Boys II Men: Dissecting masculinites in South Asia

(Let’s Talk Men is a project started by Aakar, a media house in Delhi started by filmmaker Rahul Roy. The thrust of this project is to investigate masculinities as a part of the emerging gender discourse in south Asia, as in the rest of the world. In this second edition, held in Delhi last week, four films helped a small but deeply engaged audience make better sense of the over-arching term — Patriarchy. This can also be read here.)

In an unequal world, ‘boys will be boys’ is an oft-repeated phrase that encompasses a wide range of social behaviour – from a general sense of XY entitlement to an assumption that men are ‘like that only’, pre-ordained from birth to be violent, dominant or generally the powerful sex. Yet, there is now greater interest in attempting to understand what goes into making men, rather than simply studying how this has affected other genders. The NGO Aakar’s project, Let’s Talk Men, is an effort in this direction – with four films shot and executed in four separate South Asian contexts, the initiative aims to reveal various situations that men find themselves in and are moulded by. Last week, the second edition of Let’s Talk Men was held with films from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India. Supported by Partners for Prevention, a UN agency, the first edition happened in 1998. “When we started, masculinities were just beginning to be discussed from within the feminist movement and academic circles. It was a fairly new concept then, but the second edition is timely as it has gained from all that has happened in the past 15 years. It also tries to open windows on how men can reflect on their separate situations and see themselves differently,” said Rahul Roy, director of Aakar.

His film Till We Meet Again touches base with the four protagonists from Jahangirpuri, Delhi, of his 1999 film, When Four Friends Meet. The men, whose earlier preoccupations dealt with girlfriends and finding employment, are now married with children. They attempt to negotiate the everyday with their families and friends, and are, in a sense, appropriated by this city that they earlier looked upon critically. Kesang Tseten’s documentary Men At Work, on the other hand, looks at four different kinds of work spaces. Here, a Nepali domestic worker, a mechanic, young boys studying for priesthood, and Gurkhas vying to be part of the British regiment, find themselves being regimented into becoming men. Prasanna Vithanage’s feature With You, Without You positions itself at the heart of the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict, tracing an army officer’s tryst with love and reality. Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi’s feature Zinda Bhaag puts the spotlight on the lives of three boys from Pakistan for whom emigration (by hook or by crook) is the only answer to, and escape from the pressures of society and family.

The films emphasise that people are a product of their circumstances. In Zinda Bhaag, for instance, Khaldi is a taxi-driver bent on migrating to the UK because he needs money to support his mother and his sister’s wedding. He tries through the formal route and is rejected, is fleeced by an agency, and finally resorts to gambling for a fake passport and visa. In Tseten’s documentary, an aspiring soldier says that the British Gurkha regiment is all he ever dreamed of joining because he saw his grandfather holding a gun and he wanted to do the same, because it was a matter of great pride in his family. In Roy’s documentary too, we see the four men torn between the idealism of youth and their often unbearable realities, bringing out aspects of violence that are very disturbing to watch.

A still from Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi’s Zinda Bhaag

“If men today centrally feature in processes of violence or discrimination, they cannot be ignored. Through this project, we’ve attempted to challenge certain ways in which masculinity is being interpreted and defined in the development sector,” says Roy, pointing to the desire for a much more nuanced investigation into the subject. And he feels this has already begun, thanks to the December 2012 protests. “It was an emotive, cathartic moment that triggered a lot of writing by men about the experience of being a man. There is a lot of social questioning – the implications of which are difficult to discern at the moment, but perhaps more platforms for men to articulate how they have received these events might be helpful,” he observes.

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