Male Characters: Bidding Goodbye
to Cinema’s Toxic Heroes
25th July 2023 . 6 min read
Film-making is the process through which one is able to enter new worlds, witness alternate realities and learn about the valuable experiences of different communities. By putting the camera lens in the front, the lives and stories of people are captured, transformed and projected on the screen. These are the stories which are distant from our day-to-day lives and are distinct from our background, identity and beliefs. Yet, not only do we learn from these stories of the excluded ‘others’ through film-making but also, empower ourselves—by picking up the camera and marching into the cinematic arena, traditionally perceived as male-centric work.
The act of using the camera as a tool of empowerment hits home for Bangladeshi director Rubaiyat Hossain, who talked about the importance of politically conscious film-making with Creator Rooms. She revealed how the camera acts as a buffer between her and the world on the other side of the lens. By using the camera as a safe passage, she can step into hyper-masculine places and cross the rigid boundaries which are laid down in front of women in Bangladesh.
Known for works such as Meherjaan (2011) and Made In Bangladesh (2019), Hossain’s film-making revisits the idea of masculinity and liberates it from traditional expectations, allowing her male characters to be feminine, caring and nurturing. For example: in Meherjaan, the character of Khwaja Saheb, played by Victor Banerjee embodies femininity and is shown beautifully across the scenes. The setting, where he is carefully positioned with birds, leaves and nature hints at Hossain’s deliberate attempt to show Khwaja Saheb in a nurturing way. In most films, the death of male characters is presented in a ‘macho rugged’ manner; however, in Meherjaan, Hossain presents us with a refreshing picture of Khwaja Saheb—a Sufi, who gets ready for his death by putting on perfume and a rose to meet the divine or his beloved.
From Sholay (1975) to Kabir Singh (2019), while Bollywood has a long history of being too attached to the trope of the ‘young angry man’, we have seen male characters who have stepped away from this toxic mould. For example: in Hindi Medium (2017), a situational comedy based on social issues, Irfan Khan possesses the qualities of being lovable and caring as he struggles with his wife to provide a better education for their daughter. Being lovable and caring is not much to ask for but due to the years of hyper-masculinized portrayal of men in cinema, it’s important to first humanise them. Humanizing masculinity and making it comfortable with non-stereotypical attributes are part of healthy film-making—where men are treated as figures, who can show emotions like love, care, sadness, nervousness, etc. and do not always fill the screen time with mere brawn.
Within Lollywood or Pakistani cinema too, the question of ‘how male characters are represented’ is swiftly coming to the surface. Pakistani film and television actor, Adnan Malik in one of his interviews with BBC Asian Network called for the redefining of masculinity in Pakistani cinema. His character Romeo in Cake (2018), a cinematic marvel, is one of the examples of the shifting portrayal of men on the screen in Pakistan. Malik himself confessed that “he took the role of Romeo—the Jamali family’s soft-spoken, live-in nurse and the eldest daughter’s love interest—largely because of the character’s dissimilarity to the brash leading men that usually populate Pakistani and Indian films”. The character of Romeo being a shy live-in nurse marks the cinematic shift from romanticising the violent toxic males to showing healthy masculinity, where men stand with women and not always against them.
It doesn’t matter how well-seasoned the dramatics, the cast or the acting is, the sketching of ‘young angry men’ a.k.a the ‘red flags’ as heroes in films is simply despicable—for cinema as well as the society. The success of films like KGF, Pushpa and Kabir Singh at the box office must ring alarm bells because these works consciously celebrate toxic masculinity, casual sexism and machismo and, continue to be willfully ignorant of their fallouts. In K.G.F, the male character labels his ‘love’ interest as entertainment, stalks her, kidnaps her and, on top of that—the female lead somehow falls head over heels for him. In Pushpa, stalking is the backbone of ‘romance’ between the two leads and is a strong lesson on how not to show women and love on the screen. And, let’s not even begin to talk about the absurdity of Kabir Singh. We don’t need more Rockys or Pushpas as heroes because truth be told, they are not! We need heroes who stand with women and are caring, lovable, funny, shy and yes, rightfully angry too.
"Sabahat Ali Wani is a writer, researcher and artist from Kashmir. She loves to explore the intersection of cinema with gender, identity and politics, and believes that the appreciation of cinema is incomplete without its criticism."