Automatic bodies:
masculinities, mobilities, nation,
and the Bollywood body

by Paromita Vohra

A rare moments of genuinely transgressive thrill while watching a contemporary Hindi film happened for me in the 2010 film Rajneeti (trans. Politics, dir. Prakash Jha). In one scene, the actor Ranbir Kapoor is in the shower. We can see his back, and then, he turns around. I gasped. My companion asked me what happened. “He has hair on his chest!” I exclaimed.

A male chest with hair on it has now become so absent from the landscape of bodies in Bollywood, that this altogether natural sight, seemed almost forbidden, erotic in some unregulated way. It is not a sight that has since repeated itself on the mainstream screen as far as I know.

The man with hair on his chest, his testosterone abundantly on display, has always been one of the traditional symbols of masculinity. I remember a conversation I had with my aunt and a friend of hers, in the 1980s. They would both have been about 70 at the time. They both said how much they had always loved the actor Dharmendra. “That’s how a man should be” said my aunt, with a big grin, adding, “he-man, with hair on his chest.” I remember laughing at this. By then, the idea of a “He-man” was already a cartoon idea, a throwback to a notion of masculinity that did not fit with changing notions of contemporary, feminist femininity.

We had begun to locate a man’s attractiveness not so much in conventional physical good looks, as in some intangible quality of sexiness or appeal. The rising stars of the time were the three Khans of today (Shah Rukh Khan, Amir Khan, Salman Khan), and they were all at the time, boyish, carefree, not in the He-man mold at all.

In some ways though, the conversation contained ideas of masculine appeal that had co-existed on the Hindi film screen. There had always been traditionally masculine and also beautiful men in Hindi films. They had been popular male stars too—Dharmendra, famous for his manly thighs; Vinod Khanna, lusted after for his easy masculine build and liquefied good looks; Raaj Kumar’s haughty hotness; even a young Premnath’s heavy lidded, full-lipped sensuality. But these stars had never quite reigned over the national consciousness. It may be a fanciful thought, but it was almost as if their beauty was a limitation.

The position of reigning stars, went to actors whose appeal lay in a certain persona, which did not require a traditional masculine physique. Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand all being examples of big stars, whose appeal lay in their emotive force as idealistic, noble or conflicted figures dealing with social and national value systems.

On-screen masculinity could even accommodate the decidedly not-good looking men like Pradeep Kumar and Rajendra Kumar whose appeal is mysterious, or perhaps lies in their being absolutely unthreatening as sex-appeal ciphers, bodies who are present, but have no real bodily presence.

The muscular man appeared briefly in films—the actor Prithviraj Kapoor, who reportedly went to akhadas (trans. wrestling arena) to build his body had been an important star. But, on the whole muscular men symbolized the rustic and the foot-soldier, for instance Dara Singh, famed wrestler who became a movie star, but never graduated above a certain B-grade film. The depiction of the muscled man also ranged from the humorous to the contemptuous in song sketches or comedic interludes playing on a brain versus brawn dichotomy. The brain was needed to both survive in a new and changing India as well as to build a new India in the role of (of course, male) engineers, doctors and managers. To imagine a new nation called India into being, called for the mind and spirit, not the body, for the hero of mainstream Hindi cinema. The Nehruvian hero lay not in the villages or in traditional vocabularies of masculinity, but in urban, developing India.

In a sense, in this world, beauty was not the work of men—nor was the appreciation of and intoxication with male beauty the work of idealized women. Men did not have to appeal to anyone—woman or man—on the basis of their appearance. Rather, they operated at a ‘higher’ level as embodying a set of qualities related to honor, community, family, and a series of behaviors and attitudes, not physical attributes. The women they deserved were beautiful but willing to recast their spiritedness into noble companions in support of these men.

It was not until the appearance of Shammi Kapoor in the 1960s that a hero whose presence was strongly physical appeared. His cavorting and physical shenanigans signaled youthful abandon, a liberation of sorts from the traditional male aura of contained responsibility that had preceded him. Shammi Kapoor’s rock-and-roll recklessness and campy posturing before camera to show it his best side opened out a narrative of male beauty for female appreciation as also, however unstated, for queer appreciation. It provided a hero who was willing to make a new kind of woman—mischievous, light-hearted, consuming the bodily pleasures of fashion and bicycles and cars, while also acquiring an English-medium education and so, able to say, “Oh you shut up”—the focus of his attention. This set the stage for the mannerisms and simpering flirtations of Rajesh Khanna, who became a blowout romantic sensation in the 1970s, leading Shobhaa De (then Rajadhyaksha) to coin the term ‘superstar’ to describe his cultural status.

