In a post-feminism world, if women have had to bear the consequences of changing gender equations, men have been through a confusing time too.
Just like women are expected to be breadwinners and homemakers plus look slim and desirable at all times, men are told they have to be tough, but they are also told metrosexual is the way to be, and then again socked in the jaw and told to man up. Whenever there are crimes against women, the entire male species is perceived as the enemy.
A man’s world? Sri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage’s film With You Without You is a tragedy of a man who can’t express his emotions, because in his society, men are not supposed to
Whenever there is talk of gender issues, it is kind of assumed that it will be about the problems women face in a still largely patriarchal world, but men have problems too. Society allows them a lot more leeway in dealing with their problems, but also expects a standard of masculinity that can be difficult for many men to live up to.
The Let’s Talk Men package of films, that had its first instalment of four films in 1998 when Delhi-based filmmaker Rahul Roy initiated the production of films from South Asian countries, gets its version 2 in 2014, with films from India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan. As Roy says, it is better to explore the question of masculinity using aesthetics and culture rather than violence and strife.
In the interim 14 years, society has changed, women have made large strides into the workplace, men are expected to change their attitudes towards working women, soften up and accept a certain degree of ‘domesticisation’, at the same time, trying to make sense of new definitions of machismo. If violence is frowned on, so are tears. They may no longer be forced to be sole providers, but can a man remain manly in the eyes of his peers if he cooks and minds the children? In a very telling scene from one of the films — Rahul Roy’s Till We Meet Again — a wife is asked if her husband changes the baby’s diapers as he claims and she laughs till tears roll down her face.
In Sri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage’s film, With You Without You (adapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Gentle Creature), set against the Sinhala-Tamil conflict, a pawnbroker (Shyam Fernando) marries a young woman (Anjali Patil); he loves her but always taunts her with the fact that he saved her from an unsuitable marriage to an old man. There is a kind of comfort and compatibility, but the husband’s seeming coldness hides a deep trauma that he has never been able to reveal to anyone. Vithanage says the film is a tragedy of a man who can’t express his emotions, because in his society, men are not supposed to.
The actor playing the pawnbroker has a gentle face with eyes that convey helpless longing, but he is constantly seen at work or parked in front of the TV watching wrestling matches or zipping around on his motor cycle — behavior that he identifies with as ‘male’.
In Till We Meet Again, Roy again follows the four men whose lives he had filmed 12 years ago, and the insights coming through casual banter are just as insightful. They continue to live in the old working class neighbourhood of Delhi; they have married, had children, are burdened with the responsibility of providing for parents, siblings and their own spouse and kids, but their own youthful dreams of getting rich have come to naught. They sound carefree and cheerful, but it seems like a pose.
In this film, and the Pakistani feature Zinda Bhaag about three friends desperate to get to the West and earn money, there is a side of life in South Asia that differs from the West — the man does not (in most families) walk away from caring for his parents; in fact, the mother remains a domineering figure. In both these films, from two sides of the border, the condition of the working class male, who feels responsible for his family, is more or less the same — a mixture of stress, guilt, resentment and the small joys of domestic life. But what shines through is that when they reached one of their goals, the bar was raised again. To be a good man, it would seem, is not that easy.
Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. You can follow her on Twitter @deepagahlot