Indian cinema reveals a wide variety of masculinities in the male protagonist, from God figures drawn from Hindu mythology to saints derived from the stories of saint poets; from swash-buckling, sword-swinging heroes whose aim is to rescue damsels in distress to the generous, kind-hearted, affectionate and self-sacrificing hero who gives up his love for a greater cause.
Robert Connell, a pioneer in the study of masculinities seen in works such as Masculinities (1995), Masculinities and Globalisation in Men and Masculinities Vol.I.nr.1 (1998) and The Men and the Boys (2000) put forth for the first time that there are different kinds of masculinities and that one of these is dominant. This came like a beacon in theoretical studies surrounding men and what made men ‘men.’ The ‘dominant’ form of masculinity was defined by Connell as hegemonic masculinity. Other kinds of masculinity were either subsumed or marginalised and hegemonic masculinity was the frame of reference to live up to. The relationship between these different ways to be a man are characterised by conflict faced by most men – often in relation to women.
Since these early theories on masculinity are two decades old, there is hardly any study that explores masculinities in the heroes in Bengali cinema such as Pramathesh Chandra Barua in the 1940s to Uttam Kumar and Soumitra Chatterjee till 1980s. Barua created a distinct screen icon of ‘masculinity’ elaborated on his own terms. Uttam Kumar redefined the concept of masculinity that, placed in perspective, merges into the Bengali Bhadralok identity that found favour with his audience – male, and female, with equal appeal.
Soumitra Chatterjee entered the cinema scenario to tinge the history of Bengali cinema with his evolving a unique brand of masculinity distanced from his predecessor and rival Uttam Kumar’s. His screen masculinity is more appropriately placed within post-Colonial, independent India though it was ‘born’ in Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar related to an earlier time in Bengal’s history. He still represented the Bengali Bhadralok but in a more refined, subtle, understated and sophisticated form.
The screen bhadralok in fact, had metamorphosed from Barua’s Devdas to Uttam Kumar’s Harano Sur to Soumitra Chatterjee’s Saat Pake Bandha. None of these heroes bared their bodies to show off their six abs or eight abs, did not perform action scenes, fight much, use swear words or abusive language, or indulge in aggressive sport activities. They spouted poetry and sang songs. They therefore, neatly fit into the conventional Bengali bhadralok persona that led to their massive popularity among and identification with the Bengali audience. These heroes corresponded to the concept of hegemonic masculinity because they turned into live icons to imitate, be fascinated by and to worship.
Is masculinity born, does it evolve over time or is it thrust on the man? Masculinity is not a monolith. It is not a homogenous term that can define all men of all ages across geography, culture, language class and time. It is an abstract, fluid and differential value that attaches itself to men subject to the time they function and live in, the class they belong to, the language they speak and the social ambience they move within, which, interestingly, are also not fixed in time and space. In his informed paper, Bengalis but not Men? Bhadralok Masculinities in Adda (SubVersions | Vol.1, Issue.1, (2013), 146- 170. Romit Chowdury lays bare how masculinities, “far from being natural, are made in particular socio-cultural contexts.” His paper has “drawn on literature in the field of masculinity studies to highlight the interactional dynamics through which ideas of bhadralok masculinity are produced in a particular form of sociality in contemporary Kolkata.”
This brings us to the masculinities seen in the larger-than-life screen personas of Barua, Uttam Kumar and Soumitra Chatterjee. Chowdhury insists that “the colonial discourse in Bengal imposed stereotypes of the ‘manly Englishman’ and the ‘effeminate Bengali as a justification of colonial rule in the region. The colonial construct was that the Bengali Babu was sharp of intellect but frail of limbs, a configuration that was internalised by the bhadralok himself. Both Barua and Uttam Kumar in their screen personas define an interesting amalgam of the ‘manly Englishman’ and the ‘effeminate Bengali’ albeit, in totally different ways.
Barua had the unique ability of playing different kinds of roles with equal excellence. He was not very tall, always clean-shaven, handsome, and held himself with dignity. Though some critics felt he was slightly effeminate, this added to his great charisma among female fans. The tragic lover in Devdas, the sober Mahim in Grihadaha, (Manzil), a psycho-pathological Salil in Shesh Uttar (Jawab), a comic and idiotic Rajat in Rajat Jayanti, the vibrant artist Prasanta in Mukti are historic performances. The touch of sentimentalism that Devdas was invested with faded away as Pramathesh matured as an actor and director in his post-Devdas phase. In those days, the hero generally stuck to the same ‘look’ in most films. He was as “British” as the suited-booted Devdas as he slipped smoothly into the starched dhuti-punjabi wearing Bangali bhadralok who was educated, smart and confident but did not shy away from giving the leading lady more importance than to himself as we saw in Mukti. His masculinity was clearly defined and rooted in the Bengali bhadralok identity.
