By Manik Sharma
In the Hollywood comedy Blockers, the ever-likeable John Cena plays an insecure father who thinks he is responsible for his daughter’s morality. Though beefed, and near-implausible as the guardian of a 17-year-old girl, Cena becomes part of a tag-team of three parents who try to prevent their daughters from losing their virginity on prom night. The film might follow a clichéd trajectory, but its baseline does point to a significant cultural shift – the perception of the male form. A decade or so ago, a hunky, muscular Cena would have been the source of the film’s depth, or at least some of its intelligence; today, he is the outlet of its stupidity.
We have grown up watching ripped men, who take off shirts to usher in heroism, also carry the pulse of a film’s intelligence. Think Dharmendra; think Gregory Peck or Marlon Brando or James Dean. They could say things that nobody thought of, or make sense of it all for the sake of everyone else. There was a phase in Indian cinema when our leading men were both, the poster and the song – the hero and the wit.
But the sun, it seems, is setting on the ripped male form. Only the likes of Salman Khan and Tiger Shroff continue to believe that their hairless chests could stand in for personality. For a small cross section of the viewing public, the sculpted male body is now an object of ridicule, easily dismissed as a Lokhandwala Gold’s Gym type.
In Irrfan Khan’s Blackmail, the director Abhinay Deo did a small turn as a muscular dimwit, handicapped seemingly by the same frame that was the source of his pride. In Amazon Prime’s spoof series Shaitan Haveli, Hemant Koumar played the self-confident droll Monty, a patchwork perhaps of Bhai and a thousand complexes put together. And then there are films like the Golmaal franchise that have recently cast muscular men as tokens of childishness, at times even inanity. A form that has made us believe that a V-shaped upper-body, wide shoulders, and a knotted stomach ought to qualify as some sort of character reference, a lack of spirit, soul, and mental capacity.
In my unscientific analysis, it would be great if the acumen of these ripped types would supersede the tightness of their shirts, but it almost always doesn’t.
Over the last few years, even the seemingly organic Ramayana and its multiple reboots on television caved into the demand of the incubated male body, its reflection and spirituality forgotten. Protagonists in television soaps are similarly bulked. And perhaps therein lies our clue, as to why this form of overworked, unreal bodies, this saturation of muscle has heralded its own downfall.
Because when all men on screen start looking the same, nuance arrives in the way they can be dissected, or eventually dismantled. So ubiquitous had this seemingly textile form of manhood become in the recent past, it probably ceased to matter at some point if you were all bone in the head, so long as you could wear a bone-sticking t-shirt underneath it.
There is, of course, a natural rebuttal to this. What is wrong with men being healthy? Only it doesn’t even look like health anymore, but a synthetic type. In my unscientific analysis, it would be great if the acumen of these ripped types would supersede the tightness of their shirts, but it almost always doesn’t. (Of course, full responsibility for the generalising.)
So does this mean we are finally at the end of this PR marathon that has for years convinced people that men with flawless bodies must similarly be clean and noble on the inside? Because cumulatively, we’ve lived through a couple of decades of “man-envy”, where both men and women have had to chase the austerity, the near-divinity of this projected male form, convinced that it comes packaged with pre-approved righteousness and a stamp of peerless authenticity. Though that plan has largely worked, and has made us all look stupid for a while, it seems the chickens have come home to roost.
Salman Khan made his name in this industry by taking off his shirt more than two decades ago. Consequently, setting the precedent most others have since followed, and somehow carried to another level. We were tricked into believing that going to the gym and going to the college was pretty much the same thing; that as long as the eyes are hooked, the brain would also cower and offer respect. Now that the sight of men tangled in the knots of their own flesh draw laughs out of us, it is safe to assume this misconception has runs its course.
It is about time men keep their buttons on, if their brains aren’t handy.
Manik Sharma writes on Arts and Culture.