This was followed by the very differently textured reign of Amitabh Bachchan, where body was not unimportant, but masculinity still lay in brooding, smoldering, lonely quests and emotional self-denial. The body might exhibit strength—defeating villains in fistfights—and it may partake of physical pleasures—as in the famous post-coital cigarette scene with Parveen Babi in Deewar (trans. The Wall, 1975, dir. Yash Chopra). But it remained emotionally under-nourished, making do with Zohra Bais while longing for Paro and Ma in an extended performance of the Devdas figure. [1] [open endotes in new window]

Something changed dramatically for Bollywood men in the 1990s. If there is an iconic moment of this change, it is in the 1998 film, Pyaar Kiya To Darna Kya (dir. Sohail Khan) where Salman Khan sang and danced shirtless on a stage, in the song O o Jaane Jana" (trans. O Beloved). Not only did he unveil here, a new muscled body. It was also a hairless body, every single hair waxed neatly, shiningly off it. In this film, Salman Khan reprised a role he had played more than once, including in his hit debut film Maine Pyar Kiya (trans. I have Loved, 1989, dir. Sooraj Barjatya). He is a rich, urban young man from the city who always falls for a more traditional, girl, more ‘rooted’ in the small-town or semi-rural. In order to win her, he must prove himself to her male relatives—father, brother.

While Shah Rukh Khan’s persona was doing the same thing in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge  (trans. The Big-Hearted Will Take the Bride, 1995, dir. Aditya Chopra) through the re-defining of love, Salman Khan must do in his films by proving that he is capable of hard, physical labor. It is like a reverse-migration of the Indian metropolitan film hero, from the world of mind and spirit, also urban material prosperity, to the hinterland and to the body. Salman Khan must show he is a real man, capable of supporting a woman, by using his body to survive and succeed in the world.

Salman Khan also played out a parallel narrative in real life, where he built up his body into its current muscular form. It is as if the narrative persona that he inhabited on-screen, and the being he sculpted through and elaborate, dedicated physical regimen came together to become one in Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya (trans. Why Fear if You Love Someone?, 1998, dir. Sohail Khan), creating a powerful symbol of the man hitherto not taken seriously, re-embodied as a new male ideal in globalized India. The built body, born from body-building culture presented the idea that there was apparently no natural order of things. The natural—the body—could be converted into the appropriate ideal for a new version of India taking shape in post-globalization years.

Body building culture was not new in India. It had been variously articulated in the 1930s and 1940s. The Hindu right wing’s vyayamshala [2] (trans. gymnasium) culture focused on physical strength for the soldier of Hindutva. The akharas were a traditional space of masculine brotherhood and identity, a whole way of life. Exercise clubs were created for the health improvement of the children of workers (Mazdoor Welfare Associations [3]). Physical Education or PT was incorporated into school curricula. In Mumbai, this bodybuilding culture took strong root in working class areas—chawls and slums—across religions, and it became an important mobilizing space for political organizations, too. Bodybuilding contests became an important way for young men, struggling to gain a foothold in an inimical economic and cultural context, as a way to establish a sense of public life and importance.

This working class, somewhat disenfranchised, universe of bodybuilding gained mainstream visibility through the figures of the actors Sanjay Dutt and Salman Khan. It has gone on to become the lingua franca for the body in the new globalized economy of India—as much as beauty contests had become for women. A body of this sort has ceased to be optional. To show that you are able to re-sculpt your body is a rite of passage often carried out publicly in order to prove your eligibility for success. Actor’s Hrithik Roshan, Sonu Sood, Varun Dhawan have all articulated this narrative in the public relations narratives generated in media. Occasionally women actresses too have done so—Kareena Kapoor’s much publicized acquisition of a size zero figure, as later Parineeti Chopra’s new body, become a visible narrative of how changing your body could change your destiny.

For any new idea to seize the imagination of a public, it has to resonate in deeper ways. The built body, its language of cuts and trims, its cultivated hairlessness provide an interesting sense of democracy. These replicable, standardized bodies function in to our times as a college degree once did in another. A qualification for entry into the economy of media visibility, which represents the facsimile of success. In that sense we could call it the ‘Automatic Body’—a technology we imagine will automatically guarantee entry into the dream of India shining, moving, growing.

It holds out the idea of automatic success—get the body to get the mobility. In some ways it is like the dream of English, sold by Chetan Bhagat: Get English, get high-paying jobs and economic mobility.

Can a body have an accent? Perhaps body language is the accent of the body, marking us as being from a place, a way of being. We carry whole histories of desi-ness [4] in the way we sit, stand and move. The new gym-created body automatically irons out every inflection of bodily identity by creating identical bodies through an identical process, all speaking the same body-language.

