Primped, hairless and buff, the Hindi film hero has little in common with his predecessor. It’s a product, argues Paromita Vohra, of a new politics of aspiration
Rustom-e-Baghdad (1963) || Credits: Osian’s Archive and Library Collection
Watching Prakash Jha’s Rajneeti (2010), I thrilled to what felt like a genuinely transgressive moment, a feeling rarely evoked by contemporary Hindi film. Ranbir Kapoor was in the shower. We saw his back, and then, he turned around. I gasped. My companion asked me what happened. “He has hair on his chest!” I exclaimed.
A male chest with hair on it has now become so absent from the landscape of Bollywood bodies that this altogether natural sight seemed almost forbidden; erotic in some unregulated way. It is not a sight that has since repeated itself on the mainstream Hindi screen, as far as I know.
The man with hair on his chest, his testosterone abundantly on display, has always been one of the traditional symbols of masculinity. I remember giggling through a conversation with my aunt and a friend of hers in the late 1980s, as they discussed the many positive qualities of Dharmendra. “That’s how a man should be,” said my aunt, with a big grin. “He-man, with hair on his chest.” Already, by then, the idea of a “he-man” was passé, cartoonish, a throwback to a notion of masculinity that did not fit with changing notions of gender.
We had begun to locate a man’s attractiveness not so much in conventional physical good looks, as in some intangible quality of sexiness or appeal. The rising stars at the time were the three Khans, still going strong today, of course, and they were all then boyish and carefree, and conspicuously not in the he-man mould. In this, they represented a continuity in what had been prevailing with heroic personae in Hindi films.
There had always been traditionally masculine and also beautiful men in Hindi films. They were popular stars too—Dharmendra, famous for his manly thighs; Vinod Khanna, lusted after for his easy masculine build and liquefied good looks; Raaj Kumar’s haughty hotness; even a young Prem Nath’s heavy-lidded, full-lipped sensuality. But these stars never quite reigned over the national consciousness. It may be a fanciful thought, but it was almost as if their beauty was a limitation.
The position of reigning stars went to actors whose appeal lay in a certain persona, which did not require a traditional masculine physique. Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand all being examples of big stars whose appeal lay in their emotive force as idealistic, noble or conflicted figures dealing with social and national value systems.
On-screen masculinity could even accommodate decidedly not good-looking men like Pradeep Kumar and Rajendra Kumar, whose appeal is mysterious, or perhaps lies in their being absolutely unthreatening as far as sex appeal goes, bodies that are present, but have no real bodily presence.
The muscular man did appear briefly in films—Prithviraj Kapoor, who reportedly went to akharas to build his body, had been an important star. But, on the whole, muscular men symbolised the rustic and the foot soldier, for instance, Dara Singh, famed wrestler who became a movie star, but never graduated above B-grade stunt films. The depiction of the muscled man also ranged from the humorous to the contemptuous in song sketches or comedic interludes playing on a brain-versus-brawn dichotomy. The brain was needed to both survive in a new and changing India as well as to build a new India in the role of (of course, male) engineers, doctors and managers. To imagine a new nation called India into being called for the mind and spirit, not the body, of the hero of mainstream Hindi cinema. The Nehruvian hero lay not in the villages or in traditional vocabularies of masculinity, but in urban, developing India.
In some ways, in this world, beauty was not the work of men—nor was the appreciation of, and intoxication with, male beauty the work of idealised women. Men did not have to appeal to anyone—woman or man— on the basis of their appearance. Rather, they operated at a “higher” level as embodying a set of qualities related to honour, community, family and a series of behaviours and attitudes, not physical attributes. The women they deserved were beautiful but willing to recast their spiritedness into supportiveness, noble companions who stood by their men.
It was not until Shammi Kapoor in the 1960s that a hero whose presence was strongly physical took centrestage. His cavorting and physical shenanigans signalled youthful abandon, a liberation of sorts from the traditional male aura of contained responsibility that had preceded him. Shammi Kapoor’s rock-and-roll recklessness and campy posturing before the camera to show it his best side opened out a visual narrative of male beauty for female appreciation and also, unstated yet evident, for queer appreciation.
Here was a hero who was willing to make a new kind of woman—mischievous, lighthearted, consuming the bodily pleasures of fashion and bicycles and cars, while also acquiring an English-medium education and so able to say “Oh, you shut up”—the focus of his attention. This set the stage for the mannerisms and simpering flirtations of Rajesh Khanna who became a blowout romantic sensation in the 1970s, leading Shobhaa De (then Rajadhyaksha) to coin the term “superstar” to describe his cultural status.
Deewaar (1975) || Credits: SMM Ausaja
This was followed by the very differently textured reign of Amitabh Bachchan, where body was not unimportant, but masculinity still lay in brooding, smouldering, lonely quests and emotional self-denial. The body might exhibit strength—defeating villains in fistfights—and it may partake of physical pleasures—as in the famous post-coital cigarette scene with Parveen Babi in Deewaar. But it remained emotionally under-nourished, making do with Zohra Bais while longing for Paro and Ma in an extended performance of the Devdas figure.
