It would be a long time before the generation that went to college in the early and mid-1970s began to take popular Indian cinema seriously, something like 20 years, in fact. In the last decade of the last century, some of the young film buffs who had spent their undergraduate years watching Wajda and Fassbinder and Herzog and Tarkovsky returned to Indian popular cinema via the film studies route and began to illumine this intellectual area of darkness with both encyclopaedic and monographic work. And then, around the beginning of the new millennium, mainstream Hindi cinema, rebranded as Bollywood, became au courant in the West as some of the more famous names in the entertainment industry there acknowledged the appeal of Hindi film masala, the song and dance routines that define our cinema.
Some of this interest could be put down to novelty or fashion, but there was some evidence that the characteristic qualities of the Hindi film were finding admirers outside its traditional audiences.
Bollywood Dreams, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Hindi movie musical, was one straw in the wind, and Baz Luhrmann, the director of Moulin Rouge, acknowledged that the extravagant, over-the-top song-and-dance routines in that musical were inspired by the ‘picturisation’ of Hindi film song sequences.
Because film critics, film directors and festival organisers seem to have developed an interest in the methods of Hindi films, this is a good time for us, as consumers of popular Indian cinema, to help them understand just how different our cinema is from theirs. The fundamental difference between their films and ours is that in Hollywood, it’s all right for both heroes and heroines to be good-looking. Not so in Hindi films. It is a rule in Hindi cinema, in particular, and Indian cinema, in general, that the heroine will be both good-looking and sexy, but the hero will be neither.
The best way of illustrating the truth of this is by citing examples. As you read the lists that follow, try and conjure up the faces attached to those names. Let’s start with the heroines: Gauhar Jan, Naseem Bano, Shobhana Samarth, Kanan Bala, Durga Khote, Fearless Nadia, Madhubala, Geeta Bali, Nargis, Suraiya, Meena Kumari, Waheeda Rehman, Sadhana, Sharmila Tagore, Hema Malini, Nutan, Saira Bano, Raakhee, Rekha, Zeenat Aman, Shabana Azmi, Dimple Kapadia, Madhuri Dixit, Aishwarya Rai, Tabu, Karisma Kapoor, Vidya Balan... this is a list at random in no particular order and I could go on. I don’t myself think that all these leading ladies were stunners, but most sane moviegoers would allow that, personal preferences apart, these were attractive and personable women.
Now consider the men: Prem Adib, Kundan Lal Saigal, Pradeep Kumar, Ashok Kumar, Premnath, Kishore Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Bharat Bhushan, Guru Dutt, Biswajeet, Joy Mukherjee, Rajendra Kumar, Jeetendra, Shammi Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor, Dharmendra, Raaj Kumar, Shatrughan Sinha, Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan, Ajay Devgan, Govinda, Naseeruddin Shah, Mithun Chakraborty, Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Anil Kapoor, Sunny Deol, Salman Khan, Govinda, Sunjay Dutt, Sunil Shetty, and so on. Now the extraordinary thing about this list is that with a few exceptions (Dilip Kumar was a persuasively broody lover, Dharmendra was an old-fashioned hunk, Shashi Kapoor was the pretty boy par excellence, and Aamir and Shah Rukh have some claim to cuteness), the men who figure in it are, by most standards of male beauty, aggressively unbeautiful.
Ashok Kumar was a charming man, but he had the physical presence of a cupboard wearing a dressing gown. Kundan Lal Saigal was possibly the ugliest leading man in the history of world cinema. Rajesh Khanna, the first superstar, looked upholstered for most of his career, like a bolster wearing a guru shirt. Rajendra Kumar... well, what can you say? And yet, these men were serious stars.
And it isn’t just the Hindi cinema. If you look south, the contrast is even more startling. Fat, lipsticked men with pencil moustaches — the one thin one I can think of, Prabhu Deva, has all the sex appeal of a stick insect. Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, Nageshwara Rao, MG Ramachandran, NT Rama Rao, Prabhu Deva, Kamalhaasan... after making every allowance for regional differences in popular notions of male beauty, you still have to explain why Rekha, Vyjayanthimala, Hema Malini, Padmini, Aishwarya Rai, Shilpa Shetty — South Indians all — need no allowances made for their looks.
Historically, heroines have successfully moved between cinemas in different languages. From Padmini and Vyjayanthimala to Aishwarya Rai and Shilpa Shetty, girls from the South have been successful leading ladies in Hindi films. Reciprocally, North Indian heroines have starred in Tamil and Telugu films. But the reverse isn’t true. Heroes travel very badly. No South Indian star, however big, has ever made it in Hindi cinema. Rajnikanth, who is contemporary Tamil cinema’s greatest star, has made no impression on the box-office in Hindi cinema. Nor has any Bengali actor been successful in a Hindi film, not even the extraordinary Uttam Kumar: Amanush was a resounding flop.
Why does Indian cinema deal in beautiful women and ugly men? It could be that since the audience for popular cinema is disproportionately made up of young, desperate, thwarted men, the heroine’s looks and sex appeal matter rather more than those of the hero. This sounds plausible, but as an explanation it just doesn’t work. It is an axiom in the film trade that the ‘initial’ of nearly all films, that is, the houses a film gets in the first few days after its opening, depends on the charisma of the hero. Thus, Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, Shah Rukh Khan, even Ajay Devgan and Govinda can (or could) ‘open’ a film on the strength of their names and guarantee full houses for days or weeks, but very few heroines have been able to do that. That’s why heroes are routinely paid more than heroines. This leads us to the bizarre conclusion that mainly male audiences buy tickets to adore indifferent-looking men.
This is absurd, but true. The truth of this insight, however, depends upon the truth of a larger generalisation: Indian cinema favours good-looking women and bad-looking men because its audiences consist of good-looking women and bad-looking men. It’s rude to say this but the first thing that strikes the eye gazing upon India is that the men can be nearly as ugly as sin. The contrast between them and Indian women is striking: how delicate and vivid Indian women are, and how coarse, dull, and squab-like the men. You don’t have to take my word for it: cast your eye over mixed gatherings in classrooms, offices, weddings, literary festivals, protest marches. Indian women are routinely and radically better-looking than Indian men.
Indian heroes look the way they do because those desperate male audiences pay money to watch men like themselves succeed with beautiful women. And ticket-buying women? Think about it: what choice do they have? In nearly every arranged marriage in North India, you will hear an older woman say reassuringly: Ladkon ki seerat dekhi jaati hai, soorat nahin, which, roughly translated, reads: you look at a boy’s qualities, not his looks. Which, given Indian men, is just as well. Hindi cinema is unfairly dismissed as escapism. It is, in fact, a great reality machine designed to remind Indian men of their good fortune and to reconcile Indian women to their fate. That’s why all Hindi films are musicals: without songs and ensemble dancing, the mandatory union of a succession of beautiful women with an endless supply of beastly men would be unbearable. Despite Moulin Rouge and Bollywood Dreams, the tricks of Hindi cinema are essentially unexportable. For the formula to work, you need quantities of ugly Indian men: both on the screen and in front of it.
Men who joined St Stephen’s in 1974, the last year of its sepia history as a single-sex college, learnt this defining truth about Indian men and women early on: in 1975, when the women came, we got to college one mid-July morning to find that the place had abruptly evolved from black-and-white to colour.
Mukul Kesavan is a writer. He teaches history at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi. This is an extract from The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions (Permanent Black)