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Snapshots of Bollywood Masculinity in the Age of Hindutva

The year 2013 marked the centenary of Indian cinema and as a result the country saw multiple celebrations through the year commemorating this event—film festivals, government funded programs, special films made to mark the occasion and of course tributes in the forms of books, journals, conferences etc. In this paper I want to focus on two song and dance numbers that were performed at the popular Hindi cinema award shows Filmfare and the International Indian Film Awards (IIFA). The first of the two was performed by actor Hrithik Roshan at the Filmfare awards, while the other was by the upcoming actors Sushant Singh Rajput. Both performances were set to songs dedicated to the Hindu lord Ganesha; while Roshan danced to a song from his own film Agneepath, Rajput performed to a medley of songs, all of which were invocations to Ganesha in some capacity. I want to use these performances as illustrations not just of the communal politics of the Bombay film industry, but also of the male body as it performs or is made to stand in for an aggressive religious identity. This paper will try to demonstrate that these are not isolated events, but are instead visible evidence of the masculinization of what is being projected as the Hindu nation.[1]

A Bollywood Map of Masculinity

Shah Rukh Khan

Since the early 1990s, the most popular actors of popular Hindi cinema, known unfortunately as Bollywood, have been the three Khans—Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir. All three hail from the Pathan group, who in India are Muslims originating from the Northwest frontier (near the border of Afghanistan). While Aamir Khan is crafting his image as a “serious actor”, Salman Khan has been categorized as the “brawns” of the industry. A middle ground of sorts is in Shah Rukh Khan, who is arguably the most popular of the three as his popularity cuts across classes and regions. Shah Rukh (I will refer to him as such to avoid confusion), was arguably the actor with whom there was a change in the image of the male lead’s masculinity.

The most stable of the male hero prior to the 1990s was epitomized by India’s biggest superstar Amitabh Bachchan (left) in the 1970s. Referred to as ‘The Angry Young Man’, Bachchan’s filmic persona was of a young, working class man whose life reflected the hardships the country faced in the 1960s and 70s—the decades of disillusionment that began after India lost the war with China (1962) over the contested territory of Aksai Chin. The angry young man’s body exemplified the physical labor that a majority of men in India had to do to make a living. The 1980s—the most under-theorized area of popular Indian cinema—saw a mild erosion of the angry young man as Bachchan’s popularity faded. Entering the film industry in 1992, Shah Rukh Khan’s body was visibly different from his predecessors—he was absolutely hairless, had no moustache, and wasn’t even particularly toned. While he started out as an anti-hero (either with a dark past, or with psychological disorders), Shah Rukh eventually cultivated an image as the ultra-rich (often a non-resident Indian), charming, almost effeminate lover who has chemistry with every woman and in fact even every male co-star he works with.There is then an interesting cycle of the presentation of the male body through the 1970s, which is arguably predicated on class lines. The working class body of Bachchan in the 70s was traditionally masculine—chest hair, unshaven, sunburnt look and ripped clothes—was followed by the softer, more feminine body of Shah Rukh Khan who often played upper-class Hindu men in his most popular films in the 1990s. The coming of globalization with the opening up of the Indian market in 1992 is to some extent an influence to this turn. There is then a rejection of the working class aesthetic that is associated with masculinity made popular not just by Bachchan, but in the 1980s by the likes of Anil Kapoor and Jackie Shroff. The turn of the century however reimagined the male aesthetic in a distinctly gym-body way. While it adopts a more muscular look, it also rejects the working-class element, taking on an aesthetic that reflects the privilege of the rich man. Unlike the narrative of the able body associated with the working-class man, the “fitness” of this body is centered on appearance and more specifically on male beauty. John Abraham is a veritable example of this version of a globalized masculinity. While gym bodies are not popularly likened to gay culture, Abraham is in fact a gay icon, though the circulation of that discourse is largely through underground means like blogs etc. Shah Rukh Khan, who maintained his persona as the charming rich lover, also eventually had to adapt his body to this culture of male beauty and worked to get six-pack abs for his 2008 film Om Shanti Om.

Hrithik Roshan

Shah Rukh Khan was always considered to be in competition with the other Khans, but the comparisons took on a new vocabulary with the arrival of actor Hrithik Roshan, a Punjabi Hindu, who was the son of yesteryears actor Rakesh Roshan. Hrithik Roshan’s entry into the landscape of popular Hindi cinema, in 2000, saw a visible shift in the imaginary of the popular hero as popular discourse revolved around his immensely toned body and fantastic dancing skills. He was immediately pitched as a threat to the dominance of the Khans, particularly because of the new kind of male body that came with him onto the popular screens. He was not the first actor to have a fit body, so what is of the essence is not just the body itself, but a more aware usage of it in popular cinema, wherein attention is drawn to his abs and he is often seen shirt-less or flexing his biceps. Roshan has been at the center of discussions around his body and fitness routine since his early days in the industry, in a way that Shah Rukh wasn’t (not until 2008 and Om Shanti Om). The other difference between Roshan and the Khans was that he was a Hindu, arguably the first Hindu actor to attain superstar status in over a decade. While this was not written about much—and blogs etc were not prevalent at the time—it was part of the discussion. Hrithik Roshan, along with Abhishek Bachchan (son of the aforementioned Amitabh Bachchan) and now Ranbir Kapoor have been deemed scions of the Hindi film industry, as the re-emergence of the Hindu hero.

