When Ayushmann Khurrana pairs a saree with sneakers and plays the Dream Girl on screen, he is called the modern man. Ranveer Singh is often hailed as the modern man for his often-experimental gender-fluid sartorial choices. These are powerful men and role models alike, who are enforcing the fact that women are not the weaker sex and that wearing a piece of clothing usually associated with women doesn’t diminish your masculinity.
But is opting for traditionally ‘female’ choices the only way for the traditional man to become modern? Is a man wearing makeup more modern than a man pumping iron? Does the metrosexual have a better claim at the title of the ‘Modern Man’ than the spornosexual?
It isn’t about swapping or co-opting identities but about not letting society’s idea of gender and gender roles dictate your personal choices — be it of clothes, professions, partners, emotions, or anything under the sun. When the young Kabir Bansal (Arjun Kapoor) in Ki & Ka opts to become a homemaker, it shows a man following his heart instead of society’s expectations. When in Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do, Sunny Gill (Farhan Akhtar) responds to Manav Sangha’s (Rahul Bose) proud declaration that as a modern man, he has ‘allowed’ his wife, Ayesha (Priyanka Chopra) to have a career, with “aur use tumhari ‘permission’ ki zaroorat kyun hai?”, one observes the dichotomy between a modern man and a man trying to peddle himself as one. The modern man is marked by being confident, emotionally authentic, self-aware, and having empathy and respect towards others.
The eccentric hypochondriac Bhaskor Banerjee (Amitabh Bachchan) in Piku is fiercely proud of his financially and sexually independent daughter and constantly tries to dissuade Piku (Deepika Padukone) and the women around him from giving up their professions to get married and become an unpaid personal attendant to their husbands. He doesn’t shy away from calling marriage a low-IQ decision. Unlike Narayan Shankar (also played by Amitabh Bachchan), the conservative and strict father in Mohabbatein, who doesn’t flinch when shattering his daughter’s heart, Bhaskor doesn’t give two hoots about archaic traditions or societal norms. He wants his daughter to be independent and be her own person. Right there, you have a modern man in a 70-year-old, but it wasn’t always this way.
Look back in Anger
Our movies, especially of the ’70s and ’80s, were instrumental in legitimising anger and violence and turning them into ‘hero’ qualities. Then came the ’90s, an era that made casual misogyny ‘cool’, marked by textbook examples of heroes wearing down women to submission with persistent stalking and emotional abuse.
Let’s not forget decades of glorifying and deifying male aggression in the form of ‘The Angry Young Man’, Amitabh Bachchan’s erstwhile on-screen avatar. While the Angry Young Man, rising from a humble background and fighting against the class divide, was no doubt modern in its contemporary socio-political context, eventually, the context got lost and what remained was the ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’, making way for the toxic, aggressive predecessors of characters such as Kabir Singh (Shahid Kapoor).
But while Mr Bachchan was fuming and fighting, he had a foil in Amol Palekar — in contrast, his on-screen avatars were charming, hardworking, reliable, and decidedly ‘non-macho’ gentlemen. In recent years, we have seen Ayushmann Khurrana take up the mantle and redefine the hero.
Instead of the over-the-top hyper-masculinity of the quintessential Bollywood leading man, their heroism stems from their vulnerability. Their on-screen characters cry, they break down, fall victim to, and fight societal stereotypes and prejudices not with muscle but with empathy. In Meri Pyaari Bindu, he is the sensitive and sentimental Bubla — a writer (a rather ‘non-macho’ profession) — who falls in love with his childhood friend. She is his soulmate, but when the relationship doesn’t work out, he accepts it with a calm maturity. His heartbreak is about pain and not anger and alcohol. He refuses to ‘bitchify’ his lady love by playing the victim, and instead his respect and love for his Bindu ensures she has a friend in him for life. Bubla remains the warm hug on a winter evening and isn’t resentful for it.
Over time, the Angry Young Man has grown old and less angry. In the out-and-out massy action movie Pathaan we see the immaculately chiseled hero (Shah Rukh Khan) quip “Mard ko dard nahi hota,” but also pop a painkiller aligning himself to the contemporary idea of masculinity and modern man. He also has no qualms about treating a woman collaborator as an equal and letting her take the lead in an action scene.
