By Saadia Peerzada
UNATTAINABLE body standards are not only targeted at female consumers of media, but also at men. In an attempt to secure the ideal physique, eating disorders are on the rise. The November issue of Esquire Singapore brought attention to the rise of ‘superhero culture,’ one that celebrates a specific kind of masculine body, and puts pressure on men to perform that ideal.
A study carried out at the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences suggested that continued exposure to extremely muscular male portrayals was detrimental to self-worth in men. This negative effect on self esteem can then lead to anxiety, loneliness and problems in relationships with family or spouses. Not only can such stressors manifest as physical ailments, they can also have a negative effect on those around us.
One media portrayal that acts as a case study is Vasan Bala’s 2018 project Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota. It garnered positive reviews internationally for its play with gendered tropes yet it still falls back on the idea of the superhero. It reads as an example of two steps forward, one step backward. Even as it drives away from misogyny, any loss is dealt with through violence and revenge. This is mediated through the muscular body, trained into a buff superhero spectacle. Surya’s character embodies personal revenge and muscularization to the effect of being read as the hero of a vigilante film.
But first… the refreshing choices in the film
We have all heard of the trope ‘men don’t feel pain.’ Mard ko Dard Nahi Hota takes this saying literally to then spin it on its head. The main character Surya is born with a rare disorder that makes him resistant to any and all pain. This seemingly unique condition subjects him to bullying at school, the other kids curious to see what it’s like to not feel any pain at all. Supri, a classmate of Surya, defends him when such situations arise. Surya tells his grandfather, “Supri mereko protect karti hai, puri dunya se.” The film tries to make the female the protector to flip the trope of the knight in shining armor.
As an adult, Supri is stuck in an abusive relationship to help her family’s medical costs. She is soon guided by her mother into an escape plan. She doesn’t continue to suffer resolutely. An idol is not created out of victimhood. The mother is able to secure herself treatment while the daughter escapes her abusive partner.
Often wheelchairs or crutches are cast as invitations for ableism, that is discrimination against disabled people, through expressions of pity. But in the final action scene in the film, Karate Man passes his crutches to Surya as he’s broken his leg. The mobility aid is claimed as the need arises in the middle of a fist fight. The spectacle of a fight, the center stage of muscular masculinity shows crutches simply as mobility aids, the hero is not emasculated if he uses them, instead they help him fight. This is an instance of positive disability representation in a Hindi film, hopefully a baton that is carried forward by other filmmakers as well.
A Vigilante Film?
A closer look at the film reveals a certain return to the tradition of films that dominated 70s and 80s Bollywood – that of the vigilante film.
Karen Gabriel, Professor of English and Director of Centre for Study of Gender at St Stephen’s College names vigilante masculinity as violent and redemptive according. She states that this masculinity emerges inside a matrix of loss and violence, prioritizing revenge over legal resolution.
Surya loses his mother to a chain snatching incident soon after his birth. We watch him bring up the death of his mother over and over again in the film, especially in relation to the fact that his father and grandfather let the ‘chain choor’ go. To not let the proverbial thief run away in his own life becomes the be all and end all for Surya.
The emotional excess from his mother’s passing is turned into a muscular masculinity channeled in Karate. And any violence acts are always underscored by a redeeming personal history. The narrative is such that he can beat up the nurses looking for Karate Man and injure them in the process, because he must find the teacher who will help him in the journey to become the hero.
Hence Surya’s personal loss fuses with his public acts in deciding to become a figure that never loses to the chain chor. Anguish and resulting masculine violence takes our attention away from other afflictions generated by it, says Gabriel. This is observed in the relationship between Surya and his father, who repeatedly says he wanted a normal child. Shaking Surya as a toddler, he asks, “tuje kuch mehsoos kyu nahi hota?” The tensions in their relationship are not properly explored because the revenge arc takes the spotlight.
Karen Gabriel’s theorization of the vigilante figure says women and villains are treated as props, they simply testify to the narrative of the hero. But in this film, they are well fleshed out, there is the creation of a vigilante figure that shares the center stage with them.
Even as the film shows a disabled hero in the form of Karate Man, it circles back to Surya’s hyper-muscularity and superheroism. His physical appearance is complete with six pack abs, and tree-trunk like arms. This film helps us visualize the amount of work needed in divesting from superhero culture and its un-attainable representations. It is not enough to stage sidelined masculine figures as sidekicks to the superhero. Body diversity is a call for all forms of media if we are to move away from damaging and absurd body standards.
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