A Few Good Men | Verve Magazine
India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
February 13, 2015

A Few Good Men

Text by Parmesh Shahani

What does it mean to be a decent Indian man? Parmesh Shahani comes across some role models

  • A still from Mardistan, Parmesh's Viewfinder, Parmesh Shahani
    A still from Mardistan
  • Sushant Divgikar performing at the Godrej India Culture Lab while his father Pradeep looks on, Parmesh's Viewfinder, Parmesh Shahani
    Sushant Divgikar performing at the Godrej India Culture Lab while his father Pradeep looks on
  • Mardistan director Harjant Gill, Parmesh's Viewfinder, Parmesh Shahani
    Mardistan director Harjant Gill
  • Tilla head Aratrik Dev Varman took me around Ahmedabad's Sunday market, Parmesh's Viewfinder, Parmesh Shahani
    Tilla head Aratrik Dev Varman took me around Ahmedabad's Sunday market
  • Android Fanboy Shashwat Punjabi with CEPT FabLab head Henry Skupniewicz at Makerfest Ahmedabad, Parmesh's Viewfinder, Parmesh Shahani
    Android Fanboy Shashwat Punjabi with CEPT FabLab head Henry Skupniewicz at Makerfest Ahmedabad.
  • SRM College's drones at Makerfest Ahmedabad, Parmesh's Viewfinder, Parmesh Shahani
    SRM College's drones at Makerfest Ahmedabad
  • Artist Ali Akbar Mehta at his pop up exhibit at the Godrej India Culture Lab, Parmesh's Viewfinder, Parmesh Shahani
    Artist Ali Akbar Mehta at his pop up exhibit at the Godrej India Culture Lab
  • The Humans Since 1982 clock exhibit at the pop up Volte, Parmesh's Viewfinder, Parmesh Shahani
    The Humans Since 1982 clock exhibit at the pop up Volte

In the recently released Tevar, Arjun Kapoor’s character proudly sings that he is a “super man” and then goes on to define precisely what this means. Some of the things he lists include not being afraid of anyone’s “baap”, doing the “ma behen” of anyone who tries to take “panga” with him and causing “danga” if anyone tries to mess with him. Of course, he really does not feel the need to learn from any formal education process, but rather, prefers attending his very own “mauj ka college”.  This particular construct of machismo would be very funny, were it not the prevalent stereotype in our popular culture, and indeed, in pretty much every aspect of our public life in India, social as well as political.

Over the past year or so, after the high profile Delhi and Mumbai rapes, quite a few conversations have been directed towards finding solutions to the epidemic of violence. Some of these conversations have been about unpacking masculinity instead of feminism – and understanding just what is it about Indian men, or rather men in general, that enables them to code their masculinity as a particular kind of power to be wielded in particular ways, often involving violence and sexual assault. And following this, there have been explorations of how we might break away from this pattern.

Mardistan — a small gem of a film — provided me with some exemplars, when I viewed it recently. I have known its director Harjant Gill for 10 years now. I screened his student film Everything, at a film festival I curated in Boston in 2004. I recently saw Harjant after 10 years in Washington DC, where he is now a professor at Towson University, and felt a surge of pride at his academic as well as creative achievements. The dreadlocks had gone but the intensity was still the same. The impetus for Mardistan was the question that Harjant kept on getting from his American students: “Why are so many Indian men raping women?” To try and find an answer, he decided to come to Punjab – one of the bastions of machismo in our country – and film ordinary men, describing their ideas of masculinity.

In the film’s short span of 28 minutes, Harjant showcases the voices of four men from different generations and backgrounds ­— a middle-aged writer trying to process the physical and sexual abuse he encountered in a military school, a Sikh father of twin daughters trying to raise them in a stifling patriarchal society, a college student looking for a girlfriend he can lose his virginity to, and a gay activist coming out to his wife after several years of marriage. He intersperses these conversations with commentary by the noted feminist professor from JNU, Nivedita Menon.

I was drawn to two particular voices on my second viewing of the film, which I hosted in Mumbai last month. Writer Amandeep Sandhu’s words rang very true to me: “While growing up, I realised there were certain kinds of men I would not like to become. I would not like to become an uncle of mine who would beat my mother up. I would not like to become seniors of mine who would define themselves by sodomising their juniors, I would not like to pull a gun on somebody because I have had a gun pulled on me.”

Amandeep spoke about how he grew up hearing his father being called “namard” just because he didn’t beat Sandhu’s schizophrenic mother to ‘tame’ her. Instead of repeating the cycle of violence in his family, Amandeep decided to break out of it. It is a step that we need to applaud and is also a pointer to the choices that we all have ahead of us. Do we merely lament about how horrible things are, or do we also actively take steps to change the status quo?

In a similar vein, engineer Gurpreet Singh, my favourite character in the film, talked about how he grew up with privilege. His parents always favoured him over his sisters. He spoke about how common abortion continues to be in India, once it is known at the fetus stage that it is a girl child. For his part, Gurpreet, as a husband and father himself, has charted a completely different course. In the film, he hugged his twin daughters and said emphatically that he did not want a male child. He spoke about raising his daughters fearlessly, and with freedom, and about how he would respect their choices, whether in terms of career or who they chose to love.

