Men don’t cry. Men don’t feel pain. Men are strong and powerful.
Outlandish stereotypes have been spawned by art and cinema over ages and women have, time and again, been at the receiving end of these prejudices. But just for a moment, adjust the perspective and have a seat at the other end of the table, you will see that stereotypes see no gender, and that both men and women suffer equally.
And for this, credit, for a major part, belongs to popular culture and entertainment, which have propagated the idea of what is “real” and acceptable, and what is an anomaly.
Bollywood particularly has been under the scanner over this. And rightfully so. In 2019, when India’s thriving regional cinema produced visual masterpieces like Malayalam-language drama Uyare, Tamil films To Let, Asuran, and Super Deluxe, and the Asamese horror drama Aamis, Hindi film industry barely managed to keep up.
While an Article 15 or Sushant Singh Rajput’s Sonchiriya ushered in a change in the narrative of how men dealt with masculinity and patriarchy, there were still a few problematic portrayals. Case in point – Kabir Singh. The Hindi remake of Telugu film Arjun Reddy, it not only garnered negative reviews despite its success at the box-office but also jeopardised the progress in the battle against chauvinism and misogyny.
Malayalam actor Parvathy Thiruvothu put it well, “When a man is being misogynistic, is being abusive, and you show it in a way that incites applause from the audience, then it is glorification,”.
It is true that Bollywood is still struggling with the idea of machismo. They don’t know where to put their men or how to make them seem real enough. But it is only fair that due credit be given to actors, artists who have managed to break out of the rut. With their strategic choice in roles and realistic performances, these leading men have exemplified that it is still possible to earn the big bucks without getting pigeonholed.
In a 2019 interview, Ayushmann Khurrana said, “I’ve always been attracted to realistic and out-of-the-box films… I will go ahead with something quirky which other actors may think twice before taking it up. I have made a career out of it.”
And his words ring true if you look at his filmography. In a career spanning less than a decade, the man has brought to life some of the most unconventional characters on screen, starting with Vicky Arora in 2012’s Vicky Donor to Abhimanyu Roy in 2017’s Meri Pyaari Bindu and Mudit Sharma in Subh Mangal Saavdhan. Even his more recent roles have been trailblazing – ACP Ayaan Ranjan in Article 15, Kartik Singh in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, and Baankey in Gulabo Sitabo – exemplifying of his own theory that, to be successful, you need not stick to the tried and tested formulas.
After all, only when you tread the uncharted waters, you can bring to life portrayals that are outside of Bollywood’s set labels – vulnerable and strong in equal measure.
Actor Vikrant Massey is the perfect example of letting one’s work speak for himself. A prominent face on Indian television, the actor had made his foray into mainstream Bollywood with Lootera (2013). Afterwards, he was seen in a bunch of other unconventional but impactful titles like Konkona Sen Sharma’s A Death in the Gunj (the 2017 film earned him a Filmfare Awards nomination in the Best Actor – Critics category), Lipstick Under My Burkha, and more recently in the Deepika Padukone-starring Chhapaak.
In all these roles, Vikrant has ensured his talent shines through despite the screen-time. In the process, spotlighting the type of men that have been often ignored in the mainstream narrative – flawed, emotional, and realistic.
No one represents the small-town spirit, layered with ambitions and an unmistaken resilience, better than Jitendra Kumar. In his many endearing roles on web and the big screen, he has shown a different side to the machismo- rooted in reality, driven by practicality. And it could partly be because, Jitendra himself hails from Khairthal, a small town in Alwar, Rajasthan.
An engineer with a degree from IIT Kharagpur, Jitendra has experienced the long and lonely journey before stardom. He knows what it is like to try and fail, and then try again. No surprise then that as Abhishek Tripathi from Amazon Prime Video’s Panchayat (a city-bred boy trying to create new opportunities for himself after life thrusts him into a remote village) or as Aman Tripathi from Subh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (one of the few homosexual portrayals on screen that is not caricaturish), his characters are not towering over the circumstances, but making the best out of the worst – much like life itself.
Rajkummar Rao is NOT your quintessential filmy hero, and thank God for that. Otherwise we, cinema lovers, would have never been blessed with out-of-the-box, refreshing male characters like a pragmatic Pritam Vidrohi (from Bareilly Ki Barfi) or a resilient Newton Kumar (from Newton) or Sahil Mirza (in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga) or Shahid Azmi (in Shahid).
Of course, it took Rajkummar many years, a few flops, and a bunch of rejections to get where he is today – in an interview, he had said, “I can definitely recall a couple of incidents where people told me, ‘We can’t cast you for the lead role; we’d rather take you for some other part’.” But he has found a strong footing now. And with him, the men that he has gloriously portrayed on screen, have also found acceptance.
If you love quality content but are waking up to the talent that is Jim Sarbh only now, it is not completely your fault. Mainstream Bollywood has a reputation of steering clear of anything that seems away from the conventional and “easy.” And Jim’s acting career has been anything but conventional.
From playing Malik Kafur, the right-hand man to Alauddin Khilji, who is more than just an aid to his master, in Padmaavat, to the unfaithful husband, Adil Khanna, in Amazon Prime Video’s Made in Heaven, Jim has never shied away from taking on grey, nuanced characters. Perhaps, that’s why, even when these characters mislaid their moral compass, you can’t help but feel a certain empathy.
(Edited by Athira Nair)