The Freedom of the Beards

Sonya Fatah
Grist Media


In an isolated ashram somewhere in eastern Nepal, a cohort of young Brahmin boys - priests-to-be - is learning ritual after ritual. We follow them through their daily routine: boys learning together, boys eating together, boys playing together, boys sleeping together - many Jacks in a Jill-less world. Whatever interaction these young men have with women is restricted to their phone calls home to mothers who demand to know: are they behaving themselves, are they studying hard, are they becoming good men?

And so Kesang Tseten, one of a quintet of filmmakers in the second edition of the project Let's Talk Men, shows us - in his film, Men At Work - the gradual development of a quiet, male worldview.

Let's Talk Men began in 1998 when Delhi-based filmmaker Rahul Roy thought it would be a good idea to create a space for discussion on male perspectives. What, wondered the bespectacled and bearded Roy, is peculiar about the hundreds of male worlds that exist across the region south of the Himalayas? In truth, Let's Talk Men, which investigates regional masculinity and takes viewers into the worlds of men in four South Asian countries, owes its inspiration to a challenge posed by a woman.

In The Second Sex, one of the 20th century's great works of feminist philosophy, Simone de Beauvoir put up the dare - less as a dare than a statement of fact: "A man would never set out to write a book on the peculiar situation of the human male. But if I wish to define myself, I must first of all say: 'I am a woman'; on this truth must be based all further discussion. A man never begins by presenting himself as an individual of a certain sex; it goes without saying that he is a man."

Roy set out to respond to De Beauvoir with a series of stories told by men, about men.

This year, 14 years later, with almost the same set of men again behind the lenses, Let's Talk Men launched version 2.0, its second attempt to engage De Beauvoir with another quartet of stirring, if disconnected, films on the 'peculiar situation of the South Asian male'. Of them, only Roy's new film, Till We Meet Again, presents us with anthropological food for thought on the gradual coming of age of man - Roy has returned to document the four young men whose choices, dreams and aspirations he had profiled in his previous film for Let's Talk Men v 1.0.    

Still, the other three films in this quixotic line-up collectively give us a rich - if balanced largely on the stories of disadvantaged and struggling men - assortment of worlds and perspectives, each uniquely male. In telling these stories, the filmmakers also let us into the world of the women attached to these male worlds and the complex ways in which women contribute to those male worlds.

Zinda Bhaag, a fiction film from Pakistan that follows three young Lahore men who put their all into finding ways to do the dunky (cross borders illegally), is being touted as Pakistan's first blockbuster. Men At Work takes us to Nepal through a series of four vignettes, into world after world dominated by boys and men. Prasanna Vithanage's With You, Without You, a fictional love story set against the Sri Lankan civil war about an unlikely relationship between a Sinhalese pawnbroker and a broke Tamil woman, tackles masculinity through the silence of its protagonist, hoping that confession will allow him to come to terms with a brutal past.

The diversity of the films that form Let's Talk Men reflects how the challenge of addressing masculinity was significant.

Roy attributes this diversity to freedom. "They were not prescriptive in terms of clearly defining the theme," he says, stroking his beard, in one of the small rooms in his two-storeyed Gulmohar Park editing studio in Delhi. "We were dealing with the larger theme of masculinity. What happens when you are thinking around masculinity, not from the position of engendering women? The moment you talk of women, the gender aspect jumps out at you."

Indeed, a similar project titled, Let's Talk Women would likely have had a different, and more structured and focused, series of films. The films that form the Let's Talk Men collective seem to confirm De Beauvoir's hypothesis on how differently we approach gender.

Roy is aware of that and his film reflects his own long-term engagement with 'being male.' Men, he says, have the advantage of invisibility. "It prevents any inquiry, no one is questioning you… The result is you're not responsible unless you are an obvious criminal. The rest of us escape it."

In Till We Meet Again, Sanju, Sanjay, Bunty and Kamal are four men, all living in a notified New Delhi slum called Jahangirpuri, who have changed since the last time we saw them on film in When Four Friends Meet. Their worlds are now less fluid, less free. Family and responsibility anchor them. They have lost the enthusiasm and hunger for life that we saw 14 years ago. As providers for their families - with the exception of jobless, depressed Kamal - they struggle to make ends meet. Sexism, once discussed, is now applied. In one conversation, the four friends are discussing how to deal with their wives when they 'misbehave'. For all of them, except Sanjay, physical punishment - a slap or two, perhaps - is the best form of taming the shrew. Only Sanjay objects to his friends' choices, and they laugh away his concerns.

"In the first film there was a lot of sexism and misogyny in the way girls and women were talked about," reflects Roy. "Now, to see them in their relationships - to see it at work - was very, very disturbing."

There is something else worth noticing, however.  This is the question of class, and in some cases, caste.

On their own, Roy's men are empathetic characters. Part of the underclass, one of them works two jobs to keep his family afloat. Another works 12 hours ferrying passengers across New Delhi in his auto. As you listen to them reflect on their futures, it's hard not to know that nothing much is going to change for them, that the dreams they have had for other kinds of futures aren't going to come true, even as they walk, drive, stand by hoardings glittering with Rs 30,000 phones or new housing projects projecting an American style picket-fence existence. Everything is out of reach for this kind of male, the South Asian ghettoized in his notified or un-notified slum.