You will be able to see Mardistan when it releases on Doordarshan later this year. Please do catch it, for a glimpse of the alternative choices that ordinary India is making in terms of how to construct and perform gender in a non-violent manner. As Nivedita says in the film, all it takes to change the situation is for men to change their mindsets very slightly. It must be a relief for men too, to not bear the burden of performing their machismo all the time, no? This is very pertinent and while we criticise conventional constructs of masculinity, even while living in an all-pervasive patriarchal society, it is also vital to highlight and celebrate the alternatives that exist all around us, as exemplars.

I come across these extraordinary men more and more, or maybe, I just choose to pause and recognise them more and more. I recently hosted 22-year-old Sushant Divgikar at our Godrej India Culture Lab. Trained as a psychologist, and having been a champion swimmer as a child, Sushant is now a musician, singer, dancer, choreographer, VJ and actor. Sushant won the Mr Gay India title in 2014 and then self-funded his journey to the Mr Gay International pageant, where he won a slew of titles including Mr Congeniality. This led to his participation in the current season of Bigg Boss. In the Bigg Boss house, he decided to highlight issues around LGBT discrimination in India — the reality show is really such a huge platform and since being evicted from the house, he’s continuing to blaze his own unique trajectory — on the anvil are a Salman Khan film for which he will sing, as well as new reality shows and hosting gigs.

But what I find even more incredible than Sushant’s success journey is the journey of his parents. His father spoke to me about how proud they were of Sushant, how they had always respected his choices and supported them, and how they would continue to do so in future. At our event, his mother was excitedly helping him with his costumes on stage, while his father was right up front, taking pictures.

This is vital. There are so many Sushants out there. Most parents would have tried to box them – and stifle their flamboyance as well as their career choices. Sushant’s father is one more proof that there are also men in our country who are not threatened by difference, and who are willing to expand their notion of masculinity to include alternatives. So as you celebrate Valentine’s Day this February, dear readers, join me in raising a toast to these few good men. It is because of their confidence and love that I feel optimistic about our country’s future, despite all the nonsense that happens around us, on a daily basis.

Make in India

Ahmedabad airport was full of foreign and Indian CEOs zipping in on their private jets for the Vibrant Gujarat summit in Gandhinagar. I however, was on a more low-key visit – to check out two different examples of ‘Make in India’. The first was at the CEPT campus, at which the second edition of Asha Jadeja’s Makerfest was playing out. Just like last year, there were about 100 innovators who had gathered from across the country showcasing their prototypes at this open-air demo, workshop and talk mela. This year I was impressed by many ideas, including a brain-operated wheelchair! The flying drones by the engineering students of SRM College Chennai were also a big hit, as was 12-year-old Shashwat Punjabi — a tech writer, video-maker and reviewer who is building his own private media empire under the brand of Droidfanboy (http://www.droidfanboy.com).

My second stop was the studio of one of India’s reclusive designers, Aratrik Dev Varman, who retails under the brand name Tilla. Aratrik trained in textile design at NID and then spent two years at l’École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Now, settled back in Ahmedabad, he weaves his magic from a studio and workshop that was once a doctor’s clinic. Tilla means hill, and Aratrik’s hands-on approach of working directly with local artisans in their own environment, and at every step in his creative process, has led to a line of clothing and furniture, that subtly evokes the stillness of his childhood home in Tripura.

His designs are understated, minimal and yet completely and utterly made in India. I will fondly remember our day we spent together — talking about design, beauty and philosophy while browsing through Ahmedabad’s Sunday market.

Bring out the bubbly

The fizz is back on the Mumbai art scene. It is turning out to be a good year for Indian art overall – with another successful Kochi Biennale, what promises to be a fab Delhi Art Fair, some good auctions and as I write this, the completion of a very successful Mumbai Gallery Weekend comprising simultaneous openings, artist walkthroughs, talks and screenings at eight of the city’s leading galleries. On opening night, I hopped across the participating galleries across Kala Ghoda, bumping into art lovers (from Shobha De to Mukeeta Jhaveri, everyone had turned up). Artists Aditi Singh, Manish Nai and Shreyas Karle were part of the juggernaut; some like Anita Dube and T Venkanna had flown into the city from Delhi and Baroda respectively just for the day. It felt like it was 2008 all over again.

There was some provocative work on display – Venkanna’s nudes at Gallery Maskara and Anant Joshi’s politically charged melted toy sculptures and diorama at Chemould were powerful, but my highlights were the installations at Tushar’s pop up Volte at Tarini Jindal’s Muse, especially the clock with dancing arms by the Humans Since 1982 collective. Later at Indigo, the champagne and conversation flowed freely, and fresh asparagus tips were gobbled hungrily by a swarm of people, overseen by a tired, relieved and smiling contingent of gallery owners like Mort, Tara, Shireen and Geetha.

A few days before this jamboree, I had curated a tiny art intervention at our Godrej India Culture Lab in Vikhroli. Artist Ali Akbar Mehta exhibited paintings, found objects and films dealing with the Mazagon area of Mumbai. Photographer and Indian Memory Project founder Anusha Yadav kicked off her “Love Maps” collaborative exercise at our venue. Historian-archivist Indira Chowdhury flew up from her Srishti perch in Bangalore to talk about different ways of archiving the memories of a city. Some weeks from now, the Dharavi Biennale will kick off in Mumbai. I am glad – that from SoBo to Vikhroli to Dharavi, from white cube galleries to pop-ups to community-based creativity, the idea of art, at least in Mumbai, continues to grow, both geographically and conceptually.

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