(This is Part 4 of an ongoing series on evolving definitions of masculinity in Hindi cinema)
Actor Arjun Kapoor is a fitting example for a discussion on the noticeable, even if marginal, changes in the interpretation of maleness, manhood, masculinity and machismo in Hindi cinema in recent years. His short career has been marked by a mix of out-and-out conservatism and unexpected liberalism, from Ishaqzaade with its disturbing take on rape to Two States, which took a stand against domestic violence.
In the recent release Ki and Ka, he played the role of a stay-at-home husband whose wife is a successful professional. Film critics and feminists have pointed out the contradictions in the film’s gender politics, while acknowledging that it sparked off a conversation on a subject that has rarely been touched upon in the public sphere in India.
In a freewheeling interview with contributing editor Anna M.M. Vetticad, Kapoor proves to be that rare young star who does not sidestep questions or criticism. Excerpts:
What is your definition of masculinity?
Masculinity for me has always been a man who can be there for friends and family, emotionally, mentally and physically, not just monetarily.
What do you think is the most widely accepted definition of masculinity in our society?
Most people think, mard hai agar daadhi hua (he’s a man if he has a beard). I’m a victim of that. My beard has not been allowed to be shaved for the last four years, because of roles I’m being offered. My imagery has become that.
It’s such a cliché. A true gentleman is chivalrous, well behaved, sophisticated and respects people, but over here if you’ve got a beard and have this ‘I don’t give a damn’ body language, people consider you a man.
You said, agar daadhi hai toh log samajhte hai mard hai (people consider you a real man if you have a beard). What about agar ladai, gaali-galoch karta hai (if he is physically and verbally abusive)?
Not everybody is violent but yes, being an action hero means you’re a man in Hindi cinema at least. Asli mard voh hota hai jo maar-peet karta hai, jo heroine ko bachaata hai (a true man is one who beats up people, saves the heroine).
Did you consider the possibility that Ki and Ka could affect your macho image?
I have never thought about my imagery. If you look at my short career, you’ll notice that my biggest success is Two States, in which I play a very regular boy. He’s a man-child to begin with, but he is still a man because he stood up for what he believes in. For me masculinity is not about beating up people or the way I look. It’s a 360 perspective,
Was the comedy genre essential for Ki and Ka to soften the blow for those male viewers uncomfortable at the sight of a mainstream star playing a stay-at-home husband?
We did not make this film with an agenda to change the world. We made a romantic comedy, therefore romance and comedy were essential ingredients. It’s not a niche film. It has a very relatable premise because there are a lot of women who have been housewives but wanted to continue working after marriage and a lot of men who, without the blessings of society, have been homemakers because their wives have better jobs than them. They do it in hiding because society doesn’t allow them to be normal, they’re looked down upon and told ki tum napunsak ho ya tum aurat ho (you are impotent or you are a woman).
So to answer your question, I don’t look at a film from the point of view of whether men or women will like it. The audience is ready to accept anything unique and exciting as long as you make it well. Humour only adds to the entertainment. We did not do it to soften anything, but to heighten the entertainment.
Ishaqzaade was troubling on the gender front. Why wasn’t your character Parma’s behaviour towards Zoya positioned as rape?
It was. She comes to kill him because he’s raped her. Maybe it’s not literally said, rape kiya, but it is insinuated. It cannot be for any other reason that she comes to kill me. There was, unfortunately, one scene that got cut out where I break down in front of her and confess that I shouldn’t have done what I did, that what I did was silly because I didn’t realise it will have the spiral effect of losing my mother. But it was never treated like it was fine.
It’s true she was angry but she also pretty easily got over his actions towards her.
See, she loved him purely, he never did. He realised he loves her only after he’s spent more time and he realised he was being a child, he wanted acceptance from his family. Obviously, if I’ve to defend the film then that means the point has not come through to you but I would like to believe for a majority of people it’s not an issue otherwise the film would have been a disaster and I would have been stoned.
Actually, wouldn’t it be quite the opposite? Isn’t it widely considered macho in our society for a man to sexually violate a woman?
Violating anybody is not considered macho from any angle. You’re actually buzdil kaayar jo bolte hai, na (what people call a coward). That means you cannot respect a woman’s choice. If she wants to be with you, that is great. If she doesn’t, it cannot hurt your ego and you cannot violate her. That’s not being a man, that’s being a dickhead who doesn’t deserve to be alive.
But isn’t that the widely held social notion that explains so much sexual violence in India?
