Everyone seems to be thinking off late about what it means to be a man today. It’s not a new question certainly, but the fact that some of us are reflecting on our masculine selves should be a cause for some relief, momentarily. We’re at a stage today where the American Psychological Association has decided that “toxic masculinity” can be diagnosed as a mental health disorder, and treated as such. This declaration has had a predictably nasty response from those who do indeed seem to suffer from this “disease”. But it has also, as it turns out, ended up agitating thinkers in the Left, who are understandably sceptical about solutions for systemic social issues that are increasingly rooted in clear cut “scientific methods”.
I had the opportunity to watch a couple of films recently, which implicitly dealt with this subject. The first of these—Boys Who Like Girls (2018) directed by Inka Achté —documents the story of Ved, a teenager growing up in Mumbai. Ved belongs to a family that is struggling to make ends meet and has to toggle repeatedly between trying to complete his education and contributing to the household income. He also volunteers for an NGO called Men Against Violence and Abuse (MAVA). The organization’s based on the heartening belief that men are capable of being a better version of themselves—that they too can speak up for a more equal world in spaces where they unduly exist as a dominant social group.
For the film however, the question is not whether Ved can effectively fight violence against women or not. The question is focused in on Ved himself—whether he can manage to negotiate his own economic and gender-based position? If he can in fact, do it in a way so that his individual success is akin to his success as a feminist ally? In an especially poignant moment documented in the film for instance, Ved hangs out with his friend at a beach, while trying to strike up a conversation with a couple of women. The shot conveys the gendered differences that govern our ease in accessing public spaces, but it also ends with the two women joining Ved and his friend, as they stroll through the beach and enjoy the sunset.
Ultimately, the film draws to a conclusion by seemingly hinging itself on the outcome of Ved’s higher secondary examination. As the sole breadwinner in the family it seems, it is important for Ved, his mother and his sister that he qualifies this exam and continues to study. It is also at this point that the film can fall into the trap of a heavily derived trope—where the poor man becomes the object of an exceptional success story, carrying forth the burden of providing for his family. Instead, Ved’s mother and his sister become a part of the celebrations that mark his success, confirming them as equal stakeholders in this project. The man, in this case, is not the central focus of a story of hardship where love and economics are intimately tied, but is instead the marker of a symbiotic negotiation of power where his aspirations are not his alone. As filmmaker Paromita Vohra says:
“Feminism is not about replacing one template of power with another. It is about re-imagining structures so that power does not accumulate into rigidity but keeps flowing, allowing for fluidity, inclusiveness and egalitarianism in roles, choices and understanding…”
The second of these films, called Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani? [The Forsaken] (2017) by Jiju Antony, is a much darker take on criminality and masculinity. It deep dives into the life of a “criminal” named Prashant—a rapist and a murderer—asking a crucial question: that while it is clear that the forms and behaviour underlying toxicity have multiple victims, is it also not true that they have multiple perpetrators?
The film begins with the scene of the crime itself and goes back all the way to Prashant’s childhood. It gives us a taste of his life as a taxi driver, the loneliness that haunts him and drives him to a point where he has to go looking for intimacy from a sex-worker. Here too however, he is haunted with the language of aggression. Where he seeks a moment of soft companionship, he is instead offered a chance to “quickly get off” and get the job done.
Prashant’s entry into the space of the city is continuously marked by his economic alienation. Before he was a taxi driver, he worked for a middle-class household—at which moment in the film we witness closely how class hierarchies overwork gender disparities. The film complicates our day-to-day understanding of power, by pointing out how we intersect with it in different ways at different points of time. The fact that Prashant feels emasculated after being reprimanded by his female employer is visibly troublesome, but if we were to probe how far his humiliation might be rooted in his economic station, we will arrive at a much richer understanding of the nexus which thwarts his aspirations and contributes to his self-image.
The film ends at the beginning of Prashant’s journey—as an orphaned child from a violent household. He was also subject to abuse by the very institutions where he could have found solace. The director point out here, that toxic masculinity is not merely an exploitative relationship between two opposing sexes, but one where hierarchies play out among men as well. In a scene where he expresses his aspiration for mobilisation, he is instead asked to prove his worth through the passage of inflicting violence on a friend. While it would prove an easy temptation to read the film along a linear fashion, perhaps a more enriched way of looking at it would let us understand that Prashant’s journey is continuously oppressive. It is marked by forces larger than him, embroiled as they are within a fraught order of a class based and gendered existence.
We tend to think of spaces marked by patriarchy in particularly singular terms. Instead, to truly interrogate masculinity, we need to take cognizance of the various ways in which power enables and disables us to achieve social justice. While neither of these films explicitly deals with queer sexualities for instance, the facilitation of a world where queerness can exist freely would be incomplete without recognizing the caste and class based relationships that govern our masculine gender identity. A “properly feminist project” (if you will), interrogating one’s masculinity doesn’t necessarily need us to intervene and save women from toxicity, but rather, it is in asking ourselves before all our actions in relation to one another: what it means to be a man today?