Male subjectivity in New India: Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017)
and Pad Man (2018)

by Ananya

Gendering New India:
neoliberalism, anxiety and muscularity

Based on the contentious surgical strike that India carried out in Pakistan in response to the 2016 Uri attacks,[1] [open endnotes in new window] the war film Uri: The Surgical Strike (Aditya Dhar, 2019) unsurprisingly made a strong impression on audiences and the government alike. Defense minister Nirmala Sitharaman joined a screening of the film where she addressed the audience comprised of army veterans with a popular line from the film “How’s the Josh!” (How’s the energy!). At the inauguration of the National Museum of Indian Cinema, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the audience with the same line. When India carried out air strikes in Pakistan in response to the Pulwama attacks,[2] several lines from the film circulated widely on social media celebrating “Surgical Strike 2.0’: “Yeh Hindustan ab chup nahi rahega. Yeh Naya Hindustan hai. Yeh ghar me ghusega bhi aur marega bhi.” (India will no longer be silent. This is New India. It will enter the enemy’s home and attack.) The declaration of a “Naya Hindustan” (New India) with a foundational value in virility and penetrative muscle alludes to a force of intense transformation. With the abrogation of Article 370 and the totalizing occupation of Kashmir, the state literally redefined the nation’s territorial borders.[3] In this essay, I consider the field where this forceful transformation takes place and the contending elements that battle for the nation’s makeover by studying two contemporary films, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (Shree Narayan Singh, 2017) and Pad Man (R. Balakrishnan, 2018).

The current, profoundly altered nationhood looks back to the 1991 reforms that ushered in a neoliberal economic order. Rupal Oza argues that the nation’s intensified re-alignment with global capital then had to reconcile its concomitant loss of actual sovereignty through increased control over the domain of national culture and identity. The consequence was that a set of rigid gendered and sexual codes were judiciously endorsed as belonging to the nation (Oza 2006). Oza demonstrates how the peculiar interaction between economic reform and the rise of the Hindu right dialectically consolidated the upper caste, consumerist middle-class identity and power. Heightened globalization has stimulated people’s growing anxieties because of their perceived loss of a formerly guarded, stable sense of place and identity. By mobilizing representational practices that re-codify a particular system of gendered identity and belonging, the nation has attempted to reinforce its sovereignty against globalization.

While the BJP argued that the event was incompatible with ‘indigenous’, Hindu culture because of its Westernized decadence and corrupting influences on women, the left argued that the event was symbolic of encroaching capitalist globalization and opposed the commodification of women by multinational corporations. A Hindu Priest protesting the pageant argues that women in the United States have sex at an early age and this is vulgar and incompatible with superior ‘Indian’ values.

Oza then examines three sites where this arbitration takes place—protests against the 1996 Miss World Pageant, reactions to the 1998 Nuclear Tests, and demands for censorship with the introduction of satellite television. These protests all reject global intrusion into the private sphere of the home. Oza asks,

‘To what extent does the ‘protection of women’ discourse and the demonstration of virility tap into sentiments of postcolonial defiance of imperial power while simultaneously solidifying normative prescriptions of gender and sexuality? (Oza 10)”

Colonial historiography and orientalist discourse framed Hindus in a double identity. On the one hand, Hindus were inheritors of a glorious past that was destroyed by barbaric Muslim rule. On the other hand, they were colonial subjects who had to be ruled over by the British Raj to initiate a return to their own rich and ancient past. In reaction, since Indian nationalists could not battle the colonial masters in the realm of the material/public domain, they glorified their superiority in the spiritual/private domain (Chatterjee 1993). Nationalist discourse had to elaborate a distinctive spatial politics to locate women’s bodies within the private sphere of the home and women’s subjectivities as intrinsically suited to preserving values of “Indian” culture. At the same time, such discourse prescribed that Indian modernity’s investment in science and technology proceed cautiously in order to prevent transgressing into a vulgar Western modernity.

