The overwhelming male dominance of popular Hindi films notwithstanding when was the last time you saw a real man onscreen? A Hindi film might forget to be Bollywood at times and forfeit the song-and-dance routine, it might even have an ambiguous ending but it'll always a hero. Sometimes the hero would be a heroine but in spite of everything it's very rare to see the hero play out a real man.
If you were to mention this to an industry insider he'd out-laugh the question. Look around, he'd say and all you see are real men playing real men and sometimes they play it even better than the real thing. You look around. And behind the sheaf of fake moustaches all you see is testosterone laden above 40 boys trying to men. These are guys who secretly pray that curious or not it's time their inherent Benjamin Button emerged. The rustic streak and the dabangg elements can try as hard as they may but Chulbul Pandey is far from being real. He is a guy who wouldn't be caught doing anything regular and yet suddenly he is the template for the cinematic equivalent of a real man now.
The search for a real character in commercial Hindi cinema is far worse from than the quest for the needle in the haystack. You might argue that the escapist nature of Bollywood can never allow anything remotely different from the glorious fake that it feeds on. Are we expecting too much then? Naseeruddin Shah in Masoom (1983) is the first image that pops in my mind when I think of a real man in Hindi cinema. The tenderness with which Shah plays D.K makes it not only one of the most interesting but also genuine characters in Hindi cinema. In D.K. Naseer makes the viewer go through a lifetime of emotions in the course of the film, sometimes he does this in a matter of a glance. What makes the character alive is the connection you make with D.K. beyond the obvious infidelity on his part. Released at the peak of Amitabh Bachchan's angry young man phase, Masoom revealed a side of man seldom seen in Hindi cinema. A few years ago Balraj Sahni's Salim Mirza in Garam Hawa (1973) threw out the pop from patriotic films and revealed the heart of a man torn between his nation and circumstances.
The popular films of the 1970s rendered it almost impossible for any male character who wasn't angry enough to stand ground in front of the hero. The common man of Amol Palekar was popular, yet it was soon seen as nothing more than momentary relief. Even the formative years of Parallel Cinema saw men who were angst ridden as well. It'd be only be a matter of time before the twain met and merged they did. In Ardha Satya (1983) Inspector Anant Velankar was as angry as inspector Vijay Kumar in Zanjeer (1973) but the palpable rage made him more tangible. Although Ardha Satya was more art-house than others and while it always had a greater claim on reality, mainstream wasn't lagging behind. Arjun's (1985) Arjun Malvankar is softer than either Vijay or Anant but the conditions around him infuriate him enough. In a few years the concept of cinema's real man has gone from believable in Zanjeer or Ardha Satya to almost ludicrous in Dabangg (2010), Singham (2011) or Rowdy Rathore (2012). Somewhere it got conveyed that anger is the only emotion that made a character real. The D.K.s or the Mirza sahibs were never real enough for Bollywood so their anger was close but no cigar. Ajay Rathod of Sarfarosh (1999) tried to break the pattern but it wasn't successful enough to wipe the memories of Amitabh Bachchan in Inquilab (1983).
There are reams written on the new age man who isn't shy of crying and isn't troubled by gender equality. If you ask Bollywood then a clean-shaven chest is as far as the hero's willing to go to make it real. He might even partake a 'heroine oriented' subject but he isn't going to trade his moustache. Even you wouldn't if you knew it was the shortest distance to a 100 crores.
Gautam Chintamani is an award-winning writer/filmmaker with over a decade of experience across print and electronic mediums.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)
From HT Brunch, March 18
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch