With time, I’ve come to realise that masculinity, first and foremost, lies in accepting the female energy that lies in everything and every being. Also, it lies in accepting that the male energy is quite disruptive. It is the female energy that is nurturing. I think I’ve come to learn that men are actually far weaker than women. I mean, it’s all in plain view right now with what’s happening in the country, with women leading the protests.

The preconceived notions of masculinity that I grew up with were basic — boys don’t cry, boys don’t play with dolls, boys participate in sports, boys are strong. I’ve met women who are stronger than me, physically. It’s partly society, party education, and partly your peers, who tend to group us. As children, we’re also trying to figure out what to do and when we’re told something, we take it at face value and internalise it. People grow, and I sure did. This growth is very individual. It was all about what was happening in my life, what books I was reading, what I was consuming and the people I was surrounding myself with. All these variables came into play When you explore, you grow, and realise that the world is not as black and white as you think. Growing up, of course, there were movies and advertisements that showed me what being ‘macho’ means. I grew up watching movies starring Amitabh Bachchan and Anil Kapoor, who were really macho in their style, and that’s what I wanted to emulate. I remember this film called Jaabaaz by Feroze Khan, where Anil Kapoor was the epitome of the rugged, macho, frat boy. As a kid, I wanted to emulate that. That’s just one example of what we consume and what forms our ideas of what we should be like.

In mainstream, commercial Friday-to-Friday Bollywood cinema, I don’t see a change in the way men are portrayed. What are we churning out? Have you seen the trailer for Baaghi 3? What is that? A lot of it is still really toxic. Even in our love stories, who are these people? Sometimes, I’m watching these movies and I have no idea who they’re catering to. But like me, a lot of people have finally started calling out this bullshit. Conversations about men having mental health issues and seeking therapy have increased, thanks to social media, because men have issues too. A lot of those issues crop up because of who they believe they need to be and are trying to be. In this process of being a ‘man’, there’s disconnect from the spirit. I’ve seen therapists on and off for years. I encourage anyone and everyone to do it. I really want to destigmatise it. Everybody needs help in navigating what is going on in their minds. I believe we’re going through a mass depression now.

One day, someone will probably throw a well-written portrayal of a man at us and we’ll be like “oh man, where was this all this time?” Until then, it’s very hard for me to say how I want men portrayed, because men are also different from each other. We can’t make a general statement. Cinema is cinema and I do believe that it needs to portray multiple realities. In film, where you’re trying to show that a man is toxic or messed up, how can you show something noble? In fact, that’s the whole problem with Kabir Singh. Narrative wise, I don’t have a problem with the film showing someone who is a mess. The problem arises when you’re trying to present it as something aspirational. No man should aspire to be Chulbul Pandey. My idea of toxic masculinity is Bollywood. It’s quite self-explanatory. Through the 80s and 90s, all the cinema that’s been consumed is only toxic masculinity. And it’s literally the only place that our ideas of masculinity are coming from. I just want to try and find a space where I can inspire people to be themselves.

I don’t think male friendships have changed. Not for me. I mean, there are maybe less offensive jokes on WhatsApp groups, but not really. To be perfectly honest, within your most comfortable group of friends, people will still say something they’d not say otherwise in public. I’ve played a character from the LGBTQ community thrice, and my only reservation before taking up Made In Heaven was that I have forayed into this space before. As a straight person myself, I was confident in my own masculinity and sexuality to take up the role. There’s nothing I have to do or say to prove my masculinity to anyone. And no man should, either.