Indian Cinema’s Obsession with Overly Masculine Heroes


Anindya Arif


“Cinema’s characteristic forte is its ability to capture and communicate the intimacies of the human mind.”

– Satyajit Ray

 

Violent Masculinity

For years now, society through mainstream media has constructed an unhealthy idea of hulking masculinity that men, on some level, are expected to aspire to. Which in return has given prominence to this archetype of “toxic or violent masculinity” with traditional traits including but not limited tosubduing emotion, carrying a hardcore appearance, or inflicting violence to assert dominance, and bullying. 


INDIAN CINEMA’S OBSESSION WITH OVERLY MASCULINE HEROES

Cinemas cannot function on their own and are an integral part of the culture of the country. They have a big hand in shaping its norms, along with the ideals of the society due to their infinite reach. Indian cinema, throughout its history, has seen a comprehensive representation of masculinity from Rajesh Khanna’s tragic hero to Amitabh Bachchan’s “angry young man” image. However, since the 2000s, the whole gamut of masculinity in Indian films has shifted towards more overtly idealistic heroes with abs of steel which has seen the meteoric commercial success of such extreme mindless action flicks, like War (2019) or Baaghi (2016).

Larger than life personalities playing these shatterproof characters and glorifying an improper image of dominant masculinity through heavily heightened masculine escapades have led to a generation of men with fragile egos and suffocating ideals, like “big boys don’t cry”.

The success of this archetype can mainly be attributed to the fact that the majority of moviegoers are looking for empty-headed, easily consumable films to satisfy their entertainment-deprived selves and to feed into the commodity culture of the industry.

With the majority of the highest-grossing films still compromising films with buffed up male leads asserting their hyper-masculinity over films’ antagonists and the female leads, this ongoing trend is unlikely to change anytime soon.

 

Crisis of Masculinity & The industry’s VIOLENT MASCULINITY PROBLEM

The majority of films coming out of the Hindi film industry now represent a misogynistic form of masculinity that is disjointed from all its feminine aspects and emotions, and in return is overly aggressive and competitive, which has led to this crisis of a lack of proper masculine representation in films.

The influence of the Bollywood industry on the young male demographic and their tendencies of trying to adapt these Film-esque scenarios in real life has resulted in an improper understanding of their masculinity which has led to issues such as impulsiveness, promiscuity, and dysfunctional relationships, among others; all in vain attempts to prove how Herculean they are.

“They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

– F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

contains spoilers for A Death in the Gunj

The best representation of violent masculinity in an urban setting is shown in Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut, A Death in the Gunj (2016). The film primarily focuses on Shutu, a sensitive, brooding young man who unsurprisingly has a written list in his diary with words that start with the letter E. Most adults around Shutu, as described in The Great Gatsby, are hyper-verbal, indulgent, and plain ignorant. They are negligent in their carless violence towards himcareless in their ways as they fail to see the flashes of tormented rage building within him which finally becomes the catalyst for killing himself at the final arc of the film. The film further dissects how, despite the women of the family indulging in smoking, drinking, singing Elvis Presley songs, and belonging to an English-speaking and economically privileged class, are still overshadowed by familial patriarchy and misogyny. It paints a cautionary tale on violent masculinity, and its lasting impact on those who do not necessarily comply with its preconceived notions. Gloria Steinem perfectly summarised the problem when she said, “I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons, but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters.”

 

Conclusion

The industry, to maximise their profits on the ever-shortening attention span of its audience, has given birth to this cancerous culture of instant gratification through bangs, booms, abs, biceps, and blasts, where they provide female leads with just enough screen time to objectify them and play the damsel in distress for the lead hero to play the “white saviour”. As long as systemic sexism exists within every level of the hierarchy, the mass audience will continue to flock over and drool over these overly masculine and equally less flattering male heroes as they beat up unapologetically stupid antagonists, and force their brute strength over the female heroines as they keep looking for similar validations in themselves. To say nothing of how most, if not all, these films will fail spectacularly on the Bechdel Wallace test, and these perceived morals and objectification bringing more money in than ever, this style of approach is more than likely here to stay.

 


Anindya eats music, fiction, and reality — all for breakfast. Send him fresh recipes at [email protected] 

2 Comments

  1. While I do agree with you and your stance and believe that there is a problem with society and their love affair with the generic hunk.

    I, for one, would also put some of those burdens on the ones creating the art. Placing the blame on the industry can go so much.

    Now visual arts, mostly pictures, and videos, have always been faithful to the aesthetically pleasing. There is no way around it. Big budget productions with a charming pumped up Stan will always bring in numbers ad you tend to forget its a business.

    People need to make big bucks on the movies they make, so they sign whoever brings in the big bucks. It’s the audience who perpetuates the stereotypes. Now you may be wondering why do this with art at all? And as you pointed out in your article, it’s an industry. That’s why.

    It’s not actually art. It’s a mass-produced version of some artist’s vision who needed the commission to keep his house on order. It’s the same as the scenic frames you can buy from New Market.

    Now you can’t compare those scenic landscape paintings to Monet’s work that wouldn’t make sense. But not everyone can afford or understand Monet’s value only a few can, but everyone likes to have a landscape painting in their living room. It makes them feel good.

