In the wake of 'Mirzapur Season 2', our guest author writes about the impact of OTT heroes and anti-heroes on 'masculine anxiety'.
I finished watching 'Mirzapur 2' recently (well past my bedtime!) and couldn’t help but reflect on my emotions. It was a strange mix of excitement, disgust and a certain sense of … satisfaction! Was it out of having watched a story well crafted… a sense of ‘closure’ with the revenge being accomplished, or something else?
Over the last few years, from 'Gangs of Wasseypur' to 'Mirzapur', stories of lust, blood and gore from small-town India have captured our imagination. Hindi cinema had violence earlier too, but with an element of aestheticisation that softened the edges. Fight sequences were set to background music, dhishooms and the villains flying in air with each punch. You never heard the sound of blood squirting from wounds, or bones cracking.
The rawness of these new movies with unabashed showcasing of small-town Hindi heartland crudeness touches something within us. Something which, with progress, we thought we were washing off.
It, perhaps, points at the relationship between cultural progress and our notion of masculinity.
In the journey from agricultural to industrial to information age, as the role of physical strength in bread winning declined, women increasingly competed with men in arenas of professional performance. The relevance of old school masculinity started to dim and the modern man started to shed many of its attendant symbols. For decades now, men embracing/acknowledging their feminine side have been increasingly mainstreamed.
The metrosexual man, getting his facials and pedicures at parlours, was a manifestation of this. In India, Raymond’s - The Complete Man, spending quality time with his daughter, staying back to take care of his ailing child even as his wife left for work, brought alive this archetype best. Even as other brands like Nivea celebrated ‘The men who dare, to show they care’.
As it happens with cultural trends, there was a counter trend. Stemming from a need to reclaim the lost territory amongst men. Perhaps, out of the anxiety of losing ground to women, the instinctive need to connect with gender identity, or more likely, a combination of multiple factors.
Since progress and civilisation is seen as the key cause of emasculation, the pursuit takes us to the world relatively untouched by it.
In the west, when the American male needed to reconnect with his masculinity, Marlboro sourced it by going back to the times when men were cowboys.
Another source for borrowing masculinity in the west has been the Black underground culture. Since the Blacks also represented men who had not been ‘softened’ by privileges of progress and pampered living, they epitomised masculinity, one that often threatened the White.
In the blockbuster Hollywood series 'Rocky', the White protagonist beating his Black counterparts, or retreating to the less privileged world of Blacks to regain his lost power, symbolised and addressed the White male anxiety.
While brands like Mountain Dew showcased hypermasculine stunts by the White men to achieve the same.
In India too, this need is evident in the emergence of facial hair and body tattoos. Just compare the Indian cricket teams across a decade and you will see. Not surprisingly, brands like Gillette are worried, while new brands like Beardo and The Man Company have risen fast.
It was only natural that we would source our masculinity from the ‘unprogressed’ – small-town India.
The man who epitomised small-town power – MS Dhoni – acquired cult status as much for his performance as his small-town background. Pepsi celebrated men like him, Virender Sehwag, Bhajji (Harbhajan Singh), all coming from small-town India, rewriting the rules of the gentleman’s game through their unique techniques no MCC manual would approve of.
Over time, the new arena for boys from small-town India to showcase their prowess is the Indian Premier League (IPL). Be it the emergence of fast bowlers (for the longest time, a key source of anguish, since lack of fast bowlers signalled our lack of masculinity), or unheard of batsmen facing up to international fast bowlers and hitting them out of the ground.
Not surprisingly, Bollywood and the OTT platforms discovered the dusty Indian badlands for telling stories of a very different brand of masculinity. Where local accents, expletives filled language, desi kattas and gang lords remain untainted by progress. Though the women in these stories are no less when it comes to combativeness, the men dominate the narrative.
And much like the White male borrowing elements of Black culture, the urban Indian males are beginning to discover a new brand of cool from small-town India. From a generation that worked hard to mask their small-town origin and accents, we might be seeing the rise of one which is deliberately flaunting it.
It would be interesting to see if, and how, brands tap into this need amongst men to reclaim lost territory by returning to a world receding with progress.
(The author is director at Learning Curve, a Gurugram-based brand consultancy.)