Ayushmann Khurrana, Rajkummar Rao and Vicky Kaushal are all unafraid to play second fiddle to women in their films.
In one of last year’s sweetest sleeper hits, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, Ayushmann Khurrana is hanging on for dear life from a cable car, which is transporting his soon-to-be-wife back from the temple. A TV commentator down below starts his piece to camera: “Aur yeh hai aam Bharatiya mard ki tasveer. Ek padha likha, decent aadmi, do udan khatolon ke beech main latka hua. Yeh mard bhi us patriarchal society ke bhoj ke tale daba hua he jitna ki koi aur.”
Increasingly mirroring society, a series of small but interesting films from Mumbai cinema are painting a different version of masculinity from the aggressive muscle-flexing ‘mardangi’ of Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar (who occasionally tempers it with sensitive social causes such as menstrual hygiene and toilets for women). There is a growing sense of male anxiety, which is trying to come to terms with the new woman, who is more confident, assertive and most importantly, not afraid of confronting established male privilege. This anxiety is often represented onscreen by the triumvirate of Ayushmann Khurrana, Rajkummar Rao and Vicky Kaushal, all actors who are unafraid to play second fiddle to the women onscreen and embody the confusion over how to be a modern man.
Also read: Badhaai Ho exposes our prudishness about sex
This modern man, as he fumbles his way around the bedroom and boardroom (in some cases like Arjun Kapoor’s character in R. Balki’s Ki & Ka in 2016, forsaking it altogether), is different from the self-absorbed man-child perfected by Ranbir Kapoor in an arc that stretches from Wake Up Sid in 2009 to Sanju this year. This emerging man is looking for ways to negotiate a new reality where women are far more assertive and demanding at home, at work and in public spaces.
A groundbreaking study, the Teenage Girls Report 2018 by Project Nanhi Kali and compiled by Naandi Foundation, gives a fascinating snapshot of the mindset of tomorrow’s Indian woman – India currently has a population of 80 million girls between the ages of 13 and 19. The report, sampling 74,000 girls, shows that 70 per cent wish to pursue higher studies, 74 per cent want to work after their studies and have a specific career in mind – the career aspiration is as strong in rural girls (71.8 per cent) as in urban (80.2 per cent). Similarly, the study shows that in rural as well as urban India, 73 per cent of girls want to marry only after they are 21. By this time, they expect to start working. This is despite the tough conditions in which they exist – 40 per cent of teenage girls still defecate in the open, 46 per cent use unhygienic materials during menstruation, and one in every two teenage girls is anaemic.
There may be a distance between their reality and their dreams, but that hasn’t stopped young women from aiming high. This unapologetic ambition is what teenage boys will have to contend with as more girls expect ungendering of domestic tasks as well. Young women want to be what they can see, and a new kind of cinema is giving them heroines such as Sugandha in Shubh Mangal Saavdhan who is not afraid to call her fiance a “phattu” and a “thanda pakoda” for his inability to initiate a conversation with her and then to have sex, and Bitti in Bareilly Ki Barfi who lends her secret stash of cigarettes to her father and wanders around the city at night on her moped like a “chudail”.
In Stree, one of the biggest little films of this year, young men are advised not to step out at night for four days a year when an actual “chudail” is out hunting. But this witch, unlike men on the hunt, understands the idea of consent. She is a “naye Bharat ki chudail” who, unlike men, doesn’t believe in “zabardasti”. She first calls out the man’s name, waits till he turns and looks into her eyes before leaving only his clothes behind. As the young men scamper home after dark, calling out to their mummies, it is a rather funny but delicious role reversal.
Dubbing powerful or sexually aggressive women witches has been a social response historically – and it doesn’t end well for them. But the difference now is that women are getting away with it, at least onscreen, whether it is Rumi in Anurag Kashyap’s Manmarziyaan, who gets her Ramji-type, dutiful husband in the end, or Megha in the Karan Johar episode in Netflix’s Lust Stories, who wants sex as pleasure not a duty to be endured, or Tanu who settles for the sedate, sober Manu in Tanu Weds Manu, a film that seven years later continues to be the template for Bollywood feminism. What is different now is that filmmakers are not afraid of exploring the impact of this new woman on the man. In the ridiculously misogynistic but also awfully successful Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety, the distrust of women is evident in the relationship between Sonu, the best friend, and Sweety, the perfect fiancée. From organising her fiancé’s diet to ensuring the flush is fixed, Sweety is a perfectionist, multitasking powerhouse, and also the object of Sonu’s immense suspicion, who thinks she is nothing less than a Chanakya plotting to take over his bovine best friend’s life.
Male anxiety is more literal in Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, as Ayushmann Khurrana fails to perform in bed. We see echoes of this performance anxiety again in his character in the superb Badhaai Ho recently where he stops in the middle of making love to his posh girlfriend, and says, “Ye bhi koi mummy papa ke karne ki cheez hai kya?”. Because horror of horrors, the mother, who he assumes had him by immaculate conception, is pregnant with another child at a socially ‘inappropriate’ age.
Sure, even woke Bollywood cannot construct male anxiety except in purely sexual terms so far, but it is progressing nonetheless in moving closer to the transformative changes sweeping through society. This clash over the idea of masculinity under threat, was the basis of the protest against Padmaavat earlier in the year. Madhavi Menon, who teaches English at Ashoka University, has argued that Alauddin Khilji’s character embodies all the “manly” qualities the Rajputs admire – from meat-eating to military aggression to obvious muscularity. These are the warrior-like qualities Hindu nationalists with their fictional 56-inch chests would like to flaunt as well.
Till such time as a real 56-inch chest saviour descends on Indian men, or at least a Jordan Peterson emerges to articulate the angst and often rage against the erosion of male privilege, we at the movies can enjoy the many talents of Khurrana/Rao/Kaushal and watch patriarchy being smashed.
The writer is a senior journalist and was Editor of India Today (2011-2014).