Something changed dramatically for Bollywood men in the 1990s. If there is a moment that is representative of this change, it is in the 1998 film, Pyaar Kiya To Darna Kya where Salman Khan sang and danced shirtless on a stage, in the song “O O Jaane Jana”. Not only did he unveil here a new muscled body, it was also a shiny, hairless body, every single hair waxed neatly off. In this film, Salman Khan reprised a role he had played more than once, including in his hit debut film Maine Pyar Kiya. He is a rich, urban young man from the city who always falls for a more traditional, girl, more “rooted” in the small town or semi-rural. In order to win her, he must prove himself to her male relatives—her father, her brother.
While Shah Rukh Khan’s persona was doing the same thing in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge through the redefining of love, Salman Khan had to win the girl in his films by proving that he was capable of hard, physical labour. It was like the reverse-migration of the Indian metropolitan film hero, from the world of the mind and spirit, and urban material prosperity, to the hinterland and to the body. Salman Khan had to show he was a real man, capable of supporting a woman, by using his body to survive and succeed in the world.
Salman Khan also played out a parallel narrative in real life, where he built up his body into its current muscular form, a process much written-about in popular media. It is as if the narrative persona that he inhabited onscreen, and the being he sculpted through an elaborate, dedicated physical regimen, came together to become one in Pyaar Kiya To Darna Kya, creating a powerful symbol of the physical man hitherto not taken seriously, re-embodied as a new male ideal in globalised India. The built body presented the idea that there was, apparently, no natural order of things. The natural—the body— could be converted into the appropriate ideal for a new version of India taking shape in the post-globalisation years.
Bodybuilding culture was not new in India. It had been variously articulated in the 1930s and 1940s. The Hindu right wing’s vyayamshala culture focused on physical strength for the soldier of Hindutva. The akharas were a traditional space of masculine brotherhood and identity, a whole way of life. Exercise clubs were created for the health and fitness of the children of workers (Mazdoor Welfare Associations). Physical Education or PT was incorporated into school curricula. In Mumbai this culture took strong root in working-class areas—chawls and slums—across communities and, over time, a significant mobilising space for political organisations too. Bodybuilding contests became an important way for young men, struggling to gain a foothold in an inimical economic and cultural context, to establish a sense of public life and prominence.
This working class, and somewhat disenfranchised universe of bodybuilding, gained mainstream visibility through the figures of Sanjay Dutt and Salman Khan. Its vocabulary has gone on to become the lingua franca for the male body in the new globalised economy of India, much as beauty contests did for women. A gym-generated body of this sort has ceased to be optional in mainstream Hindi cinema. To show that you are able to sculpt your body is a rite of passage often carried out publicly in order to prove your eligibility for success. Hrithik Roshan, Sonu Sood and Varun Dhawan have all articulated PR-friendly versions of this narrative for the media. Occasionally women too have done so—Kareena Kapoor’s much publicised acquisition of a size zero figure and, later, Parineeti Chopra’s new body become narratives of how changing your body could change your destiny.
For any new idea to seize the imagination of a public it has to resonate in deeper ways. The built body, its language of cuts and trims, its cultivated hairlessness, provide an interesting sense of democracy. These replicable, standardised bodies are to our times what a college degree once was to another. A qualification for entry into the economy, in this case, of media visibility which represents the facsimile of success.
In this sense we could call it the “automatic body”—a technology we imagine will automatically guarantee entry into the dream of India shining, moving, growing.
Its technological approach holds out the idea of automatic success—get the body to get the mobility. In some ways it is like the dream of English, sold by Chetan Bhagat. Get English, get high-paying jobs and economic mobility.
But, as with spoken language, can a body have an accent? Perhaps body language is the accent of the body, marking us as being from a place, marking a way of being. We carry whole histories of “desi-ness” in the way we sit, stand and move. The new gym-created body automatically irons out every inflection of bodily identity by creating identical bodies through an identical process, all speaking the same body-language.
Like the call-centre voice, free of MTI (mother tongue influence), so the constructed male body is symbolically free of its origin, of regional inflection once expressed by say, Bachchan, in songs like “Khaike paan Banaraswala”. Maybe that is also why these bodies must be waxed, even though the people in these bodies are not body builders who need to display muscle definition. The hair symbolises that unruly naturalness of individual difference in growth and texture that we have to pretend does not exist in order to pretend we are all equal, even if we are not.
As an aside, this cleaned-up replicable body is something that Bollywood itself has symbolically acquired through a voluble public story of how it has cleansed itself of black money and unruliness. It is apparently a new, uninflected Bollywood symbolised by the mental gymnasium-generated bound script. “Civilished” and streamlined through corporatisation into replicable success formulae.
