinema’s attempts to portray a new masculinity are sometimes at odds with reality – in the industry and in society

On the face of it, the Indian film industry seems to have shed its sexist tag. The plot of a recent Hindi film dealt with the dilemma of a hero suffering from a common sexual dysfunction. Ayushmaan Khurrana, one of a new breed of actors, plunged into the role without a concern about a dent to his masculine image. Today’s young actors, including the likes of Jim Sarbh, Ranveer Singh, Vicky Kaushal and Rajkumar Rao, Dulquer Salman, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui do not break into a sweat about coming across as less male. They can cry, stand by women’s rights, lust after another man if required, and are open to being humiliated about their lack of sexual prowess. Even Akshay Kumar, a former action hero and an actor known for testosterone-charged roles, succumbed to play the considerate husband developing ingenious sanitary pads for his rustic wife. Has our film industry then really changed? Not really. On closer inspection, the veneer of gender equality seems thin. “Item numbers” still rule, gender disparity in pay continues to be the norm, sexist attitudes to female actors prevail, especially in movies dominated by male superstars like a Rajnikanth or a Mohanlal, and women are often relegated to “blink and they are gone” roles in many movies.
Sanju, the latest blockbuster, is no doubt a biopic on the actor. One of the film’s highlights however involves the number of women he has ostensibly slept with. It hovers around 350 – if you count sex workers too. Was it bragging? No, it was just a Munnabhai truism delivered with a deadpan expression by man-child Sanju Baba (played by Ranbir Kapoor). The audience – always sympathetic to Bollywood sons – grin and bear it.
There is no sign of a #Metoo movement in an industry dominated by patriarchal film families and male superstars who thrive on their masculine personas. True, there is a nascent one emerging in the Malayalam film industry to protest against the blatant support of a leading actor – one of the accused in the alleged abduction and sexual abuse case of an actress. However, many of the actors, including a male superstar viewed as an icon in the state, are not standing by the woman. This misogynistic attitude in an industry (and this includes Tamil cinema) known for sensitive, path-breaking films is clearly a paradox.
The world outside the all-pervasive movie industry is a mixed bag as well. On one side, you have compassionate, gender-bending, stay-at-home dads lovingly rustling up chicken curry and other delicacies for their children in addition to helping the supermom working wife with household chores. (A movie like Ki and Ka tried to depict this but with too many glossy effects to seem real). They wholeheartedly support women’s rights. They are all for a woman wanting to pursue her career, to postpone motherhood, to be safe and to express herself however she chooses. Yet on the other side, we are a country chasing to increase the number of girl children in the country. Arvind Subramanian, the outgoing chief economic advisor to the government of India, presented the Economic Survey this year to Parliament in a pink cover. It was a visual reminder of the need to confront a societal preference for sons which has led to a skewed gender ratio in the country. This leads to the question – can Indian male chauvinism really be challenged in such an atmosphere?
Scratch an urbane, feminist-oriented male a little and ingrained ideas of how a male should be and behave will emerge, say young millennials. At the heart of the matter, boys still believe that they are the breadwinners, and they still have to don the traditional “paternalistic” role. Pop culture too is not throwing up any clear answers, as you have a Justin Bieber, a Drake or a Mark Zuckerberg as male icons. Leaders of nations are openly combative – puffed up with 59 inch chests and boasting about “bigger nuclear buttons”. An article in Esquire Magazine last year observed, “Pop culture has once again come to favour men who are either cold and nonchalant, or strong and gallant, or all of the above—men of the classically macho mould. And in real life, we see people are buying into it. Crossfit centres are producing more buff bodies in sandos, and the trends are inclined to believe that bulkier is better.” So, are we cycling back? Hopefully not, but it is a disturbing possibility.
Popular cinema too has heroes endorsing the six pack look – leading ambassadors of this being Tiger Shroff and Salman Khan. Body sculpting for movie roles, however, is as much a female prerogative as it is a male one these days.
What Indian cinema lacks today are more films that sensitively portray the insecurities of men in a fast changing society. There are a few, such as Aligarh and Kapoor & Sons or a Dear Dad (Arvind Swamy plays a gay father in this Tamil film ) that have focused on homosexuality but that is only one aspect of it.
Men still have to deal with the tall expectations of being a man. They might also feel a sense of emasculation when faced with extremely confident, successful women with high self-esteem. This confusion is not captured on the screen. The men in women-centric films are always passive or frustrated like in Tumhari Sulu or Simran or in Mozhi. In Queen, the hero was callous and selfish but the reasons for his behaviour were unclear. The male characters in our movies are largely caricatures – with the exception, perhaps, of roles played by Irrfan Khan or Kunchacko Boban in Malayalam. On screen, they are as gender neutral as it gets.
Increasingly, experts believe that for real and significant societal change, attention should be shifted to working on the male mindset instead of just concentrating on female empowerment. Indian filmmakers are yet to explore these real issues. They are more preoccupied with portraying women’s liberation as sexual liberation, like Lust Stories that made its debut on Netflix. Meanwhile, a man’s libido is limitless on celluloid, if you go by Sanju!
In reality, as society keeps evolving, women probably are looking for a deeper, meaningful liberation that balances their nurturer side with their need to feel a sense of self-worth. While men probably are grappling with gender stereotyping and moving into a space that does not require them to prove their masculinity. Or what the world around them perceives as being a male. Our cinema is attempting to catch up with these changing dynamics. With some measure of success.

Kavitha Shanmugam is the Chief Content Curator at The PRactice....