Mardistan, a documentary that hopes for a brave, new Indian macho man

Deepanjana Pal

September 26, 2014 17:16:29 IST

In filmmaker Harjant Gill's tantalisingly-titled documentary, Mardistan (Macholand): Reflections on Indian Manhood, a college student named Tarun tells Gill that modern women are unfathomable. They'll hang out with you for a while and then, out of the blue, they'll suddenly lose interest, Tarun complains. When you ask them why they're toying with your feelings, they'll say something like "You're so boring." "It's only after listening to the latest hit song from rappers like Honey Singh that we realise what girls today really want," says Tarun.

If anyone needed conclusive evidence that heterosexual romance in India is mired in misconception and delusion, this is it. Perhaps it's true that some girls yearn to be told,

"Thoda dekh idhar, thoda udhar
Logon ki hum dono pe hai nazar
Mujhe lagta hai, vodka ka hai ye asarr
Tera gundwa sareer, baby like yo body
Trust me girl you so hottie
uh, uh, uh, hottie
Meri jaan you so hottie."

However, it is safe to say this isn't necessarily a faithful reflection of what all Indian "girls" want.

(Those lyrics are from "Tanning", from Singh's album Desi Kalakaar. In it, Singh exhorts his imaginary lady love, "Gora roop ae lishka maare/ Baby you are my sunshine/ Kyun tanning kardi mere lai/ Leave it baby, you so fine." This is a particularly intriguing sentiment when you keep in mind that one music video from this album featured Sonakshi Sinha coated with so much bronzer on her person that metal detectors in a 10-mile radius must have beeped frantically during the shoot. Spare a thought for Yo Yo who didn't want his sunshine to look tanned.)

If anything, Tarun's belief that Yo Yo Honey Singh's lyrics provide a prototype of masculinity that should be emulated is an indication of the image that some men would like to project in order to establish themselves as properly male.

A screengrab from the film

A screengrab from the film

Mardistan looks at conventions and conversations surrounding masculinity in Punjab. Gill has said in interviews that he chose Punjabi men as his subjects because "Punjabi masculinity has been held up as an exemplar, physically at least". Leaving aside how many eye rolls and dismissive snorts this is likely to evoke among other Indian communities (try telling a Tamil or Bengali, for instance, that a Punjabi man is an exemplar), Gill's narrow focus holds out possibilities.

As author Amandeep Sandhu briefly mentions at one point, Punjab has had strong but complicated notions of masculinity, thanks to entrenched patriarchy and the region's long martial heritage that has manifested itself in a variety of ways, ranging from army enlistment to terrorism. Gill speaks to four men about their understanding of masculinity and how they negotiate conservative patriarchy in their everyday lives. Nivedita Menon's feminist perspective is brought in from time to time, to provide a context for these men's stories.

Gurpreet is a father of twin girls. Tarun is the student who takes his romantic cues from Yo Yo Honey Singh. Dhananjay is a gay man who lives with his wife because if he divorced her, she would become a social outcast. Sandhu grew up hearing his father being called "namard" because he didn't hit Sandhu's schizophrenic mother. There are intriguing details that glint out of all these stories, but ultimately Mardistan doesn't really give the viewer an insider's understanding of machismo.

Gill lets the men do the talking and doesn't speak to any woman other than Menon. As a result, we get some sense of how the men have struggled to go against the grain and develop a gender identity that isn't stereotypical. But we don't see how the unconventional masculine persona that Gurpreet, Tarun and Dhananjay have cultivated appears to anyone else. The women in the men's lives appear as photographs or make silent, wordless appearances. This is a shame because gender and gender bias are not exclusively male problems. Women play a critical part in sustaining and redefining gender, which is only to be expected since they make up half of any society. Ironically, in Mardistan, (barring Menon) women don't say a single word.

Gill is happy to accept heartwarming sound bytes, like Gurpreet saying that he would like his daughters to grow up freely and not be cloistered, but doesn't push his subjects to confront uncomfortable questions. For example, how would Gurpreet respond to his daughter being "eve teased"? Considering how important it is for Tarun to have a girlfriend, are sex and heterosexuality all that inform his notion of masculinity? Is being manly a different performance when he's in the company of other men than when he is with his girlfriend (alarmingly, he keeps comparing girlfriends to mothers. Paging Dr. Freud)?

It quickly becomes clear that the men that Gill has chosen are not typical. If these four were representative of Punjab's male mentality, then the state wouldn't have the reputation that it does for oppressing and harassing women. The machismo that drives men to commit violence against the weak -- as Menon pertinently points out, sexual violence includes raping men, which is supposed to subdue the raped by feminising them -- becomes something done by others; by vague, monstrous phantoms who are not seen. In Mardistan, they exist only in stories and in theory.

The men we see in newspaper reports, whose notions of masculinity are responsible for and arise out of the deep-rooted gender biases in Indian socieety, don't make an appearance in Gill's documentary. In Mardistan, those men exist as unreal, theoretical concepts, mostly figuring in Menon's commentary. The decision to privilege variations of masculinity that are not the norm results in a film that feels hopeful. There's a lot to be said for this because anyone who reads or watches the news knows how depressing examples of Indian masculinity usually are.

Yet, Mardistan's decision to effectively ignore those who subscribe to the idea of masculinity as something that keeps men in power and women underfoot, makes the documentary feel incomplete. That there are fathers like Gurpreet may make you feel more hopeful about the future, but with its focus on the bravely unconventional, Mardistan seems to wilfully ignore the present and the troubling notions of masculinity that are responsible for the horrifying violence against women that has become a regular feature of the news today.

Updated Date: Sep 26, 2014 19:28 PM