It’s considered normal, you’re saying, for men to molest or rape women?
I’m asking, isn’t it a widely held social notion that violence, roughing up women is macho?
See, Anna, at the end of the day our values are lenient towards men. The fundamental problem of social conditioning should be treated at the educational level, which it is not.
What about the cinematic level? So many Hindi films show men molesting women as courtship. Salman Khan in Kick lifts up Jacqueline Fernandez’s skirt with his teeth and dances around. Two seconds later she’s shown in love with him.
But cinema is for entertainment. Cinema is not for teaching people. Audiences come out of choice to watch a film to be entertained. If somebody holds a skirt with their mouth and dances, that girl in the film is allowing it, she’s not getting upset that he’s dancing with her.
Isn’t it problematic that the film shows her briefly getting upset, then falling for him?
No she’s getting irritated because he’s being a buffoon around her in the song, not because he’s holding her skirt in his mouth. You’re trying to now find faults with Hindi cinema.
I can understand you having an opinion on Ishaqzaade, I completely respect that because a lot of women will feel various emotions when you see a film like that, which is very justified. Waise toh agar aadmi bandook utthata hai toh ghalat hai (in that case, since it is wrong for a man to take up arms) we should not show guns in films because it affects society? Cinema is not about teaching people, it’s about entertainment. Across the world, only in India it is treated like aapko acchhi cheezein dikhana chahiye (you must only show good things).
The problem is not with films portraying such actions, the problem is with films justifying such actions. And this discussion is not taking place only in India.
But nobody has approached this from a grassroots level, from the education point of view. I don’t think cinema is the torchbearer of that alone.
No one is saying cinema should be the sole torchbearer but that cinema is one of the multiple influences on people’s mindsets.
But cinema is showing you how society is.
Isn’t it possible to show society’s reality without justifying it? To portray violence without romanticising it?
When somebody romanticises it you have to have the sensibility to understand right from wrong, na? You should already have a moral compass in place.
But since our education system does not discuss these things, as you point out, isn’t it likely that many viewers do not have clear-cut views on these matters?
It is unfortunate, but if the film industry starts thinking about every kind of situation then we won’t be able to make films for the masses who primarily come to a film to get entertained.
Is it not a problem if violence against women is romanticised in films?
I’ve not seen a film where violence towards women is romanticised.
When the hero stalks the heroine, forcibly kisses her like Akshay Kumar does in Holiday, and she is shown falling in love with him although until then she was resisting him, isn’t such a film romanticising stalking?
I’ve not seen Holiday but if you’re holding a girl, she obviously must be knowing him, I’m assuming.
No. He follows her over a period of time, forcibly kisses her, she resists, she’s angry, and then shortly afterwards she’s in love with him.
So clearly she was not actually that angry if she is in love with him, na? She must have felt something.
By showing her falling in love with him after having expressed annoyance, isn’t the film perpetuating the social attitude that when a woman says no she means maybe?
Now I remember seeing 15 minutes of Holiday. He goes to her house and she refuses to get married to him. So she knows him. It’s not that he’s stalking her after not talking. Yaar, that’s an isolated incident. I’ve not seen violence romanticised to that degree. When there is violence towards women, most films show consequences. Exception to the rule maybe Holiday?
Consequences for the hero? But in most cases she falls for him. We must agree to disagree.
I do feel it’s important to have healthy discussions, which I’m glad we’re having. The brasstacks of the situation is, people might say cinema influences but it’s only influencing 1 per cent of the population. Who’s responsible for the 99 per cent? It is the government’s responsibility.
Like I said, we must agree to disagree on this.
You don’t agree that the government should be responsible?
I think we all play a role in these matters — government, news media, entertainment media.
Correct. But films are still connecting with only 1 per cent of the population. This will become a four page debate between you and me. (We laugh)
Okay, let’s move on. The best scene in Homi Adajania’s Finding Fanny is the one in which Angie loses her virginity to Savio. Do you think Indian men are by and large comfortable with sexually confident women?
I can’t speak about Indian society but I am very confident with a sexually confident woman. Everybody has needs. When a man has needs he’s applauded, when a woman has needs she’s shunned. It’s stupid. Women have a right to explore their sexuality in whatever way they desire. A sexually confident woman can only make the experience far far superior.
Have Hindi cinema’s LGBT stereotypes harmed India’s gay rights movement?
I would have liked to have a certain sanitisation of the thought process in films. See, there can be various kinds of gay and lesbian people. Of course we play the cliché more often, clichés exist in society so you play them, but that does not mean that you have a negative psyche towards them in the film. You can portray them as a cliché but still show them in a positive light.
