article first appeared in the April 2003 issue of India Currents)
I live, calling a man a "momma's boy" is a harsh insult.
If my date quotes poetry, or dances more gracefully than I do,
my friends inevitably tease me about my questionable taste in
men. Our standard, of course, is the American Hero idealized
in Hemingway and Hollywood films. This gruff, reticent lone
wolf suffers through his family reunions, would rather battle
demons than discuss his feelings, and considers crying a purely
female pastime. Emotional repression and physical force are
the barometers by which he measures his masculinity.
imagine my shock upon first watching a Bollywood film.
year was 1998. Though the calendar claimed it was late fall,
Jodhpur still sweltered. I and a few other students on a Hindi-language
study program stumbled into the movie theater hoping for A.C.
What we got instead was Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and six large, ineffectual
minutes into the film, I no longer cared that I was sweating.
Shahrukh Khan ka jaadoo chal gaya tha [Khan's magic had taken
effect] and our little group, raised on Kevin Costner's stone-faced
charm, was fascinated and bewildered by why we found him so
attractive. You see, the Bollywood Hero breaks all the rules
of American masculinity -and even to the Hollywood-trained eye,
he makes the trespass look heroic.
Bollywood Hero is not just a Momma's boy; he's in willing bondage
to her apron strings, whether he's playing Romeo or a tough-as-nails
commando. Americans raised on Lethal Weapon and Die Hard expect
their action heroes to have dysfunctional family histories and
bottles of whiskey stashed beneath their beds. In turn, Bollywood
offers gun-toting teetotalers who, like Akshay Kumar in Talaash
or Shahrukh in Karan Arjun, fire away in Momma's name.
more bewildering, the Bollywood novice might sit down to watch
a romance- say, Doli Saja Ke Rakhna- and encounter a plot twist
in which the latter day Romeo responds to his mother's disapproval
of the match not by marrying Juliet in a bold show of independence,
but rather by...giving her up. And when he remains defiant,
as in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham or Saathiya, he pays for it with
a painful family estrangement that corrodes his own happiness.
For the Bollywood Hero, there can be no happy-ever-after without
Mom and Dad.
a far cry from the Lone Wolf model. Yet instead of impugning
the depth of his love for the heroine, the Hero's filial devotion
only reinforces our belief in his capacity for romance. He is
the anti-Kevin Costner, emotionally open and deeply passionate.
When he is in love, he admits it, often in breathtaking verse:
"Bejaan dil ko tere ishq ne zinda kiya," "Your
love gave life to this lifeless heart," Salman sings in
Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. And when the Hero cries openly, as Shahrukh
does at his beloved's wedding during the climax of Kuch Kuch
Hota Hai, we don't think he's a sissy. We cry with him.
sentimentality works because the Bollywood Hero's demeanor leaves
no room for the corresponding allegations of effeminacy. Rather,
he brazenly flaunts his maleness. Suggestive dance moves, Shahrukh's
tight leather pants and see-through shirts, Hrithik's arm-baring
vests, and Salman's shirtless strutting invite -nay, demand-
that the female audience ogle them. Emotions are on display,
sure; but male sexuality joins them in the front window.
if a Martian were to compare the heroes of Bollywood and Hollywood,
he might conclude that Indian society was more accepting of
female sexuality than its American counterpart. In Hollywood,
men's bodies are rarely sexualized in a way that caters to the
female gaze, and the unlucky man who trades on his sex appeal
can expect, like Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio, to endure
endless slander regarding his sexual orientation. But the Bollywood
Hero chooses his wardrobe and jhatka-matkas with an eye to seduce-
and his comfort in seducing exudes a masculinity that scorns
the empty postures of machismo.
in the real world, Bollywood Heroes are in short supply, and
the American male, minus a troop of backup dancers and Manish
Malhotra to outfit him, has a tough time following Shahrukh's
act. If he brings me flowers, I'll call him sweet. But if he
writes a poem, I'll inevitably be tempted to compare it to Gulzar's.
If he cries, I may suggest Prozac.
if films truly have an impact on the way we perceive the world
-and judging by my friends' giggles when a man does a Michael
Jackson move on the dance floor, I must conclude they do- then
far better that we judge men by Bollywood's heroes than by Hollywood's.
"Momma's boy" might be an insult, but as the old saying
goes, a man who loves his mother is a catch in a million.