Portrayal of Masculinity in Hindi Cinema
To be a Bollywood Hero is to be it all – larger than life, too strong to feel any emotion be it fear or pain and the ultimate savior of mankind. We all grew up watching Bollywood movies and they developed our thinking and expectations about our daily lives. So how cinema portrayed men also considerably shaped how they behaved and how we perceived them. This representation of men in Bollywood can’t be limited to a single definition or a couple of adjectives - it’s a roller coaster with several ups and downs; few hits and mostly misses to be more precise. It’s often overshadowed as misrepresentation of women in the industry usually takes the cake, but ‘Masculinity’ as a phenomenon in cinema is no less in terms of toxicity and has been packaged by Bollywood time and again to condition young men rather poorly. Since gender roles are observed and adopted, I wonder what a ten-year-old boy on hearing ‘Mard ko dard nahi hota’ or ‘Tu pehle mard banna seekh’ or ‘Mard hai toh aage aa’ or a hundred dialogues that heroes from the 60’s said, grasped. Did he believe showing emotions made him weak? Did he also feel responsible to risk his mental health and project bravery at all times? Can we please make him watch some of Ayushmann Khurrana’s films that somewhat let men believe it’s alright to be effeminate, emotional and empathetic?
The evolution of Bollywood has seen heroes tenderly dancing around trees and dedicating songs to their lovers, beating everyone up in the vicinity in the name of revenge, taking care of every woman in their life often to an extent that she seems incapable to function without them and yes lately we’ve also seen them portrayed as supportive and accepting men that are willing to show more emotions than the previously accepted binary- anger and love. All of these portrayals can be placed together and this kaleidoscope of different roles can be viewed to understand Bollywood’s perception of Masculinity – the word that literally translates to the qualities or attributes regarded as characteristics of men. Merely a social construct with biological ambiguity, Bollywood has been actively projecting what it means to be a ‘Man’ and we as viewers have been learning and applying it since ages. So, in this article, we’re going to decode all the various versions of masculinity and popular tropes of men in cinema that we’ve been bombarded with through the years!
The Angry-Young-Man Trope
A completely rapid transition from the lover-boy singing songs in gardens, the world of this man in the 1960s-1990s was loud, brash, and largely toxic. Someone who could be described as the flagbearer of being the angry-young man character is Amitabh Bachchan or Big B who defined the tall – dark and handsome era. With movies like Sholay, Deewar, Zameer, Trishul, Don, Coolie, Shahenshah, and Agneepath he gave magnetic unforgettable performances but sadly as a protagonist with like anger issues? He didn’t care much about any emotion other than love, anger and revenge (all applied negatively in his films) and was rather seen choosing violence as a solution to all problems.
Amongst other ‘manly’ contemporaries are Sanjay Dutt and his countless gangster flicks like Khal Nayak, Vaastav, Baaghi, and Mission Kashmir where he was constantly seen as the epitome of intoxicating charm, anger, and power. In real as well as reel life, he portrayed to be a rather toxic but ‘manly’ man whose mannerisms young men began to think of as aspirational and adopt. Dharmendra also became famous for his aggression on-screen. Heroes played roles of sons and fathers, yet they focused on being “macho”, fighting criminals, wrongdoers and cheaters. This era showed the idea of being a man as the idea of being tough, rowdy and well, macho.
Now in late twentieth century the Khans and Khiladi reigned. They began to take their roles as men of the movies slightly less seriously and played relaxed roles where they weren’t lifting hand pumps all the time. But of course, they came with their own set of toxicity. Cheating on their partners, misogyny, treating women as objects was still normal and funny to this man. Be it Govinda’s classics where he was often a pathological liar or Salman’s films like No entry and Biwi No.1 where cheating was totally normalized. Even his family movies showed voiceless women, defined gender roles and sexist jokes for comic relief. Society also at that point of time embraced such cinema because men did play dominant roles not just in movies but in real life too and they were the ones making all decisions. But till date his movies like Dabangg have the audacity to write lines like ‘Thappad maar ke bhi de sakte hai’.
How can we also leave behind one of the most toxic characters in Indian Cinema, i.e, Shahrukh Khan from Darr? The simple fact that consent is completely overlooked in the famous song ‘Tu Ha Kar Ya na Kar Tu Hai Meri Kiran?’ really makes one question this character’s upbringing. But we can cut this man some slack for he has also portrayed some really well-written characters and normalised the notion that men can ‘feel’. Seeing a man of his stature open his heart and cry like anything, while carrying out the duties that are expected from a man like him, and baring all his emotions on that gigantic screen shattered the notion about how 'real men don't cry' with films like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham.
