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The Evolution Of Manhood In Bollywood Proves How Movies Have Mirrored Indian Men Through The Decades

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Bollywood and manhood have lived a complicated life together. We live in a country where over 250 crore people scramble to watch films every year - over twice the number of moviegoers in China or the United States. This means that our society, more than perhaps any other in the world, culturally depends on what we see onscreen, and who we see doing it.

Despite facing criticism for its less-than-stellar treatment of women through the years, Bollywood has placed immense emphasis on the leading men, often captured in heroic postures on bright, nostalgia-inducing film posters. Everyone from thugs to tycoons, soldiers to scholars have been framed on film for everyone to see - and over time, helped define, mature and even reinvent the idea of masculinity.

This International Men's Day, we'd like to take a look at these cultural icons and how they defined the cinema of their times.

The 1940s - Ashok Kumar

Perhaps Kumar's greatest contribution to playing men onscreen was his breakthrough hit - 1943's Kismet. Playing a remorseless pickpocket with a compassionate side, he introduced us to the anti-hero - a complex, pivotal aspect that provided men with a truly relatable onscreen presence. The film's subject matter was also quite radical for the time. Kumar's choices in film would also reflect the shifting tides for newly independent India. Mahal (1949) saw Kumar take the lead for India's first film featuring a 'reincarnation story', in a mix of horror and romance that influences popular cinema even today. Kumar was also unafraid to play negative roles even during his time as one of the most successful heroes in Bollywood - the intelligent, bold and noir-inspired Sangram (1950) sees Kumar play a spoilt brat turn into a ruthless criminal.

The 1950s - Guru Dutt

Through the 50s, Guru Dutt released films that took away much of the grandeur and 'macho' ideas associated with heroes. His characters were flawed, often destitute and fighting against themselves as in Mr. & Mrs. 55 (1955) & Pyaasa (1957) - or falling from grace as in Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959). Much of this reflected the filmmaker's own pain and frustration with life - a theme that continues through all his films and is perhaps why, even half a century later, they still stir deep emotions and relatability.

The 1960s - Dharmendra

The 60s were a time where western pop culture finally began to reach Indian masses. Gradually, studios began to look at concepts such as female-led romance films and even the James Bond craze. Dharmendra would take on both of these challenges back in the 60s.

Known as Garam Dharam at the time, he began his career alongside Meena Kumari, taking on early feminist cinema such as Anpadh (1962), playing a gentle, slow-burner romantic in films such as Dulhan Ek Raat Ki (1967) and even Aakhen (1968) - one of India's earliest spy themed romantic-thrillers. This soft spoken yet suave roster of roles was just the thing that a new, younger and better-read Indian man wanted to see.

The 1970s - Amitabh Bachchan

One of the most interesting things about this legendary figure of Indian cinema is that he very accurately represented a symbol for young men during the seventies. Underemployed, barred by discrimination - these were challenges the young actor faced in his early days, being told by filmmakers that he was too dark, too tall and too intense to play the likeable, fair-skinned funnyman that past heroes tended towards.

Soon enough, films themselves became darker, more imposing and intense themselves - giving the frustration of the youth a cinematic avatar through 'The Angry Young Man'. Eventually, even Dharmendra and Bachhan came together in Sholay (1975) - a film that came to define the decade itself.

The 1980s - Naseeruddin Shah

Subtle, sensitive and full of charm - Naseeruddin Shah's career in the eighties was a series of timeless movies that aged very well - his interesting, challenging roles rode the crest of new-age cinema during his time at the top.

Known for taking on films with deep socio-political themes, he's tackled everything from a social comedy in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983) and a complicated romance as a blind man in Sparsh (1980), showing his versatility at two different ends of the spectrum. It's also interesting to note that he's played a man in uniform several times - everything from lawyers to policemen and army chiefs, usually with sharp wit and complete authority.

The 1990s - Shah Rukh Khan

Seriously, could it be anyone else? SRK's journey as an actor through the 90s reflected much of the two-sided life men have had to lead - first struggling as a ruthless anti-hero in Baazigar (1993) and playing other darker roles. 

Soon though, the lighter side of life came through when he absolutely nailed his role as Raj in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995). His lighthearted, charismatic and yet romantically intense roles have cemented his reputation as Bollywood's undisputed 'King of Romance' - with a signature pose that's been copied by Indian men for the last twenty years.

The 2000s - Hrithik Roshan

Along with all the comparisons to 'Greek gods' and the likes, there's no denying it - Hrithik has been a titanic presence in some of the decade's biggest films. 

While often typecast as the 'perfect hero', due to his looks and general screen presence, his roles matured immensely through the decade, reflecting the interests of his male audience and his own journey. Beginning with Kaho Na Pyaar Hai in 2000, he played an interesting spin on the classic coming-of-age, boy-to-man story in Lakshya 4 years later - finally ending the decade in the incredibly touching Guzarish. This push for more, despite stunt injuries, personal traumas and even spinal conditions that threatened his career, inspired millions of fans to adopt his brand of masculinity.

The 2010s - Ayushmann Khurrana

Khurrana's star is still rising - it's been around seven years since his debut in Vicky Donor, and the resulting legacy of films tackling social problems, unique scripts such as Andhadhun's and a commonly recurring theme in his films - male insecurities - have helped immensely in raising awareness and broadening conversations amongst both men and women today.

This year, his upcoming film Bala aims to tackle the stigma surrounding male pattern baldness- a major source of anxiety for several men, both young and old.


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