So, have Hindi cinema’s LGBT stereotypes harmed India’s gay rights movement?
No I think our government again has put a fucking ban on, I mean sorry for my language, but they’ve put a ban (on homosexual relations). Those are bigger fundamental problems. Castrating the film industry about everything is easy. Nobody wants to see the bigger picture, nobody wants to see the Centralised government’s decision making.
But aren’t people seeing it and protesting against the government?
Ya, but they have to bring that change about. The government is being ancient. They have a myopic take. They don’t want to hurt certain people’s sentiments so they’ve put a ban. That’s ridiculous. See, ideology changes when the government allows freedom. Like I keep arguing with you, Anna, cinema is one aspect of society, it is not the aspect of society. If cinema had such a big influence, then after Ishaqzaade cross-cultural marriages would have increased because society would have realised it’s not right to do honour killings.
Don’t positive influences take longer to take effect? Are you saying films have no influence on people?
No no, they do, but like I said, 1 per cent of the country is watching it. There’s so much more.
But it’s a beginning.
Ya, but you’ve to look at it from the point of view that some films have a positive influence, some are made for entertainment, some are made to not have an influence but just be enjoyed in a certain way.
I’ve spoken to Shakun Batra so I know he did not make Kapoor & Sons thinking, mujhe message dena hai iss film ke zariye (I have to deliver a message through my film). But through an entertaining film he has put out a message and the film has made money.
But not every director will be able to do it the way he has done it. Certain people are capable, certain are not. Just because he has made a film aesthetically, in a sound and dignified way, you cannot expect the entire industry to be able to pull it off. It’s a skill. It’s not easy.
I agree films should definitely have a more positive influence on society where LGBT is concerned. But my biggest fundamental issue is that the film industry is always an easy target and looked down upon, but everybody watches the film at the end of the day.
Are you saying the consumer does not have a right to criticise a film he or she consumes?
Of course he does. But I’m saying people don’t give the film industry enough credit for the positives that we do.
I’m sure the evolution will happen. I’m not saying what has happened in the past is right or wrong, I’m saying LGBT portrayals have been done a certain way because audiences were enjoying themselves. So they continued. See, everybody has a herd mentality here. Films like Aligarh and Kapoor & Sons will change the way films are made where the gay community is concerned, but you’ve to give it its own time. Today if you are seeing films like Kapoor & Sons, the evolution started when we had multiplexes and Dil Chahta Hai (2001) got released. The by-product of watching Dil Chahta Hai is Shakun Batra.
Would you play an LGBT character in a film?
Yes. I’d even spoken to Shakun, but he had already cast Fawad. I said, if you had come to me I would have definitely considered it, because I liked the whole script.
Is there anyone you might wish as your co-star if such a film gives your character a lover?
(Laughs) Everybody insinuates that Ranveer and me are gay together. And we do have our hormones all over the place, according to people, we’re jumping at each other more than Priyanka (Chopra) in Gunday, so a lot of people have jokingly said we should do Dostana 2. I guess that would be a nice coming together if at all.
This series is about evolving definitions of masculinity in Hindi cinema. Are male stars of your generation being offered a lot more variety than your seniors were offered?
I know for a fact that Ki and Ka is a role not every actor would say yes to. A lot of people have seen the film and said I was courageous to do it. I never thought of it that way. The trick is to not think of it that way but to go with whether the story is interesting and worth telling. Roles have improved, but I wouldn’t say the masculinity has reduced drastically. People still write heroism quite a bit.
The change in attitude will come in the writing. It’s a transitional phase where it’s just started a year or two back. See, what happens is, it’s a give and take, it’s about audience demand-supply. We are kind of scared to change. Everybody says, yeh theek chal raha hai, change mat karo (this is going well so don’t change it). The writing will improve once films like Kapoor & Sons, Ki and Ka keep doing well. Herd mentality thhodi hoti hai iss profession mein, na (there is a herd mentality in this profession), nobody wants to take risks, they want to follow patterns.
The ones who break clutter sometimes will face failure but eventually if the audience connect is strong they will succeed.
Next in this series: Part 5: Interview with director Shakun Batra
Click here for Part 2: Interview with Fawad Khan: “When you come to watch a film, come for a film, not porn”
Click here for Part 3: Interview with Pankaj Tripathi: “Modi is the traditional Hindustani hero, Kejriwal is the common man”