“Behind every successful man there stands a woman”.
Here’s a proverb that’s been handed down by millions of patriarchs as a consolation prize to women the world around. The message is loud and clear: You need to be content being a footnote in history, as long as history is being created.
What then, when the one creating history is a woman?
When Gunjan Saxena (Janhvi Kapoor) comes home down and defeated after having to deal with the extreme prejudices of her male colleagues, she tells her father Colonel (Retd) Anup Saxena (Pankaj Tripathi) that she should probably get married and settle down. The colonel tells her, “You’re about to do exactly what this world expects from girls — give up your dreams and settle down. The solution isn’t to shut yourself in a cage but to break free of that cage and fly.”
It’s that pivotal moment that every film has, the one that gets our protagonist back on track, ready to take on whatever challenges might come their way. In a world created by debutant director Sharan Sharma in Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, where our female protagonist has no male romantic interest, an overly protective brother with a deeply patriarchal worldview and a mother who would rather see her daughter in bridal duds, it’s down to the father to be her trampoline: not just to soften her falls but to propel her right back into the air. He’s not a mentor, not a guide, not a father-figure who removes the obstacles in her path — her struggles are her own. His role is to be an ally—that non-judgmental person standing in her corner, cheering her on for her small wins and providing a shoulder to cry on when she needs one.
With more and more stories of women being told by Bollywood over the past decade, the role of the male ally has become an important one.
Why do we need this person, one might ask? After all, there are a few thousand films out there of male protagonists taking on the world, battling the odds and coming out victorious — all single-handedly. The mother, sister or female romantic interest in most of these films provides support to our male hero by dramatically invoking the support of the gods, singing songs or maybe churning out a few perfectly round chapatis. It seems unfair then that the role reversals in a woman-oriented story don’t quite play out the same way.
That point having been made, one can possibly put it down to acceptability from our movie-going masses. A film has to make money and the idea of a man who can take a backseat while a woman drives the story doesn’t seem to go down well with most. This kind of man is seen as an aberration, someone created to push along the protagonist’s story. It’s probably the reason why you’ll also never see more than one male ally in a story of this sort. Can you imagine a scenario where every man in a film supports our heroine’s dreams? It would probably need to be classified under a genre called desi-fantasy.
What then makes this ‘model’ male ally believable and more palatable?
How do you show this person in a good light without emasculating him in the eyes of an audience?
On the flip side, how much involvement is the right amount of involvement without his narrative taking over the protagonist’s?
As a writer, it’s a very fine line to toe when telling a woman’s story because the reception to cinematic narratives mimics real life. And in real life, every little push that a woman receives from a man can assume the gargantuan proportions of an undeserved shove up the ladder. This then is a character whose crafting is a fine and delicate process. The good news is that we’ve begun to get these characters right in our films.
In Angrezi Medium, Champak Ghasiteram (Irrfan Khan) literally flips off his conservative household by celebrating the birth of his girl-child. He then does everything he can to fulfil his daughter Tarika’s (Radhika Madan) dream of studying in London. This is the same hero we’ve seen in multiple films, fighting the world for what he believes is right. The only difference is that here, he’s fighting for his daughter’s dream. In recent years, we’ve had some beautifully written male allies in our films, but none more so than Sachin Sandhu (Kumud Mishra) in Thappad. We live in a society where mothers push their daughters back into abusive marriages because “What will people say?” When the bone of contention then is ‘just one slap’, it takes a real feminist to stand by his daughter’s decision to walk away from her husband. After all, those justifying the ‘just one slap’ argument wouldn’t be as generous had the recipient of that slap been the husband, not the wife.
It’s this ability to throw out gender stereotypes that makes someone a real feminist but very few really understand this. The word ‘feminist’ has been repeatedly abused and thanks to the hordes of misinformed people who can’t bother with a dictionary, has come to be associated with some kind of raving lunatic who hates all men. The ‘macho man’ doesn’t want to be associated with the word at all. Yet, it’s this same man who thinks of himself as some self-appointed super-protector of his mother and sisters. Real bravery (or machismo if you will) is standing up to societal pressure and doing right by the women you love.
Some might say it’s easier for a father to step out of the limelight and provide unconditional support to his daughter. It takes a real man to do the same for his wife. In Panga, Prashant (Jassi Gill) plays the role of a supportive husband to his kabaddi obsessed wife (Kangana Ranaut). He makes an effort to run the household as she chases her dream, and you don’t even mind the intermittent whining because it serves to make his character believable. That’s the sound of a man brought up in a patriarchal household trying to set new rules for himself. This new set of rules, he knows, makes him a better man in the eyes of his wife, but also brings on embarrassment that people might see him as emasculated. Whether he gets over his embarrassment or not isn’t the point, it’s the fact that he stuck with her that makes him a hero to her.
Like it or not, the male ally is here to stay in our films. For a while at least. And it might not be a bad thing, as long as the messaging is right. If these characters can help inspire men across the country to shed the rules of their conservative upbringing and support the women in their lives, we’ll have more women-led stories to recount in future. It all starts with men also being okay as a footnote in history, as long as history is being created.