A really accurate example would be Rab Ne Bana di Jodi because he was playing the worst and the sugar-coated best example of a man which basically exemplified how a person holds both of those types of characteristics in him and how it's up to him to let one come to the fore and let the other one die. So, to conclude we kind of embrace this Khan with our open arms right back for SOME of his film choices.
The evolution of male characters happened at each decade. But the notions of masculinity remained almost the same, each time presented with some alterations to the last definition. Men still had to be the ones the film revolved around- with layers and a life, while women were mere supporting characters-literally in terms of their role and duties. The aggressiveness became less but men still were and till date are continued to be portrayed as the saviours of women, who guide them, liberate them, perform heroic tasks for them and what not. This is another trope that’s often seen when rape was and is used as a plot point. This incident only occurs so that the man can rise to action and take revenge for his helpless sister/helpless mother/helpless wife or any other similar helpless woman. From Gadar to Veer Zara, the hero was crossing borders for love and “saving” the heroine. Women characters were either just daughters or lovers with no career or no mentioning of their career in such movies. Such tropes put an unconscious pressure on men to be the saviour even when they aren’t prepared and women to be subservient, silent and dependent objects.
Toxic men and the Man-Child
Toxicity comes in all forms in Bollywood and it never honestly left the movies. It simply transitioned from a Rahul that doesn’t accept Anjali till she looks every bit of acceptably a woman to an Ayan from Ae Dil Hai Mushkil who despite being told for 3 hours straight, till the very end has problems accepting that Alizeh just wants to be friends. Sadly, the trait of toxicity remains constant even in 2020’s and now the variety ranges from an obvious unstable man-child like Kabir Singh to a superficially woke and supportive but consistent stalker like Badrinath. Shahid Kapoor also has the gem R…Rajkumar in his treasure box with the composition ‘Gandi Baat’, violence and fat-shaming. Like I said, the obvious traits have subsided but some really unmissable ones still remain.
For instance, no matter how heart-touching a Yeh Jawaani Hai Dewaani might be, at its core is a self-centered man who cares more about his own emotions than anyone and has to never face any consequences to his actions. Or even when a Kartik Aryan film shows him in the ‘victim’ light he says completely sexist and misogynistic dialogues with only a linear approach where even worse –we’re made to empathize with the brooding man. I say ‘Kartik Aryan films’ because a Pyaar ka Punchnama series or a Sonu Ke Titu ki Sweety or even a Patni Patni aur Woh all in the twenty first century still have countless toxic ideologies that show women as irrational, demanding and the stereotype of “gold-diggers”.
The Emergence of a New ‘Man’
To balance the irrational, toxic characters there are also some beautifully written men that were comfortable in their masculinity as well as defied any myths that men can’t be contributing to house chores, understanding, accepting, non-violent and so many other qualities that these characters possessed. The ideal representation most close to my definition of a perfect man was Jay Singh Rathore from Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na. With a name, as heavy as that, he was so comfortable being a confidant to his single mother, doing house chores, choosing non-aggression and displaying so many emotions. Imran Khan in his movies time and again proved that you can be supremely comfortable around strong women and being equals doesn’t threaten your masculinity. Madhavan in Tanu Weds Manu series is also an example of how men can express themselves without being toxic. He treats rejection gracefully and acknowledges the consent of the lead in both movies. Vicky Kaushal in Raazi is another example of evolved masculinity on screen. He is an understanding husband who is not afraid of showing he is as nervous as Alia Bhatt when they meet after their marriage.
A special mention of course is none other than Ayushmann Khuranna who has played so many woke characters in mainstream cinema. The roles he plays vary from of a man going through erectile dysfunction, a homosexual man in a commercial film and a man working as a woman at a call centre. He displays so many emotions and feels so comfortable in his masculinity both on and off-screen - where he also fasted for his wife when she couldn’t. This shift in real-life heroes is also what translates on screen and sends out a positive message on masculinity. For instance, the most aspirational husband Ranveer Singh who constantly breaks all barriers of male toxicity and is not scared of being less than his wife in any way. This trope thus, is our favourite from all the others when men are comfortable being themselves and equals to women!
All in all, the way cinema projects masculinity affects men as it forces them to act in a certain way in order to be accepted, and leaves women with an impression that they should tolerate misbehaviour. Thus, developing better characters is beyond essential to send out a right message to the audience!