The Barua family of Gauripur was steeped in Bengali culture. Barua was sent off to Calcutta to study at Hare School where he cultivated Bengali friends. His visits to Gouripur after his stint at Hare School were few and far between, specially following the death of his mother in 1925 and then, after his self-willed estrangement from his first wife Madhurilata. The films that portray him as actor reveal that his knowledge of Bengali was impeccable. He used Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s Devdas as his raw material, creating his own structure and transforming what was purely verbal into an essentially visual form. Avoiding stereotypes and melodrama, Barua raised the film to a level of noble tragedy. The film’s characters are not heroes and villains but ordinary people conditioned by a rigid and crumbling social system. Even the lead character, Devdas, has no heroic dimensions to his character. What one sees are his weaknesses, his narcissism, his humanity as he is torn by driving passion and inner-conflict. Devdas established Barua as a front rank filmmaker and New Theatres as a major studio.
From the Fifties through early Eighties, Uttam Kumar was to Bengali cinema what Amitabh Bachchan has been to Hindi mainstream in a much later period. With this single star, Bengali cinema saw the sustained commercial viability of its films, both commercial and off-mainstream. Whether he was cast opposite his popular co-star Suchitra Sen or whether it was a rank newcomer like Anjana Bhowmick, Uttam carried the entire burden of Bengali cinema on his strong shoulders till his untimely death at the young age of 53. His success lay in his total Bengali-ness for one. For another, he never ever tried to imitate the style or mannerism of any actor, Bengali, Indian or foreign. He treated every character he played as a Bengali first and as a character next. This made him original and inimitable. On screen, he presented an ideal blend of the romantic, the intellectual and the well-mannered, docile son, brother, husband, lover.
His smashing looks were conducive to any costume, be it a three-piece suit, a dhoti-punjabi worn Bengali style, a nightgown, a naval uniform or the elaborate costume of a Moghul emperor. He slipped under his costume and make-up and closeted himself in his make-up room, concentrating on the shot for the day, sometimes for hours at a stretch till the spot-boy came to tell him that the camera was ready to roll. In Agnipareeksha, he grows into a British-educated businessman who tries to woo the girl he wed as a boy. In the last scene, the camera pans vertically from his feet to his face, revealing the complete Bengali bhadralok his childhood bride had fallen in love with. Saptapadi saw mutating masculinities within the same character according to the demands of the story.
Soumitra Chatterjee’s name is associated with an entire plethora of box office, mainstream films. The list is long – Manihar, Sansar Seemantey, Teen Bhubaner Parey, Koni, Kalratri, Atanka, Wheelchair, Basanta Bilap, Pratham Kadam Phool, Saat Pake Bandha etc. The romanticism expressed through Soumitra’s persona is different from the romanticism profiled in the screen presences of Barua and Uttam Kumar. There cannot be any comparison. The three are different manifestations of the Bangali Bhadralok reflecting different phases of time placed against the changing socio-political history of Bengal. Soumitra Chatterjee’s romantic hero sometimes played truant to the Bangali bhadralok image in films such as Teen Bhuboner Paarey (1969) in which he grows from the local, semi-educated, unemployed ruffian to an educated, dignified professor. In Tarun Majumdar’s Sansar Seemantey (1975) he played a pimp to Sandya Roy’s prostitute. Ray’s Abhijan is excluded as it is not a mainstream film.
The difference between the masculinities of Uttam and Soumitra comes across in three films that cast them together – Tapan Sinha’s Jhinder Bandi, a historical fantasy distanced from the bangali bhadralok, Dilip Roy’s Devdas and Salil Dutta’s Aparichito based on a Samaresh Basu novel. Soumitra’s swashbuckling, extremely handsome villain Mayurbahon in Jhinder Bondi, riding on horseback, flashing a sword expressed a Soumitra at his masculine or rather, macho best, cast against the grain. Uttam Kumar’s twin roles juxtaposed against Mayurbahon appear comparatively weaker, perhaps by design though as the real king, he reigned supreme.
Indian cinema reveals a wide variety of masculinities in the male protagonist, from God figures drawn from Hindu mythology to saints derived from the stories of saint poets; from swash-buckling, sword-swinging heroes whose aim is to rescue damsels in distress to the generous, kind-hearted, affectionate and self-sacrificing hero who gives up his love for a greater cause. With rare exceptions, the representations of masculinities of the male protagonist in mainstream Hindi cinema has been largely hegemonic because the films and the sources they are traced back to – literature, real life, newspaper clippings, religious icons and historical leaders have imbibed their values directly from patriarchy, the dominating ideology of the country barring a few matrilineal ethnic groups that began to fade with urbanization and industrialization. But these images do not coincide with the masculinities one encounters in Bengali cinema, barring few exceptions.
‘Masculinities’ are not the same as ‘men’. To speak of masculinities is to speak about gender relations. Masculinities concern the position of men in a gender order. They can be defined as the patterns of practice by which people engage that position. Among the signifiers of masculinity in Bengali actors during the 1940s into the 1970s, the most predominant is the cultural structure of the Bengali Bhadralok which, sadly, today is an inherited culture of our past reduced to ruin and decay but conveniently explained away to globalization and its contents, or discontents. Today, the ‘bhadra’ has either disappeared or faded from contemporary Bengali heroes who have fiercely retained the ‘lok’ of the earlier term bhadralok while the prefix Bangali (Bengali) slowly but surely made place for a more cosmopolitan, crude, colourful, loud and brute screen hero with a hybridized masculinity borrowed from Southern and Bollywood cinema imposed on the “Bengal0ai” cinema of today.
(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)
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