Musings about onscreen masculinity at DakshinaChitra Heritage Museum in Chennai

A panel discussion at DakshinaChitra focussed on masculinity in films, responsibility & representation
Panel discussion at DakshinaChitra
Panel discussion at DakshinaChitra

How does one define masculinity? Is it what society has always dictated or is there more to it? Amid the recently expanding conversation about gender and identity, Goethe Insitut’s exhibition ‘Let No One Mistake Us for The Fruit of Violence’ explores the reality and beyond the binary assigned to femininity and masculinity with the works of six artists at Kadambari Gallery, DakshinaChitra.

The exhibition, in various mediums, “reflects on prevailing and isolated representations of men, while celebrating gender affinities through collectivity, home, family and intimacy and the artworks focus on gender constructions and patriarchal forms of aggressions on bodies more vulnerable.”  The exhibition is a part of a two-year project called M3: Man, Male, Masculine.

But these conversations are not limited to what is on canvas. Bringing this discussion to the portrayals on the silver screen was the panel discussion ‘Masculinity in Films’ with Ratheesh Krishnan, film buff and Thinnai talkies convenor, John Vijay, film actor and TV producer, Katharina Görgen, film scientist and director of Goethe-Institut/ Max Mueller Bhavan Chennai, and Avinash Ramachandran, film critic, The New Indian Express. It was moderated by Uma Vangal, dean – Research & Networking, International Institute of Film and Culture.

Reel and real life

“It is debated and there are highly opinionated perspectives as to what traits define masculinity. If people were to attach an attribute, everyone would come up with different answers. What I observed in mainstream Tamil cinema is that when the hero meets a mentor, there is always a vulnerable sharing about the need to be in control, but if the protagonist were portrayed by a woman, people start questioning the narrative,” shared Ratheesh. But there seems to be a difference even in the varied characters men portray. John spoke of his roles as a villain and how, where masculinity is concerned, the responsibility often lies with the hero.

“The villain teaches you how not to be, and the hero (the opposite). When I act in a movie as a bad cop or a smoker, I have to be nasty. The hero has a lot of responsibility to say the right things, and save the world or women. With the growing responsibility of a hero, my responsibility grows too… but there is peer pressure on the young generation to do things that are seen onscreen. There is real life and reel life, and it’s time to bring a message (about) what they have to be,” he explained.  

These portrayals are hardly limited to Tamil cinema, we find, as Katherina brought in the perspective of peer pressure in international films. “You might have noticed that the hero in the past two decades has gone back to the physical, strong male. Tom Cruise now has more muscles than he did in his 30s. We live in 2022, there is not much need for manual labour or muscles.

They are a choice. And for visual pleasure. I am against the objectification of female bodies and now it is also happening to male bodies which, in a weird way, is equality but of the worst kind,” she said. Beyond the macho look, there is also a persistent perpetuation of “the lone hero”. “Even in ensemble films, it boils down to one or two men. We know that diverse team-driven solutions are more sustainable, smart and better. But we still pretend this one person can turn everything around. We need to stop telling that story and share different narratives about how team-driven and inclusive (solutions) can be cool,” she added.

Vulnerability and intersectionality

When it comes to lone heroes, there is also an image of so-called strength, often untouched by the vulnerability. But Avinash noted the changes in his own beliefs that came with the touch of healthy and unhealthy portrayals. “My idea of romance — or stalking — was through cinema. It took years of learning and unlearning to know it was not right… After joining journalism, I was able to look at different perspectives. In one movie, you see a protagonist crying as he is going through something personal. It changed a lot in terms of perspective (towards heroes and vulnerability),” he said, adding another instance of realisation, “In a Tamil movie, we know that Suriya is a creep in a scene. The next moment, the film breaks into a song that can be misconstrued as romantic. My female friend asked ‘did you find that odd?’ soon after that moment, there was glorification. Once it was pointed out, I realised this is something we don’t think (about),” he shared.

But all experiences are not the same. There is always intersectionality — for example, of caste — that is to be taken into account. “Apart from Vetri Maran and Pa Ranjith, someone who is educating me is Mari Selvaraj and he does it with poetry and sheer brilliance…We should know what our caste is, only then can we understand what our privileges are. And to not know your caste is sheer irresponsible ignorance to our privileges,” Ratheesh said as Avinash observed the larger representation of different religions in Malayalam films as opposed to Tamil films.  

But who is to blame for the gaps in portrayal? This is a difficult discussion, we found. While Ratheesh pointed out that for several filmmakers, the industry is a form of survival, John shared that many stories are birthed by the personal experiences of the director/writers and thus can showcase unsavoury traits drawn from reality. Avinash too added that while the common man looks up to the film hero to do the work (or fight the fights) they cannot, there is a need to check for institutional violence which is where we have seen a problem. Perhaps, conversations like these would bring a start to the end of it.
The exhibition is on till December 17; from 10 am to 6 am, except Tuesdays.

Artists on display
Anurag Minus Verma, Dalit Masculinities
Ashfika Rahman, Redeem
Javed Sultan, Kinship
Renuka Rajiv, Famjam excerpt
Sandip Kuriakose, Letters To My Father  
Tsohil Bhatia, My Home (A Celebration of Five Days): A performance of five days

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