Like the call-center voice, free of MTI—Mother Tongue Inflection—so the constructed male body is symbolically free of its origin, of regional inflection once expressed by, say, Bachchan in songs like "Khaike paan Banaras wala.” That is also why these bodies must be waxed even though the people in these bodies are not body builders who need to display muscle definition. The hair symbolizes that unruly naturalness of individual difference that we have to pretend does not exist in order to pretend we are all equal, even if we are not.

As an aside, this cleaned-up replicable body is something that Bollywood itself has symbolically acquired through a voluble public story of how it has cleansed itself of black money and unruliness. It is apparently a new, uninflected Bollywood symbolized by the mental-gymnasium-generated bound script. Streamlined through corporatization into replicable success formulae.

The body becomes quite literall, a glistening, well-oiled machine in globalized India, one whose brute strength and muscularity are smoothed out into hairless metrosexuality. The urban male subsumes the idea of the working class and small-town male in this bodily figure, presenting a logic of sameness that nevertheless erases the true diversity of Indian class and caste.

Today this bodily demonstration must be carried out as a norm for ordinary people and superstars alike. Even actors whose stardom did not reply on a body type have had to do it. Amir Khan in Ghajini  (2008, dir. A.R. Murugadoss) had to recreate his body with his typical moral earnestness while Shah Rukh Khan has done it with his trademark irony in Om Shanti Om’s  (2007, dir. Farah Khan) famous six-pack. Hairlessness is important but, in some ways, it is as if chest hair has been replaced by the six pack, visibly displayed to signal masculinity.

No story is ever so unitary of course and there are other intertwined narratives ongoing, disrupting these normative rhythms.

For instance in the parallel trajectories of figures like John Abraham, emerging through modeling contests, the body is presented as something for visual pleasure and beauty also—the metrosexual body and also the queer body, opening up a discussion of homosexual attractiveness not much publicly discussed otherwise. Hairlessness is also an essential ingredient of this body, both to evoke youth and softness along with the masculinity of muscles. This body is far more fluid in appearance and meaning and becomes joined more easily into mainstream comfort levels.

Does this mean the male figure is more sexualized and also accommodates female pleasure? In some ways yes—the male body now certainly carries more sexual meaning. But it is a showcase meaning—an aspirational acquisition, more for looking than touching. We rarely see bodies touching and emotions connecting in films. Most dances are frontally choreographed for display, evoking the thought of “I’m too sexy for you, main tere paas na aani” (song: "Sheela ki Jawani," in the film Tees Maar Khan, 2010, dir. Farah Khan). [translate the phrase inside the text, the song title, the film title] The body is more display than play.

Here, all sweat is good sweat, dutifully acquired in the collective environs of the gym. Private sweat is bad sweat and must be deodorized. This desexualized narrative is also present in gossip column tales of how couples gym together, more playmates than lovers. Bipasha Basu and John Abraham were in fact a poster-couple for this body culture, objectified, but desexualized.

As Hindi films have increasingly ceased to be about any but an aspirational middle class or Non Resident Indians (NRIs), other kinds of bodies have automatically vanished from the screen even in minor roles, last seen in Ram Gopal Varma’s underworld films and now reserved for a cut-and-paste notion of ‘realism’ in Bollywood indies and advertising. This realism is always described as gritty—as if the visual evidence of diverse castes and classes were in fact grit in our eyes, or dirt.

On the other hand, the primacy of the body, has strongly been represented in dance and the rise of dance shows on television have ushered in diverse bodies—fat, thin, tall, short, wheatish and dark—and created entry into the media economy for people of diverse backgrounds.

The film ABCD (Anybody Can Dance, Remo D’Souza, 2013), set in the culture of street dance, and drawing on the talent of these shows, brought this dazzling diversity of bodies to the screen after a long time, and was a stand-out hit. In its sequel, ABCD2 (Remo D’Souza, 2015), these diverse bodies were replaced by the more Automatic Bodies (as also pedigreed bodies, both offspring of parents with movie careers) of Varun Dhawan and Shraddha Kapoor.

A most telling disruption of this bodily narrative appeared as a by-product of the film Sairat  (2016, Nagraj Manjule), a love story about caste conflict and violence with a primarily rural backdrop. The film was a staggering hit, foregrounding caste in mainstream discussion for a while. A song from the film, Zingat (data), aggressively local, drawing from frenzied dhol [5] music rhythms, demanding an abandoned, not regimented style, became a super hit, resulting, as super hit songs do, in several remixes and video mashups.

One of the most successful of these was a Hindi film mash up. But to put it together effectively, it drew on film bodies from the 1980s—Mithun Chakraborty, Govinda and even Bachchan. Accented bodies, with accented moves, were necessary to match the rhythms of a less constrained music. For a few minutes they broke through the Automatic Body façade of the present, with a memory of bodies that had been and still exist, unrepresented on the global Hindi screen.