The anatomy of the Modern Man
With women entering the workforce, the idea of men being the protectors and providers in a family unit as well as the legitimacy of traditional gender roles is getting challenged. Toxic masculinity, defined by the psychiatrist Terry Kupers as “the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence,” is being called out more than ever before.
In response, the Modern Man needs to overcome the anxiety associated with unrealistic sociocultural ideas of manhood. Propagated by the constant bombardment of phrases like “man up”, “be a man”, and “boys don’t cry”, it negatively impacts mental health as it leads to men bottling up their emotions and losing the ability to embrace or express their own vulnerabilities. A great example would be the well-groomed Nikhil Arora (Saif Ali Khan) shedding tears while watching a rom-com or freaking out over a small razor cut while shaving, as a modern man who is not ashamed to be sensitive.
In Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, we meet a suspended cop nicknamed Pinky. The volatile pink-shirt-wearing macho, rough and tough Delhi ka launda easily slips into a ghaghra choli and full makeup and dances in front of the villains (in a scene that is bound to remind one of the Jab tak hai jaan scene in Sholay) to create the escape path for Sandy, the woman he had abducted. Only a man confident in his masculinity can be brave enough to explore his softer ‘feminine’ side with such grace and abandon and find the perfect Yin and Yang balance within himself.
50 shades of love, and then some
The Modern Man is also about embracing his sexual preferences, and Guru Narayan (Gulshan Devaiah) the confident queer lawyer in Badhaai Do is just that. He not only embraces his queer identity but also inspires Shardul (Rajkummar Rao) to come out as gay, becoming the supportive and understanding partner Shardul needs to complete his own journey of acceptance and self-love.
Meanwhile, the romantic hero has found newer shades and nuanced complexities in the hands of the Modern Man as well. When in Darlings, Zulfi (Roshan Mathew), the young man Friday of Shamshunissa (Shefali Shah), quips, ‘Mujhe Khala cute lagti hai’, professing his love for the middle-aged mother of his childhood friend, Badru (Alia Bhatt), he casually breaks the ageism associated with romantic relationships and seals it with a passionate kiss, without coming across as lecherous. As a friend, he is totally loyal to and supportive of Badru and doesn’t hesitate to put his own safety at risk to help her.
The Modern Man is also manifested in a newer crop of onscreen husbands. Be it Ashok Dube (Manav Kaul) in Tumhari Sulu or Robbie (Abhishek Bachchan) in Manmarziyaan, or Iqbal Syed (Vickey Kaushal) in Raazi, or Rishabh Saxena (Vikrant Massey) in Haseen Dillruba — these are men who are sensitive, sensible, and supportive towards their partners. These men refuse to become toxic or abusive even when in the worst of situations. In them, male aggression is replaced with compassion.
Daddy knows best
But in the forefront of this league of onscreen Modern Men, are the fathers like Sachin Sandhu (Kumud Mishra) in Thappad and Lieutenant Colonel Anup Saxena (Pankaj Tripathi) in Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl. Sandhu stands by his daughter Amrita when she decided to leave her marriage after getting slapped by her husband. He doesn’t patronize but provides her with all the emotional support she needs and never forces her to go back or insists that she saves her marriage turning the parenting stereotype propagated in Hindi movies on its head. He realizes his flaws as a husband and is willing to make the required changes. When Gunjan Saxena dreams of becoming a pilot, a traditionally male-dominated profession, it is her father Anup Saxena who becomes the wind beneath her wings and ensures she soars. He quashes the gender stereotypes by casually pointing out, “jab plane ko farak nahi padta ki usey kaun udda raha hai to tumhe kyun padta hai?”. The emotions are almost the same as that of Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan) in Dangal who wants his daughters to become professional wrestlers and bring home the gold medal. “Hamari choriyan choro se kam hai ke?” he quips.
However, what is interesting is that while we have a deluge of movies on modern, independent women, when it comes to male protagonists, they are either man-child or seen basking in the archaic idea of machismo or are trying to come of age. The Modern Man in Hindi cinema is still a limited-edition collectible and hence treasured. Hence, we hail a man for doing the bare minimum such as being a hands-on parent, making a round roti, doing household chores, or simply just being non-toxic.
Here is hoping that the Modern Man raises the bar a bit and finds more comrades in doing so along the way soon, both onscreen and off it.