    There is a place for everything. For every De Niro, there is a Vin Diesel. And consequently, for every Jackie Shroff, there is a Nasiruddin Shah. For every Salman Khan, there is an Irfan Khan, Paresh Rawal, a Johnny Lever.

    I remember a time between the mid-2000s to the early 2010s Bollywood experimented with a lot of different movies handling off-color things like horror, thrillers, and crime.

    Most of them didn’t really work. Movies like Karthik calling Karthik, Kaminey, Sawaria, Haider, Gangs of Wasseypur, Shaitan, etc. Now many of those movies received critical acclamation, and some were a financial hit; however, the entire experiment was a big disaster and paled in comparison to those masala movies.

    And I know they may not be good enough for the Oscars, but it was something different, but films like Wanted and similar things like that made big bucks, and the filmmakers gotta eat man.

    You see, directors like Vishal Bhardwaj, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and many others had to either adapt to the demands of Masala or be offered significantly fewer funds for movies.

    Actors like Shahrukh Khan goes from My Name Is Khan to Chennai Express or Om Shanti Om. The same with Aamir Khan and Ajay Devgan.

    They had to adapt to demand, and the most successful actor within that time was Salman Khan. Did he make any movie that could compare with films like Barfi or Kahaani? No, but anyone who made masala movies was successful.

    So filmmakers who couldn’t do that, the actors who couldn’t do that had to evolve. Which is why there is a sudden boom in good Indian tv shows and indie movies on streaming sites. Because only a select group of the population likes it, and they are the ones who can afford streaming services.

    If you don’t conform to the demand in a competitive landscape, you will be swept aside. However, if you want to keep something alive, then you gotta subsidize it, and no one wants to.

    The problem is with the ones making policy to focus on the business side rather than the art aspect and us. It’s a disease plaguing even the holy grail that is Tinsel Town. A masala film speaks more about our character as a society than a drama film based on a true story.

    Now how do you change the cyclical nature of this cancer that is eating away at the art and propagating false notions and delusions about your society? Well, don’t worry, I am not going to say you have to do something. Well, it’s actually not entirely up to you.

    You, I, and the ones who make decisions on what to film and what to write. The writers writing it and the policymakers making policies to subsidize art, that’s what is needed. A whole bunch of us working to push out beautiful art and make sure that people become accustomed to art.

    We, the few, have to work tirelessly to bring art to the mass. Blaming an industry is never helpful for anyone. If you look at it closely, we are all a little bit responsible.

    See, there is this trend of being woke that is sweeping the world, and most of us are like semi woke and never really hold ourselves culpable for the failure of society as a whole.

    We should propagate good content and stand up for it when there is an opposition. See, that’s why I couldn’t totally agree with your opinion piece.

  2. The primary focus of this opinion piece was to highlight how the Indian film industry visual misrepresented masculinity and its overall impact on the general movie goer audiences. The whole point of this piece was to highlight the disturbing effects on the public consciousness of these hyper-masculine figures.

    The industry and our whole societal structure have to share the blame for breeding and feeding into this cancerous culture of promoting problematic imagery trough films. Blaming the industry is the way forward because of its overall influence over the public domain. A push from its biggest creators is needed to confront these issues and to rectify them. The point is not that the industry mass producing mediocre films but the problematic ideas they are reflecting, which have real-time consequences. The industry has to take the blame for this more than the general public.

    The real demand for the “masala films” is generated by the INDUSTRY trough their continuous pumping of millions in lucrative adverts for films and their stars. Yes, I do agree that there is a lack of funds for creatively challenging movies and that the general mindset of people is not willing to accept them. However, the only way for quality films to get mainstream recognition is through a proper push from the industry and its biggest creators.

    As for the directors you have mentioned, Sanjay Leela Bhansali is the epitome of a commercial director who always already well-renowned texts with lavish sets, over the top music numbers and bankable stars. Also is just as guilty of promoting these unhealthy ideas as any other prominent director. Vishal Varadwaj similarly adapts renowned works in an Indian familiar setting with similar Bollywood tropes and big-name stars. Also, please My name is Khan is just as evil as Chennai express.

    These issues that you have highlighted are not entirely the problems of this generation, and you can trace it back to the early ’70s, where people like Feroz Khan were making just as problematic masculine films like the ones starring Salman Khan. There was never really a ‘BOOM” of quality cinema in the Indian film industry, small budget quality films like the aforementioned, Gangs of Wasseypur are still being made, like The Ship of Theseus or Dhobi Ghaat. Even in the ’70s and 80s, movies like Masoom and Chhoti Si Baat were being made indifferent to the local film landscape of that era.

    To conclude, yes, we all share the blame to an extent, as we are willingly feeding into this culture. However, the industry needs to be held accountable for glorifying these problematic ideas and its repercussions in everyday life.

    Lastly, thank you for taking the time out to read and critic my piece. Much appreciated, and at the end of the day, as you have put out, multiple times the fact that it is my opinion, with which you do not necessarily need to see eye to eye. Have a good day.

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