Masculinity is defined as a set of socially constructed qualities that characterise a man. These characteristics are based on patriarchal ideologies and often hinge on the fulfilment of the three P’s—to protect, provide and procreate. But more often than not, they do more harm than good—these practices/behaviours not only lead to the oppression of women, but also create a toxic culture which has adverse effects on men. In India, like in most countries of the world, this socially-sanctioned “performance” of masculinity is not only “taught” by the family and educational institutions but also buttressed by religious, social practices and law. It is often synonymous with a blatant expression of misogyny and homophobia and is often also accompanied by generous doses of other forms of discriminatory practices such as racism, classism, casteism etc.
In the third season of Aamir Khan’s show Satyameva Jayate, there was an episode on toxic masculinity which I found to be equal parts disturbing and fascinating. One of the men who was called up to speak about his childhood experiences, broke down recalling how his sister was forced to discontinue her education because he, as a young boy, felt embarrassed going to school with a girl, saying, “I feel as if I have murdered someone.” Another recalled being hung upside down over a well whenever he cried as a child, with a “well-meaning” uncle saying “Mauga mat bano (Don’t be such a sissy).” These are both classic examples of how childhood experiences shape our ideas on gender and how family “values” are strongly grounded in patriarchal culture.
In addition to family and educational institutions, Indian men have constructed their masculinity based on the values embedded within two other aspects of cultural life- sports and entertainment. And there is no bigger form of entertainment in India than cinema. My first memory of a Hindi film hero was Shah Rukh Khan in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998). I found him to be extremely handsome, charming and did a little jig when he got together with Kajol at the end. But, as an adult I have realised that the idea that a girl has to be “pretty” to make the guy fall in love with her is not something that should be taught to young girls and boys.
My childhood was full of such heroes, who were either the ‘knight in shining armour’ or the ‘macho guy kicking ass’. It was not so much the actor as it was the director/screenplay writer who was at fault. Consider the song “Ladki Kyon” from Hum Tum (2004)—an entire song depicting women as gossip mongers, frivolous and rehabilitation centres for badly-behaved men. Or Bhool Bhulaiyya (2007) which was all about two men trying to rescue a “possessed” woman. The movie went on to do well in the box-office, with it’s sexist undertones and caricaturing of mental illness glossed over as horror, psychological thriller and good old humour.
However, beginning with 2010, there was a dramatic shift in Hindi cinema. Not only was there a desire by the audience to see more content-driven cinema that was representative of the Indian milieu, but the rise of social media and streaming platforms also democratised the Indian entertainment industry and made way for diverse content and new creative voices.
One of the first films of the new decade to truly address the construction of masculinity vis-à-vis was Udaan (2010). This coming-of-age movie was an exploration of the father-son relationship which, in India, is more often than not underscored by violence and a generational trauma born out of delusion. Instead of supporting his son to pursue his dream of becoming a writer, Rohan’s father forces him to work in a factory and study engineering.
This not only highlights how writing is considered to be a more “feminine” profession in contrast to engineering which is considered to be “masculine” and hence, more respectable but also reflects the reality of many Indian families which value luxury over happiness. The family dinner scene where Rohan’s father attempts to stamp his authority by recollecting the memories of his own relationship with his father perhaps best symbolises this legacy of trauma handed from father to son in a fervent desire to fit in within the so-called societal norms.
Another movie which had a deep impact on me was Onir’s film anthology I am (2010). But, this article will only focus on two stories. I am Abhimanyu was about child sex abuse and portrayed how this issue needs to be normalised within the family and the society. Sanjay Suri as Abhimanyu (Ashish) is at once manipulative and vulnerable, cavalier yet emotional. There is a moment where he admits to his friend, played by the brilliant Radhika Apte, that he felt comforted by the “love” shown by his stepfather even though he knew it was abuse. This scene belies the fact that the lack of a safe space in the family often makes it easier for the abuser to manipulate the child which he/she presumes to be affection.
In I am Omar, Rahul Bose as Jai is a gay man hounded by vulnerability and fear. His torment and loneliness are depicted in stark reality, forcing the audience to question the patriarchal structure which enables homophobia and seeks to protect Indian “culture” at the cost of the human right to freedom and dignity, and was later echoed by Manoj Bajpayee in his sublime performance as Professor Ramachandra Siras in Aligarh (2015).
If there is one actor who has redefined Indian masculinity through his film choices, it is undoubtedly Ayushmann Khurrana. From sperm donation to erectile dysfunction, baldness and homosexuality, this is a man who is not afraid to take on subjects that are considered “taboo” in Indian culture, especially amongst men, and deliver a movie that is entertaining and socially relevant. His movies have given voice to many Indian men who struggle every day with these issues but have been conditioned by society to not speak up about it as it would cast aspersions on their mardaangi (masculinity).
In the last decade, men in Hindi films were also shown as allies and champions of the women in their lives. The most memorable moment of such solidarity occurs in Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), where Sunny (played by an impeccable Farhan Akhtar) calls out Ayesha’s husband (played by Priyanka Chopra and Rahul Bose respectively) when the latter brags about “allowing” his wife to work. He rightly points out that giving permission comes from a place of authority and therefore, this so-called liberal act is actually misogynistic in nature. This scene exposes the hypocrisy of the new-age “liberal” Indian husband who believes that the fact that he allows his wife to work outside and does his share of household chores inevitably makes him a feminist.
In Pink (2016), Amitabh Bachchan stands tall by three women who are put on trial for defending themselves against sexual assault. The women in this movie are no damsels in distress and Bachchan is certainly no macho hero playing saviour. His famous dialogue “No means No” is actually an expression of protest against the patriarchal system which not only enables men to get away with such heinous crimes but publicly persecutes the woman instead.
In Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017) and Gunjan Sharma (2020), Pankaj Tripathi plays a supportive father who supports his daughter to make her own decisions and follow her heart instead of bowing to societal norms. There is a moment in Gunjan Sharma when Gunjan comes back home, upset at being discriminated against by the male officers, and instead of asking her to give up on her dreams and get married, he asks her to fight for what she believes in and to prove her fellow officers wrong by her ability and dedication to the job.
I am not naïve enough to believe that all has changed when it comes to portraying masculinity in Hindi cinema. Kartik Aryan’s infamous monologue from Pyaar Ka Punchnama (2011) is proof of that. So is Salman Khan’s entire filmography—movies like Sultan (2016) and Tiger Zinda Hai (2017) depict strong, capable, career-driven women (Anushka Sharma and Katrina Kaif respectively), who nevertheless have to play second fiddle to the magnanimous hero. Then there’s last year’s Kabir Singh which created a storm on social media because of its glorification of the deeply misogynistic protagonist played by Shahid Kapoor.
But things are gradually changing and the rise of streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime has enabled creative artists to come up with stories that are more realistic and diverse in terms of representation not only of men, but of women and queer people which will allow us and the next generation to be more accepting of people and not try to force them to fit into a pre-existing ideal rooted in oppressive ideologies.
Having recently completed her Master’s in English and Comparative Literature, Shilpashree Mishra spends her days reading books, writing poems and binge-watching Netflix shows (Derry Girls is a masterpiece, y’all). As a scholar, she is extremely interested in how the fields of Masculinity Studies and Media Studies can contribute to issues of social justice in India. She is equally passionate about GoT fanfiction, dark academia mood boards, chocolate cakes, and everything Robert Pattinson.