Sooryavanshi, Satyamev Jayate 2, Antim: A queer reading of the testosterone-driven, hyper masculine cinema
'Sooryavanshi is a bland bursting of cars till the three men come together in the end. Finally, there is some heat. The palpable homo-eros is, of course, entirely unintended.'
Queer Gaze is a monthly column where Prathyush Parasuraman examines traces of queerness in cinema and streaming — intended or unintended, studied or unstudied, reckless or exciting.
Sooryavanshi clarified a lingering theory on the male obsession with large, long, big things.
That the entry of a Rohit Shetty hero — boisterous, loud, plotted with an immense eye for staging, foreplay, and single-screen celebration — was actually a severe manifestation of Big Dick Energy. The last 30 minutes of the film — where the three cops, Singham (Ajay Devgn), Simmba (Ranveer Singh), and Sooryavanshi (Akshay Kumar) joust and explode into orgiastic violence — has a curious comical moment. Simmba interrupts an argument between Singham and Sooryavanshi — with a sarcasm that allows him to be truthful without being scathing — about whose entrance is bigger, better, stronger. Simmba tells them to cut the banter, "Haan! Kiska zyada bada hai … entry… koi farak nahin padta. Chalo!" (Whose is the biggest … entry … makes no difference. Hustle!)
So much is said and felt in that pause, a playful chide at one's dick size, and the recasting of the heroic entry as either a compensation for or symbolic of their respective measurements. It lends Devgn’s entry into the world of cinema with Phool Aur Kaante (1991) — standing on two bikes, one leg on each, till the bikes move away from each other and he performs a split — a kind of unintended subversion. Part of me thought, watching it in retrospect, that’s so gay. Literally the first shot we have of him is his black denim clad crotch. The first thing that crotch bangs against is a nerdy man, Ajay Devgn falling into his lap, his legs now around the man’s hips. Devgn grips the hurt man’s shoulders in reassurance. It is an ironic marriage of queer theatrics and masculine posturing.
Macho manifestations are always queer suspects. When The New Yorker Magazine critic Pauline Kael wrote about the Tom Cruise testosterone trapeze Top Gun (1986), she called it "a shiny homoerotic commercial," with sweat stained locker rooms, and men with towels perched precariously on sculpted hips. To give credence to this theory, in a cameo in the 1994 film Sleep With Me, director Quentin Tarrantino waxed eloquent on how Top Gun is actually about a "man’s struggle with his own homosexuality." That queer reading is now part of the film’s legacy.
Exclusively masculine spaces express desire in a way we are not used to seeing as sexual or with a subtext (intended or otherwise) we might not be used to reading as sexual. But as professor Madhavi Menon writes in her book Infinite Variety: A History Of Desire In India, “The mode of communicating desire in Hindi cinema … has historically taken recourse to indirection rather than direction.”
So viewers of Hindi cinemas, mostly queer starved like myself, have "perfected the art of reading desires that lurk in the cracks of filmic narratives." To see, for example, in Anand (1971), in Sholay (1975), more than what meets the eye.
The female presence in such films is often tacked on. In Sooryavanshi, there is certainly an actress, the 'love interest,' Katrina Kaif trying to summon an oomph, hips baring, clothed in Manish Malhotra’s metallic sari, drenched in rain, but falling short in front of a man who kisses her cheek like he is sniffling a houseplant. Where is the heat?
It is like what poet Hoshang Merchant wrote, “The female presence is there to only lessen the homosexual sting.” Kaif knows this so well, she has made an art out of romancing the camera instead of her co-actors. Does anyone remember Siddharth Malhotra in 'Kaala Chashma?' Or Akshay Kumar in 'Sheila Ki Jawani?' Besides, the film is so uninterested in their love, that it gets them to court, love, marry, and beget a child in one fell swoop of a montage song.
Part of this lacking chemistry is a wilful studio construction. When you have actresses half the age of an actor, the chemistry summoned has its limitations. It is why Tamil films, like the recently released Rajinikanth-starrer Annathe, include the sister character — the wide-eyed thangachi — as another heroine to the mass films, knowing fully well that the love interest of the hero cannot sustain itself in a film where the hero is 70 years old.
Case in point, the 'Tip Tip Song,' remixed for Sooryavanshi. Raveena Tandon was 20 years old when she danced to the original song in 1994 opposite Akshay Kumar, who was then 27. Twenty-seven years later, for the remix, Kumar is 54 years old, and his co-star Kaif is 38 years old. The age gap more than doubled, the actor remained the same. (Interesting, given that the Riverdale stylisation and lighting they borrowed, of a couple making out in the backseat of a heating car, was from a scene where Archie, the main character, was romancing an older woman.)
When there is a concerted effort to create this age gulf (or chasm) between an actor and an actress, the chemistry must come from elsewhere, otherwise the film flattens. You need to have characters sharing space with a joy that can be read in as many ways as possible, for it is this joy becomes an invitation to come watch the unfolding film. This is the reason why Sooryavanshi is a bland bursting of cars till the three men come together in the end. Finally, there is some heat. The palpable homo-eros is, of course, entirely unintended. For a filmmaker whose naive politics wants to be celebrated for being able to distinguish anti-Muslim from anti-Pakistan, queerness as subtext is a far cry. But is that where we are now in commercial Hindi cinema? Lurking for desire in subtexts?
In Shrayana Bhattacharya's recent book Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh, she makes a curious observation. After spending more than a decade following women across different socio-economic strata, a common thread among the Shah Rukh female fandom was a disappointment when, in the 2010s, he moved away from romance towards action, from sweatered charm towards shirtless abdomens. The matrix of desire and desirability had changed, and the access to aspiration had to change too. The sweatered NRI was replaced by the bare-chested wax figure. SRK, like any star yearning for relevance, flowed with the times.
As writer Michiel Baas argues, SRK then became a masculine ideal in the physical sense, his “lean, muscular, ideal body type ... emerged among middle-class Indian men.” Based on interviews with bodybuilders, he notes Om Shanti Om, and SRK’s “freshly baked abs” unveiled in the satirical item song ‘Dard-e-Disco’ as a culturally important moment for masculinity in India. Gym memberships roared. Suddenly, the women as desiring subjects are replaced by men as idealising ones.
The actresses now, recognising the contrived, stale chemistry and the constructed gaze of such films, began courting the camera with a bare midriff and an oomph that is sensational, sexy, problematic, and Farah Khan's tempered seduction, while the men courted masculinity. The abs deepened. Sometimes, like Dabanng, like Raees, something crackles. But mostly, it is just dead love.
Prathyush Parasuraman is a critic and journalist, who writes a weekly newsletter on culture, literature, and cinema at prathyush.substack.com.
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