Any purveyor of Hindi cinema will notice that with each decade or so, Bollywood gives us a new form of masculinity. While, sometimes, it is directly connected to the socio-economic situation in the country, some actors are successful in setting trends through the sheer power of their celebrity. From Raj Kapoor to Ranveer Singh, Bollywood has seen a marked change in its portrayal of masculinity – we take a look.
The 1950s and 1960s saw the Bollywood hero who was an ordinary, patriotic and middle-class citizen. He often battled the oppressive rules of a society that was still coming into its own after two centuries of British rule. After a hard-fought independence, there was nothing more masculine than patriotism and a demand for one’s equal rights. The people of India had looked up to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Bhagat Singh and Mahatma Gandhi for so long and hence, it was only natural that actors like Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar came to portray the middle-class man who was deeply in love with his nation and knowledgeable about the goings-on in the country. The idea of masculinity in Bollywood of the 40s and 50s was of an ideal man who fought against an oppressive system even if it meant he had to lose in the end. The 60s saw a little change. The ordinary man was done with his troubles and had a swing in his feet. Shammi Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna, Dev Anand showcased the new age Indian man, who was charming, confident, stylish and an out-and-out ladies man.
1970s and 1980s
By the 1970s and 1980s, the glow of a newly won independence was fading away. There was a dormant rage and frustration in the Indian man who had seen dreams of glory and success post-independence but who couldn’t imagine the financial toll it would take on India. Bollywood tapped into this rage and feeling of emasculation amongst the common man. While we had a Rajesh Khanna, Amol Palekar or a Rishi Kapoor who provided respite from reality with romantic movies, what drew audiences to the theatres was the “Angry Young Man”. The Angry Young Man was the product of a society which was tired of sticking to ideals and losing all the time. The men were tired of being martyred. Hence, characters portrayed by Amitabh Bachchan, Jeetendra, Dharmendra and Vinod Khanna believed in success at all costs. In fact, a song from Zamir brings it together perfectly: Jahan sach naa chale wahan jhooth sahi/ jahan hak naa mile wahan loot sahi. These larger-than-life heroes gave the Indian man his raw masculinity back, something they felt they had lost. Bollywood paid homage to the tall man with a hairy chest which was a sign of the levels of testosterone running in his system. This man drank, smoked and slept with prostitutes even if he never actually fell in love with them or married them. The 80s also saw an alternate hero – the bad good boy. These characters were portrayed by the likes of Sanjay Dutt and Jackie Shroff who were the products of a newly liberalised India. Even if Shroff and Dutt did romantic films, there was an edge to them – a dangerous side that appealed to the ladies. Hence, Indian men could choose from two types of masculinities – the angry, give-a-damn man or the biker boy with an edge.
Late 1980s and 1990s
Towards the end of the 80s and the start of the 90s, with rage subsiding in the Indian man, we saw the rise of the lover boy. Like Rishi Kapoor and Rajesh Khanna, these men were romantic heroes but they were younger and cooler. Aamir Khan was the nation’s heartthrob during those days following the manic success of Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar. Shah Rukh Khan became the prince charming with his back-to-back romantic hits. These guys were not your everyday hunks but their boy-next-door charm was a massive hit with Indian men and women. They were lanky, danced in the rain, had no buff bodies, got beaten up by the goons for their love and yet they became the idea of the perfect man for that generation. The lover boy became mainstream. Like in every decade, there was an exception and the exception of the 90s lover boy was Akshay Kumar who followed the route taken by Dutt and Shroff in the 80s. Kumar was the fit, edgy man. He was into martial arts and kept to himself.
While SRK still held massive sway in the early 2000s and Karan Johar’s NRI-centric Bollywood films brought about a cultural change in society, the start of the millennium belonged to the beefcake hunks like Salman Khan, Hrithik Roshan and John Abraham. Never before had Bollywood seen a debut like that of Roshan’s. The actor shot to superstardom following the release of his debut film and his bulging muscles encased in black mesh became the trend of the day. While Salman Khan’s peers like SRK and Aamir Khan were still the chocolate boys, he had already driven the nation crazy with his shirtless scene in Oh Oh Jaane Jaana followed by dozens of scenes like that. Then, of course, there was Abraham who took it a notch higher with bold choices of films. The Indian man now strived to be muscular. This is also when manscaping began – while the 70s and 80s were all about being hairy, the early 2000s saw the rise of the smooth, glistening chest. A special mention must be also given to the rise of Indi-pop with bands like Viva and musicians like Lucky Ali and Alisha Chinai playing a huge role. The music videos that accompanied these songs featured the most popular models of those days – Milind Soman and Muzammil Ibrahim who tried to make it in Bollywood but weren’t successful.
While the trend of “content-driven cinema” was still a while away, social media had shown the Indian audience the kinds of films that Western audiences and those in other South-Asian countries like Korea and China were seeing. Hence, we saw breakout stars like Ayushmann Khurrana and Rajkummar Rao who were ordinary and relatable men. They weren’t classically good-looking and nowhere like larger-than-life heroes. They weren’t even in the cute, boy-next-door category. They dealt with issues that the regular A-list hero would never touch like sperm donation or facing oppression for being gay. You could say this man was the revamped version of Amol Palekar, however unlike the 70s this time he was not sidelined by the macho men.
The advent of social media also opened up avenues for more types of masculinity to follow. Hence, we were introduced to the man-child. He meant well and made many mistakes but was always forgiven because of his good looks and charm. Actors like Ranbir Kapoor and Imran Khan embodied these kinds of heroes. The 2010s also brought us the new batch of B-Town kids like Varun Dhawan and Sidharth Malhotra who were privileged, only cared about their bodies and were obsessed with romance. They also weren’t the smartest, if we can say that.
The last decade also gave us the gender bender in Ranveer Singh. Singh has had a huge role to play in the current portrayal of the Bollywood hero. Here was a man whose masculinity could never be questioned and who was kooky and dressed in outfits that were feminine. Singh just didn’t give a damn and threw the rule-book out of the window. He did condom ads which no A-lister before him had ever done. He participated in roasts where people spoke about his alleged nymphomania. All in all, the 2010s was the start of an interesting decade in Bollywood as far as masculinity is concerned.
Now, we come to the current decade. Content-driven cinema rules the roost and filmmakers are more careful with how they portray masculinity on the screen following the #MeToo movement that shook the globe. Actors who had largely been ignored by big producers and directors are now the cream of Bollywood. If you want your film to work, you go to Ayushmann Khurrana or Rajkummar Rao who have proved their allyship and woke-status by remaining consistent since the early 2010s. Heroes of today are more outspoken and are expected to be so. Actors like Arjun Mathur and Vijay Verma are aspirational figures because of their acceptance of a feminine side and their choice of cinema. Rohit Saraf, who is not your typical macho man, was dubbed the national crush after his Netflix film, Mismatched released. We also had a rare debut in Siddhant Chaturvedi who was masculine in the poetic sense – he could spout rap lyrics but these lyrics were about the state of the nation. This is where the idea of masculinity is currently in Bollywood. The woke man is the hero now.