Interestingly, in relation to this older nationalist discourse, in an epic text like the film Mother India (Mehboob Khan, 1957) the contradictions of Indian modernity, with a distinctively Nehruvian imagination, are negotiated on the terrain of female sexuality . Moinak Biswas notes that Mother India represents the moment that marks the arrival of India as a state as one fraught with spatial disunity (Biswas 1995). That is, the mythical, self-enclosed village enters historical time by marking this shift from the local to the communal. Thus Mother India opens with a mute Radha[4] observing a landscape filled with machines and alien technology. The previously timeless village is moving towards an advanced mode of production under the eyes of the newly independent nation-state. Biswas writes how this moment of stillness and disunity is “an acknowledgement of the essential pain, the enormous upheaval of the moment where a society decides to embrace a form rather than produce it” (Biswas 11). The land that has been shaped by Radha’s blood and sweat, her manual labor will now be controlled through technology foreign and alien to the timeless village. In adapting elements that do not belong organically to the community, the village goes through a violent negotiation in its transition from myth to history. To do this, the newly independent nation state and the long-standing feudal order must negotiate the contradictions of a coalition between two contending modes of production. Within the film’s script, contradictions become resolved in ambivalent fashion only through the Mother figure, who can simultaneously inaugurate the dam and preserve feudal honor.

Oza notes that the British Raj offered a justification of colonial rule through mobilizing Western science and rationality in a peculiar fashion. The Raj carefully mediated categories of “tradition” and “modernity” by ascribing its oppositional status to the colonial subject’s “traditional” values. The Raj thus stated its rejection of any investment in irrational and superstitious practices.

Writing in reference to the 1998 Nuclear Tests, Oza discusses how the “bomb acts as a ‘totem,’ a sacred object with magical power to restore that which is ailing among the faithful (…) an artifact that will enable restoration of strength, virility, and impotence” (Oza 125).  Furthermore, Oza uses the term “fetishized sovereignty” to describe this magnificent exhibition of militarized power and control that masks the actual loss of economic and political sovereignty. She explains “the act of fetishizing as a process by which the conditions of political reality are concealed from scrutiny” (Oza 124). Under the backdrop of weakened national sovereignty and political instability, the tests indicate a sense of achievement now stated in terms of renewed virility, especially important since this is a moment that is also associated with the painful memory of colonial emasculation. The nation visibly demonstrates how it can protect its territorial borders by building its own technology.  Furthermore, for the new upwardly mobile, consuming middle classes, the Tests represent triumph on the global stage, “catching up” with the rest of the world. Yet, there remained the same cautious need to distinguish Indian modernity from crude, materialist form of Western modernity; this kind of thinking still prevailed through claims for an indigenous “Vedic” science.

Describing the contemporary situation of India’s entry into multinational neoliberal modernity, Sanjay Srivastava examines how the use of new media technologies during the 2014 elections built a public representation of Narendra Modi that valorized a specific muscular leadership style, generating a distinctive masculinist discourse in agreement with an acclimatized environment of consumerist modernity (Srivastava 2015). The discourse of colonial masculinity had designated natives as either effeminate and incompetent, or as militant martial races who lack intellectual capability. In a parallel way, in the 2014 elections, former Congress Party Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was framed as the impotent, feminized authority incapable of securing the nation from external (Pakistan and China) or internal threats (Muslim terrorists). On the other hand, Modi’s prudently mediated image has valorized a representation of a virile, potent masculinity that can navigate a postindustrial space. “Modi-masculinity” fosters a model of “moral consumption,” which unites not only India as a nation inhabited by the burgeoning middle classes but also the de-territorialized, global Indian diaspora, Srivastava explains this kind of post-nationalism as

“the articulation of the nationalist emotion with the robust desires engendered through new practices of consumerism and their associated cultures of privatization and individuation. It indexes a situation where it is no longer considered a betrayal of the dreams of nation-building to either base individual subjectivity within an ethic of consumption (as opposed to savings) or to think of the state’s statism in a context of co-operation with private capital.” (Srivastava 335)

