Indian cinema’s construction of masculinity, for decades, has been loaded with narratives where men rescue women (damsel in distress), fight with other men to protect the heroine, or lay their lives down, rather happily, to safeguard the pride of their nation. These binaries which construct our most beloved heroes are layered with expectations of what the society and the nation-state as a whole, desires modern masculinity to look like. The filmic construction of tough masculinity has been forced upon men for generations. However, men are so much more than what we have mostly seen on screen, and perhaps sometimes, a female gaze is all a film needs in order to showcase that.
Laura Mulvey coined the term ‘male gaze’ in her article, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975), to reflect on how film as a medium “reflects, reveals and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking, and spectacle,” that more than often, uses a phallocentric approach in its treatment of male characters (Mulvey, 01). But what happens when we reverse this gaze? Does that shift the on-going/dominant narrative of storytelling?
Female Gaze does not merely constitute an inversion of the male gaze. It rather means that the visual artistry of the film is constructed and portrayed from a standard narrative form. Zoe Dirse, a well-known Canadian cinematographer in her work, Gender in Cinematography: Female Gaze (Eye) Behind the Camera (2013), while exploring the aesthetic perception of the female gaze from the point of view of production states that, when we as a society arrive at a juncture where minorities from different racial, ethnic or class backgrounds, produce cinema, their art would demand a shift in the gaze. It would perhaps be too soon to say that we have arrived at this juncture, but it would be false to say that we haven’t started the journey!
‘A Death in the Gunj’ (2016), a family-drama film set in 1979, directed by Konkona Sen Sharma, is worth-mentioning as we traverse the unexplored cinematic universe of male characters whose masculinity falls through the ruptures that lie within the cycles of hegemonic masculinity depicted in Indian cinema.
(Image: a shot of Shutu and Tani watching the sunlight pass through a magnifying glass and hit an ant. Source: A Death in the Gunj 2016)
Konkona Sen Sharma’s treatment of Shyamal Chatterjee aka Shutu’s character, played by Vikrant Massey, brings on-to the screen a certain amount of tenderness that carves out space for a character like Shutu to express the vulnerability in his emotions. Shutu struggles to come to terms with his father’s death and academic failure, while at the same time, feels alienated and unloved among his family members. Shutu is often the target of his cousin Nandu (played by Gulshan Devaiah) and Nandu’s friends’ perverseness. During a game of kabaddi, they force him to play and he ends up getting injured through the course of the game; Their relationship with Shutu is marked by cruel pranks at the cost of Shutu’s self esteem. Amidst all these tensions, we see Shutu and the youngest member of the family, his 8 year-old niece Tani develop a beautiful friendship, where they are seen ‘spending time against muted backgrounds carrying out mundane activities’.
(Image: Shutu forcefully grabs the gun from his uncle, O.P Bakshi, played by Om Puri and [spoiler warning] shoots himself. Source: A Death in the Gunj 2016)
While Shutu as a character succeeded in revealing the tropes of gendered oppression within familial relationships and expose the suffocating nature of toxic masculinity on screen, Irrfan Khan’s performance as Rana in Piku (2015) brought a breath of fresh air and won the hearts of the female audience. While the protagonist of the film, Piku (played by Deepika Padukone) is busy navigating her relationship with her father Bhashkor (played by Amitabh Bachchan); we witness Rana’s empathy towards Piku on their long journey from Delhi to Kolkata. Their longing for each other is expressed not through words, but through the glances they share with each other as their bond grows organically.
(Image: Piku and Rana share a glance while everyone else in the car is asleep. Source: Piku 2015)
As we talk about how the female gaze allows men to be themselves, Koode (2018), directed by Anjali Menon is worth a mention. Koode is a Malayalam language film that chronicles the return of Joshua (played by Prithviraj Sukumaran) from Dubai for the funeral of his sister Jenny (played by Nazariya) after succumbing to congenital disease. He was sent to Dubai at a young age to earn money to pay for Jenny’s medicines. When he returns, he is forced to confront his parents about sending him away and the general neglect he endured for Jenny’s sake. Joshua, internally, also has to come to terms with the sexual abuse he faced at the hands of his uncle as a teenager moving to Dubai, and the recent death of his sister.
(Image: a shot of Joshua. Source: Koode 2018)
Joshua does not put up a front of how broken he is. He is withdrawn, repressive, and silent. That silence is telling. “Joshua is antithetical to toxic masculinity, in fact, he’s written to show us how it breaks some men” . Joshua wishes to take Sophie (played by Parvathy) away from her abusive family but instead of barging in and taking on a fight with her relatives, Joshua walks with silent determination and says “if she’s willing to come with me, I’ll take her.” Sophie was his childhood sweetheart and she too is recovering from the trauma of abuse faced at the hands of her ex-husband. Joshua sees a companion in Sophie.
Anjali Menon calls for a reimagination of masculinity where when threatened with bodily harm, Joshua doesn’t suddenly become the ‘mass hero’ but instead, steps back, clearly scared. The scars of his past are always with him. Sophie rescues Joshua from physical harm by declining his offer and later cleverly sneaks away and comes to his house. They run away together, putting distance between their traumatic past and the future they wish to create.
(Image: Sophie and Joshua in front of her family. Source: Koode 2018)
Anjali Menon could not have brought Joshua to life without Kuttan (played by Nivin Pauly) from Bangalore Days (2014). Kuttan is the “new-gen patriarch” (Aslam and Balakrishnan, 1814). Shy and naive, Kuttan struggles to transition from his homeland village to the urban setting of Bangalore. He is old-fashioned and describes his dream girl as a woman in sari who would bring him tea on a tray but eventually falls in love with Meenakshi (played by Isha Talwar), an air hostess who offers him food on a tray. Meenakshi uses Kuttan to make her ex-lover jealous and when he confronts Kuttan with a punch to the face followed by a passionate reunion between the lovers, Kuttan just picks up his work bag, his glasses, and walks out of the apartment with a nose-bleed.
It is only in the next scene with his cousins that Kuttan mourns the end of his relationship, drunk, crying, and singing somewhere in Bangalore. Even in this instance, Menon allows Kuttan vulnerability and does not subjugate him to the usual emotions of men drinking and mourning their lost loves. Arjun (played by Dulquer Salman) reveals to Kunju (played by Nazariya) that Kuttan did not even consume alcohol, his behaviour is spurred on by the cola he drank. Menon rejects the usual connection between masculinity and alcohol by refusing to let Kuttan participate in that cinematic history. She allows Kuttan to exhibit emotions without being encouraged by alcohol consumption.
(Image: Kuttan at a job interview at the start of the film. Source: Bangalore Days 2014)
(Image: Kuttan leaving Meenakshi’s apartment. Source: Bangalore Days 2014)
The freedom of the female gaze allows men to be vulnerable without being shamed for it. The above mentioned films are just a few examples of what shifting the gaze can bring to the table; the huge difference it creates in showcasing how gender is portrayed/performed on the screen. It sheds light on the experience of men whose performance of gender transgresses from the popular imagination of masculinity.
Film as a medium can both imitate and influence how gendered norms are created and propagated in our society. To acknowledge the potential of this medium and engage with it accordingly would not only provide fresh narratives with complex and more layered characters around the themes of masculinity, romance, companionship and friendships but also compliment the ever-evolving nature of gender and identity in Indian cinema.
Mulvey, Laura.Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen, Volume 16, Issue 3, October 1975, pp. 6-18.
Aslam, Almas & Dr. K. Balakrishnan. Female Gaze in Anjali Menon’s Movies Bangalore Days and Koodae: An Analysis, Volume 11 Issue 5, May 2022, pp 1813-1817.