The body becomes, quite literally, a glistening, well-oiled machine for globalised India, one whose brute strength and muscularity are smoothed out into hairless metrosexuality. The urban male subsumes the idea of the working class and small town male in this bodily figure, presenting a logic of sameness which nevertheless erases the true underlying diversity and inequities of Indian class and caste.
Om Shanti Om (2007) || Credit: SMM Ausaja
Today this bodily demonstration is carried out as a norm for ordinary people and superstars alike. Even actors whose stardom did not rely on a body type have had to do it. Aamir Khan in Ghajini (2008) had to recreate his body with his typical moral earnestness while Shah Rukh Khan did it with his trademark irony in the famous six-pack of Om
Shanti Om. Hairlessness is important. But the six-pack is the new chest hair, replacing it as a visible signpost of masculinity.
No story is ever so unitary, of course, and there are other intertwined narratives ongoing, disrupting these normative rhythms in the creation of automatic bodies.
For instance, in the parallel trajectories of figures like John Abraham, emerging through modelling contests, the body is presented as something for visual pleasure and beauty also—the metrosexual body and also the queer body, opening up a discussion of homosexual attractiveness otherwise absent in public. Hairlessness is also an essential ingredient of this body, both to evoke youth and softness along with the masculinity of muscles. This body is far more fluid in appearance and meaning but easily absorbed into the mainstream without uncomfortable questions or implications considered.
Does this mean the male figure is more sexualised and also accommodates female pleasure? In some ways, yes, the male body now certainly carries more sexual meaning. But it often feels like it’s all for show, an aspirational acquisition, more for looking than touching. We rarely see bodies touching and emotions connecting in films. Most dances are frontally choreographed for ease of looking, but the message, as in the song “Sheila ki Jawani”, is straightforward: “I’m too sexy for you, main tere haath na aani”. The body is more for display than play.
Here, all sweat is good sweat, dutifully acquired in the collective environs of the gym. Private sweat is bad sweat and must be deodorised. This desexualised narrative is also present in gossip-column tales of how couples gym together, more playmates than lovers. Bipasha Basu and John Abraham were the poster-couple for this body culture, objectified, but desexualised.
As Hindi films have increasingly ceased to be about anything but the aspirational middle classes or NRIs, other kinds of bodies have automatically vanished from the screen even in minor roles. Last seen in Ram Gopal Varma’s underworld films, these other bodies are now reserved for cut-and-paste “realism” in Bollywood indies and advertising. This realism is always described as “gritty”—as if the visual evidence of diverse castes and classes were in fact grit in our eyes, or dirt.
On the other hand, dance shows on television have become a repository for diverse bodies, a place for the fat, the thin, the tall, the short, the dark, or the wheatish, a place in the homogenised media economy for people of diverse backgrounds.
The film ABCD: Anybody Can Dance (2013), set in the culture of street dance, and drawing on the talent of these shows, brought back this dazzling diversity of bodies to the big screen and was a standout hit. In the sequel, ABCD2, these diverse bodies were replaced by the more automatic bodies of Varun Dhawan and Shraddha Kapoor (also pedigreed bodies, both offspring of parents with movie careers).
A most telling disruption of this bodily narrative appeared as a by-product of the Marathi film Sairat (2016), a love story about caste conflict and violence with a primarily rural backdrop. The film was a staggering hit, foregrounding caste in mainstream discussion again. A song from the film, “Zingat”, aggressively local, drawing from frenzied dhol music rhythms, demanding an abandoned, not regimented style, became a super-hit, resulting, as super-hit songs do, in several remixes and video mashups. One of the most successful of these was a Hindi film mashup. But to put it together effectively, it drew on film bodies from the 1980s—Mithun Chakraborty, Govinda and even Bachchan. Accented bodies, with accented moves, free-form moves matching the unconstrained music. For a few minutes they broke through the automatic body façade of the present, with a memory of bodies that had been—and still exist—though now unrepresented on the global Hindi screen.
This article is part of Oct-Dec issue of The Indian Quarterly. The theme for the issue is “The Body”.
In this issue, vascular surgeon Ambarish Satwik writes on his days as a student of anatomy, Paromita Vohra traces the journey of gym-sculpted hairless bodies in Bollywood, Manjula Padmanabhan draws and describes her childhood pains, dancer Leela Samson writes on challenges faced by an Indian classical dancer, Shougat Dasgupta laments soullessness in sports, Sandip Roy delves into the story of India’s first Mr Universe who died at 104 and Jannatul Mawa reveals a lot in her award winning series where she clicks employers and their maids seated together. Elsewhere, Prashant Panjiar’s quixotic photo essay captures the “we-are-like-this-only” aspect of Indians. Kishore Singh explores the connection, if any, between where an artist lives and his work. We also have the last poem by the celebrated French poet, Yves Bonnefoy, written shortly before he died this year in our Fiction and Poetry section.