Furthermore, the ethics of moral consumption re-align older social roles with individuated consumer desire; in this way, a new nationalism can foster and draw upon “the new forms of subjectivities (e.g., individualism) within existing social structures” (Srivastava 335). Modi-masculinity can undo the nation’s historical emasculation and soothe contemporary masculine anxiety directed at female consumption. Srivastava notes how this vision of masculinity is aligned with the categories of the post-national and of moral consumption. Such masculinity potentially inspires “an individualized subject who is encouraged to make (his) own enterprise, though not exactly as he pleases but, rather, through the dictates of social structures, such as family and kin networks.” (Srivastava 336)

Here I analyze how two films that exemplify Modi-masculinity’s prescription of a new male subjectivity for the consumer-citizen-subject—Toilet: Ek Prem Katha and Pad Man.  The films appropriate the affective space engendered by a vernacular masculinity that was deeply entrenched in the spatial politics of provincial, small town North India. That vernacular masculinity had been seen in films like Dabangg (Abhinav Kashyap, 2010), Ishaqzaade (Habib Faisal, 2012), Gangs of Wasseypur (Anurag Kashyap, 2012), and more (Sinha 2013)[5]. The films I am discussing shift the focus by constructing a virile, competent male body that personifies a transformed Indian nationhood. In these films, I find the return of a peculiar form of the feudal family romance. That is, the scripts narrate how that which constitutes potent masculinist protection becomes a battle between the two patriarchies of state vs. feudal authority.  This revised trope about authority must be read in the context of Narendra Modi's potent muscularity overthrowing the incompetent, feminized Manmohan Singh government.

Kajri Jain notes how the Ram Janmabhoomi movement appropriated the affective space engendered by Amitabh Bachchan’s Angry Young Man[6] persona in the late 70s and 80s (Jain 2001). With the collapse of the Nehruvian imagination, the Indira Gandhi regime fostered an environment of disaffection stimulated by a series of populist policies and a gradual liberalizing of the economy. The assertive and militant Angry Young Man became a signifier of the “aesthetic of mass mobilization” for the working class and castes (Prasad 2000). Embroiled in an oedipal battle then stated in terms of legality versus illegality, the Angry Young Man was continually elected as a representative of the marginalized to fight a common enemy but then led on a fatalistic path of self-destruction. With Amitabh Bachchan’s temporary retirement in the late 80s, the electorate felt a sudden vacuum for a militant, muscular hero who can fight for the cause of a unified community and resolve a traumatic past. Interestingly, popular Hindi cinema sees the coincident rise of actor Sunny Deol—now a member of parliament with the BJP— celebrated for playing the virile, vigilante action hero whose criminality is sponsored by an ineffectual legal system. In Salaakhen (1998, Guddu Dhanoa), for example, Deol kills his own lawyer (a debauch man responsible for his father, a Gandhian figure’s suicide) within the premises of the courthouse, where he delivers a forceful monologue on how the corrupt, impotent state drove him to take the law into his hands to execute justice.

In another area of contemporary culture, paying close attention to the aesthetics that inform Hindu calendar art, Kajri Jain examines how the image of the Hindu god Ram undergoes a striking transformation during this period. In the 1980s, The Ram Janmabhoomi movement asserted that the birthplace of Lord Ram was the site of the Babri Masjid, an old mosque built by the Mughal emperor Babur and strove to build a temple in its place to restore the nation to its former glory of Ram Rajya (the rule of Lord Ram).[7] In considering the political importance of such a cultural restoration, Jain establishes how Hindutva appropriated the network of meanings surrounding the Angry Young Man referent in order to generate an image of Ram as that of a muscular, aggressive warrior and the elected representative of the unified community of Akhand Bharat.[8] Thus the demand for a Ram Temple was instrumental to the rise of the Bharatiya Janta Party.

Following a line of argument such as Jain’s, I wish here to trace such a pattern in contemporary cinema.  These two films—Toilet: Ek Prem Katha and Pad Man—appropriate the registers of a distinctly upper-caste vernacular masculinity associated with provincial North India or the Hindi-heartland and delineate the transformation of a new male subjectivity that can now conjugate with “New India.”