What is it to be a man in these times? What entails masculinity? What is the construction of masculinity on screens and how does it consequently put pressure on performers and film-makers? These were some of the questions that a panel discussion on “Masculinity in Films” set out to address on November 5.
The event was part of the inauguration of Celebrating Gender Affinities: Let No One Mistake Us For The Fruit of Violence, a exhibition from November 5 to December 17 in Dakshinachitra, a culture and heritage museum located in Muttukadu, Chennai. It is being curated by Party Office, an art and social space in New Delhi, and presented by Goethe-Institut, a German cultural institute in Chennai.
Uma Vangal, Dean (Research and Networking), International Institute of Film and Culture, who also moderated the session, started off the discussion with a montage video on Tamil cinema put together by her students. The video was a quirky edit of misogynistic dialogues spoken by heroes in Tamil films. In a way it set the stage for the insightful dialogues that were to follow.
The panel discussion had four participants: Katharina Gorgen, Ratheesh Krishnan, Avinash Ramachandran, and John Vijay.
Ratheesh Krishnan, convenor of Thinnai Talkies, which works on extending the dialogues beyond films, said: “If we were to ask what traits define masculinity, what mainstream Tamil cinema has shown us is that, if we were to follow the hero’s journey, there’s always a vulnerable sharing of the need to be in control. That trait is very vocalised as far as masculinity is concerned. If the need to be in control is perhaps portrayed by a woman, people may start questioning the narrative or look at it with confirmation bias.”
Speaking to Frontline about masculinity in recent Tamil films, Uma Vangal said: “As Tamil film-makers go deeper into rooted, localised stories, I find the masculinity is more honest. They [men] cry, they fight, they shout, they posture and they are not afraid to show vulnerability.”
She added: “When we speak of gender representations—of femininity and masculinity—we speak of realistic portrayals of our lived realities. Even if it is toxic masculinity or feeling emasculated, if the character has a consistent core of truth, we welcome it. Masculinity in all its dimensions, be it negative and positive shades, all grey shades, intersected by caste, communal identities, impacted by feminism and globalisation needs to be shown.”
John Vijay, who has acted in more than 300 films, said that he was also a student of Uma Vangal, and spoke about the journey of his characters.
Katharina Gorgen, film scientist and director of Goethe-Institut, began talking about how the looks of heroes have evolved over the last two decades. She pointed out to the sharpening of masculine features in male actors with the comparisons of Thor of today and Batman of the 1990s, Daniel Craig and Pierce Brosnan, and three generations of Spiderman, who are becoming more and more muscular with each new one. She said: “Even when we look at Top Gun: Maverick (2022), Tom Cruise has more muscles now than when he was 30 when the first Top Gun (1986) film was released; which is stunning, but is also scary.”
She added: “We live in 2022. There is not so much manual labour left to be done. Humanity has invented machines for most of the things that we do. So, there’s no need for these muscles. That tells us that these muscles are actually a choice. They are a choice to tell the story of the “strong male”. They are just for visual pleasure.”
Talking about this phenomenon, she elaborated on how it poses a moral dilemma for feminists like her. She mentioned how the camera moves slowly over female bodies in films without any reason and the male gaze enjoys it. “Now, we can’t count the number of times male heroes are taking off their shirts in the most surprising moments of the plot and it is very obvious that it is supposed to be for ‘enjoyment’. This objectification of the female bodies that we are fighting, is also happening for the male bodies; which in a weird way, is equality, but the worst kind of equality possible.”
ALSO READ: “What’s your pronoun?”
Avinash Ramachandran, a film critic, recalled how the Malayalam film Kumbalangi Nights (2018) opened up a lot of perspectives for him, as it had a male lead who openly seeks therapy and cries his heart out. He said: “It is easier to watch one person fighting the establishment because it is cathartic. But, when it is the other way around, like, say, institutional violence, that is when we all have an issue. We might never see ourselves as a hero fighting against a bunch of villains. But it is easy to see us being at the victim side of institutional violence.”
Avinash Ramachandran also referred to how Tamil actors and directors in the recent times have denounced their own films talking about violence. He said, “Recently, Tamil director Hari said that he is not happy about making Singam films. Similarly, when we saw the films released in the 1980s and 1990s that were misogynistic, we all laughed at those ‘jokes’ because we didn’t know better. We can’t always have that as our yardstick and it is important to evolve.”