Many Muscles, Many Gods

In 2012, one of Amitabh Bachchan’s most iconic films—Agneepath—was remade with a new cast of actors, and Hrithik Roshan as the male lead. This act of remaking can be read as a declaration of Roshan as the successor of Amitabh Bachchan, who was the last big Hindu male star before the advent of the Khans. This in itself can be seen as an act of reclaiming, because before this Shah Rukh Khan had been the male lead in the remake of another Bachchan film, Don (Akhtar 2006). Additionally, Agneepath was a film that is considered a part of Bachchan’s repertoire as the angry young man. Agneepath is one of the more violent stories enacted by Bachchan, featuring a poor young boy, Vijay Dinanath Chauhan, who takes to a life of crime and violence to avenge his father’s death. The motifs of revenge, a ruthless one at that, is seen as a proactive move to defend the honor of one’s family and predecessors. The image of the protagonist as a Hindu hero whose duty it is to not just avenge his father, but to defend his sister’s honor is buttressed by the fact that one of the leader’s of the drug mafia and sex-trafficking racket is a Muslim character who tries to sell Vijay’s sister and is killed by Vijay.

Roshan picked a song from this film—‘Deva Shri Ganesha’—dedicated to lord Ganesha, to perform at the Filmfare awards ceremony. A similar routine was performed by Sushant Singh Rajput, in his performance however, the song ‘Deva Shri Ganesha’ was one of several in a mash-up of songs dedicated to Ganesha. In both these performances, the focus is on the male body which is visibly toned. Both men wear half-unbuttoned shirts to reveal their pecks, along with sleeveless shirts to emphasize the bicep muscles that they flex on various occasions. This particular presentation of the mal
                                      

Shiva imagery is deployed by Rajput (pictured above) as well, especially in the way he utilizes postures from classical dances that are used to symbolize lord Shiva. So there is a veritable shift from songs that are about Ganesha to imagery and movement that is inspired by Shiva. I would argue that the shift to the iconography and legend associated with Shiva is telling because it marks a shift in the ideological anchorage within the Hindu belief system, from one linked to Ganesha—who is the god of knowledge, and a patron of the arts—to one that is linked to Shiva—who is linked to ideas of rage and destruction. This adds a martial element to it, wherein the focus on the muscular stature seemed to underscore a tone of physical aggression if not threat to the performance. The dance movement adds to this reading to a visible degree. In Roshan’s performance, aside from the dance that emphasizes a fit and agile body, in the last minute or so, the tempo of the song changes, the lyrics now are ‘Twamave Mata…’ (‘you’re the mother’) the most quintessential Hindu song of worship, and there is a sort of added intensity to his movements. The choreography is reminiscent of the Tandava that lord Shiva does when he is angry. It is worth mentioning that Shiva, a primary god in the Hindu pantheon, is known as the destroyer—the destroyer of evil.

It can therefore be argued that the shift to Shiva imagery in the award shows facilitates a focus on the male body’s aggressive stance. The body is framed in the context of the surrounding aesthetics, which too is quintessentially Hindu, with the teeka[2] on Roshan’s forehead, images of fire, the use of saffron[3] , the backup dancers with Ganesha masks, but most crucially, I would argue, the red flags. The flags are reminiscent of the flags that are used by the right-wing Hindu groups and political parties during their rallies, and are a lasting vision of the demolished Babri Masjid (mosque) with right-wing attackers standing atop the destroyed monument, having planted the red flags on the dome.[4]

 

What is important to understand is that the display of an aggressively masculine image of Hinduism during the award-shows are not isolated events, but rather are representative of an increasingly popular socio-political climate that is carving a consciously threatening version or image of masculinity which is in service of the Hindu nation and its limited and frightening notions of “tradition”. The fact that performances embodying the rage of lord Shiva were the most recurring feature of all Bollywood award shows in the centenary year of Indian cinema is telling for it can be read as an attempt not just to mark the re-emergence of the Hindu hero, but also to reclaim the history of Indian cinema, bringing it into the fold of a dominant and masculinized domain of politics.

 

Footnotes

  1. Hindutva is a term that is associated with the sectarian politics of the Hindu right-wing in India. []
  2. Teeka or tilaka is a line made on the forehead with a red paste, and is the marker of someone who is blessed by the gods (so it is often put while conducting a prayer). []
  3. Saffron is the color associated generally with Hinduism, but more specifically with the right-wing Hindu images. The origin of this lies in the saffron clothes worn by sages and priests. []
  4. The Babri Masjid was a mosque that was demolished by Hindu rightwing groups and their supporters in 1992, under the claim that the site was once a Ram temple. The event led to large-scale communal riots across the country. []