The first thing you need to know about the male ally is that he is not a saviour, a particular problem that even the Hindi films about woman empowerment are not entirely immune to. (Think Amitabh Bachchan in Pink). He is careful about not upstaging the woman in his efforts to help her, who he is happy playing second fiddle to.
We don’t see his interior life—which doesn’t mean the surfaces are not interesting—existing solely in relation to the woman protagonist: a doctor in 19th Century Bengal, an errand boy in present day Karachi, the Commanding Officer in the Indian air force training camp in the nineties. In a world dangerously skewed against women, the male ally comes as a relief.
To quote my sister he is “too good to be true”, more a feminist concept that calls for the inclusivity of men in the fight against the system than reality. But as the woman-centric film gets more evolved, adding elements of wish-fulfilment, we are seeing more such characters than ever—kind of like Chris Hemsworth in the all-woman Ghostbusters remake, where he played the male version of a dumb, hot secretary, but with more active participation in the journey of the protagonist/protagonists.
Of course there is the argument that the male ally shouldn’t be such a big deal in the first place. Being empathetic toward the woman’s cause is something that should be normalised, rather than looked at as something special. Then there is the irony of me ‘mansplaining’ it, for which I have no defence (except that I consulted my sister as a sounding board). But think of it as a by-product of a revisionism in mainstream cinema: men have idealised women for too long and now it is time for a role reversal.
Surely if we rummage through history there’ll be more such characters—there are a scattered few examples in the last few years, in films such as Kahaani—but a surprising number of them have appeared in films and web series released this year.
Here’s a list:
Vikrant Massey in Chhapaak
Amol is an impassioned crusader for the rehabilitation of acid attack victims, albeit with a saviour complex—if this was a ranking list, he would’ve probably ended up last. He runs an NGO in Delhi dedicated to the cause, where Deepika Padukone’s Malti, an acid attack victim herself, gets a job. But even the most righteous men sometimes can’t help mansplaining, as when we see him during an office party. A new section for acid violence has been added to the IPC—a small but significant win for the cause—and everyone is having some fun when Amol plays spoilsport, dourly condemning them for complacency. Padukone’s Malti cuts him down to size: “You think you are the victim, but I am the one who had acid thrown on her face. And I want to party”. Massey’s Amol takes a little while to process the rebuttal but he joins the celebrations, and eventually falls in love with her.
Jassie Gill in Panga
Former India captain in Kabaddi Jaya Nigam (Kangana Ranaut) finds her biggest cheerleader in her husband, Prashant, played by Jassie Gill, who remains as supportive of her talent as he was before they got married. (‘Seeing you play kabaddi makes me fall in love with the game’, he tells her, after watching one of her games). Prashant is an exception compared to the typical Indian husband, the film reminds us, as her less fortunate female teammates remind Jaya, who leaves him with single-dad duties while she is away scripting a comeback. Barring a few hiccups, Prashant sets new standards for parenting goals, his biggest feat being perhaps when he makes it evident that he has no qualms in being added to their son’s School Mums WhatsApp group.
Parambrata Chatterjee in Bulbbul
As if taking off from his roles in Kahaani and Pari—where he also plays gentle, progressive Bengali men—Parambrata Chatterjee’s Dr Sudip wears a knowing smile and something about him suggests that he may be conspiring with the rebels. It makes him the perfect candidate for an ally to Bulbbul, whose life within the oppressive walls of a zamindar family mansion in late 19th Century Bengal comes to a dangerous tipping point. Anvita Dutt, the director of the film, says that the character was inspired by the men of Brahmo Samaj, the reformist movement led by Raja Ram Mohan Roy that was reshaping Bengal at the time. “The Doctor character was a tip of the hat to the Renaissance man, who is simple, who is not threatened by a strong woman, and who doesn’t believe in all this hierarchy.”
Pankaj Tripathi in Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl
Pankaj Tripathi brings the inherent niceness of his character in Masaan in his portrayal of Colonel Anup Saxena, a dream dad whose encouragement goes a long way in ensuring that his daughter becomes one of India’s first female combat pilots. The character provides a protective shield to Gunjan’s dreams from her bratty brother -and the internalised misogyny of her mother–in their middle class Lucknow household. At once coach and mentor—with a training montage to boot—Tripathi’s Anup Saxena demolishes sexist ideas at the breakfast table with gentleness and reason. ‘If a plane doesn’t have a problem with whether a man or a woman is flying it’, he tells his son, ‘why should you?’
Manav Vij in Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl
Once in the air force station, at every step, Gunjan is made to feel like a lone woman in a man’s world, accompanied by non-cooperation and politics by her male colleagues. So when Manav Vij’s Commanding Officer Gautam Sinha pulls her up for underperforming, it’s the first step in letting her know that she is no one special, as well as toughening her up for a military life. Even though it isn’t made explicit, Vij’s character is probably aware of the rampant sexism among his men, which is why he decides to train her under him. During those ‘sorties’, where he is at the co-pilot’s seat, Vij becomes an ally in a literal sense, giving Gunjan the final push to fly.
Kashif Hussain in Churails
Zubaida (Mehar Bano) is a boxer, who can give you a blow-by-blow account of the iconic Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier match with the same ease with which she can slip into a seductive red dress. It’s fitting then that in Shams she has a boyfriend with a gym-built body but a soft heart. Recruited by the Churails’ detective agency as their resident hacker, he is basically a nice guy, who you think is overly worried about his girlfriend’s knack for daredevilry, but then those concerns are not without reason. In the penultimate episode, we come close to a damsel-in-distress situation that is cleverly subverted, and the final scene, set in a boxing arena, is a delightful reversal of gender roles.
Fawad Khan in Churails
Allies can come from the unlikeliest corners and you don’t expect Inspector J to be one, when you first meet him, raiding into the designer store that acts as a front for the Churails’ clandestine business. With his rough outward appearance and initial aggression, he seems just as misogynistic as the stories you have heard of monstrous men in uniforms. But Inspector J’s transformation—or rather revelation—from potential sexist prick to goofy love interest to perfect ally is one of the highlights of the show, topped off by a scene in the climax where he chooses to remain in the background instead of leading the charge. A sure-shot crowd favourite.
Sarmed Aftab Jadraan in Churails
Churails’ utopian flights of fancy also considers class, and class divide as part of the problem. Being empathetic toward women has nothing to do with fancy academic degrees, it seems to say—only character, and heart. It’s no surprise that the men from the lower classes turn out to be much more progressive than the posh, England-educated men from the Karachi elite. Forming the third wheel of the trio of nice men in Churails is Dilbar, the errand boy in their office, who brings a light-hearted good cheer in his scenes. The show entertains the possibility that he could be in love with her employer, the heiress of an old moneyed family, and that she can even reciprocate.