Ambition is also what drives the three characters in Meenu Gaur (yes, a woman!) and Farjad Nabi's Zinda Bhaag. There, too, as Nabi and Gaur give us flashes of the world of the more privileged - an elite woman stabbing away on her MacBook as Khaldi and Taambi, two of the film's central trio, fix her Internet connection; a Pakistani Uncle with a false American accent accusing Chitta, the third friend, and his catering buddies of stealing his BlackBerry even as his bratty four-year-old grandson is playing with it under the table  - we encounter, and appreciate, the struggle of such men to overcome their reality.

And in the first vignette in Tseten's film, our anxiety builds with every moment as we see a childhood gradually snuffed out in the case of the lonely young boy who works as domestic staff in a Kathmandu house.

By presenting us these disparate, though commonly male, spaces, the filmmakers tell us something about women - that they are protected. In not having to deal with the challenge of the male rat race, not having to be successful, not having to deal with the simmering anxieties of pushing ahead in an increasingly capitalistic environment, women form the coaxing backdrop of these stories.

The honest and well-meaning Khaldi in Zinda Bhaag - whose point of view largely leads us through the story - is virtually driven to acts of insanity by the calculated goads of his aspiring mother. Fatherless and without a home, the family depends on Khaldi to afford his sisters' marriages, to elevate the family's rental status in their neighbourhood of better-offs. When he fails despite his best efforts, it is his mother who overacts her desperation, her desire to marry off her daughter to a man who will soon die because she cannot afford her wedding, and who pushes Khaldi over the edge to do wrong.

In Roy's new documentary, there is something oppressive about the mother who sits at home in wait for her sons' income and preys on her daughter-in-law. Bunty's mother treats his new wife - after his first wife is tragically electrocuted - like a slave, pushing her into a little corner. For intimacy, he reaches out to another woman, an affair he doesn't feel like he needs to explain or justify, and one his new wife, frightened and alone, is not likely to resist.

Although we do not hear the voice of the young child's mother as he speaks on the phone to her in Tseten's ashram vignette, we sense - in the boy's stiff answers - that a barrage of questions about order and conformity are being thrown at him, not love.

How does this reflect in how men treat women in these films? If Roy's film gives us a chance to reflect on how things have changed over the years since he first met the foursome, we also see how violence is now more contained, though more calculated.

"I do see this huge change," says Roy. "There was no fear before. Men could drag their women and beat them to a pulp and no one would say anything. Now there is a fear that someone might call the cops. So the violence is measured. You can be slapped, you can be pushed. It's amazing how these things are calculated. Men have not become less violent but they've become more clever at their violence."

Indeed, women have also become more aware of their rights. Still, a window into Bunty's home reminds us that many women remain cloistered in their homes and as unaware of their rights as ever, in spite of greater access to technology. One thing we're not aware of is how differently the men of these films treat their children and how they discriminate between the male and female child. They are eager to make their children happy and even spoil them.  All the men in Roy's film are adamant about putting their children through school, even though some of them worked as children.

In Zinda Bhaag, Khaldi and his mostly equal, special relationship with the fiery Rubina, an organic soap saleswoman who, like the boys, is striving to overcome her situation through her 'Facelook' soap business, comes to a bruising end. When things begin to fall apart, Khaldi takes his angst out on Rubina and it is this rant at her that reveals his view of women, channelled, no doubt, through the manipulative workings of his mother. In shattering the ever-dynamic Rubina, Khaldi reminds us: A man is a man, after all.

Questioning masculinity isn't something that comes to us naturally. Men, as Roy says, have the great freedom of abdicating responsibility, the freedom to explore the world, unfettered and unchained. Yet the stories of the men in Let's Talk Men, whether fictional or not, are tragic ones. After watching each of the four films, I felt a little numb and a little hopeless. None of the characters, perhaps with the exception of Kamal (a jobless and rather charmless lad from Roy's When We Meet Again), deserve freedom more. All are chained. All are punished. Their masculinity is the only thing left to hang on to, and it comes through cheap thrills like binge drinking on poor Chitta's hardworking carpenter father's rooftop in Zinda Bhaag, or hanging out and calling - on loudspeaker - Bunty's lover.

In conversation with Tseten about the making of Men At Work, he told me about how he wanted to add another vignette about Rotary Club members at a meeting in Nepal. But eight hours of footage later, he felt he had nothing compelling to share so he shelved the idea, cutting the only potential white-collar male worldview out of his film and away from our critical eyes. I'm not sure how De Beauvoir would react to Let's Talk Men. Her perspective on gender was naturally shaped by her European context and background. Our cultural relativity has a shifting axis, I feel. Gender is one part of a complex hierarchical social order in which caste, class and numerous other identities affect our interactions, our belief systems, our aspirations and our possibilities.

Roy should continue. Version 3.0 can only give us more to debate and discuss on what it means to be a man in South Asia.

Sonya Fatah is a New Delhi-based journalist. She writes for GlobalPost.com and has a regular column in The Times of India.