The Bollywood in 2020 is nothing like the Bollywood of my childhood in the 90s. Aamir Khan had a lean, boyish look in Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992), dancing and prancing – he was in love for the first time swaying to Pehla Nasha. Salman Khan in Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (1994) sported an effeminate look with his longish hair and a clean-shaven face. And Shah Rukh Khan in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995), who looked like the boy next door with no muscles jumping out of his sleeves, enjoyed more popularity than any other actor in Hindi cinema.
I remember it being completely acceptable to look like this. Two decades on, and this category of a male actor in the lead role, especially the romantic Bollywood hero, is nearly extinct.
Take Varun Dhawan in the newly released Street Dancer 3D with a hairless chest, a muscular body lathered with oil, and tight V-neck T-shirts typically worn by gym rats.
Barring a few such as Vikrant Massey (still upcoming and not entirely mainstream) or say, Rajkummar Rao, none of the present-day actors or “heroes” from the last decade are relatable. None of them look like the identifiable average Indian guy that perhaps our male friends or boyfriends look like.
A distinct switch happened in the early 2000s when the skinny, sometimes lean, hero (or anti-hero like Shah Rukh Khan in Baazigar) like Saif Ali Khan in Main Khiladi Tu Anari or Aamir Khan in Andaz Apna Apna and Rangeela or even Salman Khan, for that matter, in several popular films including Judwaa and Andaz Apna Apna, gave way to the muscular and “manly” hero.
Some of these such as Hrithik Roshan (Krrish, Mission Kashmir, Fiza) and John Abraham (Dhoom) were newcomers who landed in the industry with already carved, shapely bodies. Others such as Salman Khan (Tere Naam) and Saif Ali Khan (Salaam Namaste, Love Aaj Kal) worked hard to get those bodies to stay relevant.
While this body shape was gaining popularity – perhaps as single screen theatres made way for multiplexes and the public had access to a wide variety of films including those from Hollywood – the decade still saw a fair mix of bulky and lean physiques. Still, none of them had that effeminate appeal that the quintessential Bollywood hero from the 90s had. It became almost mandatory to look “manly”, therefore propagating a certain idea of masculinity that has no place for any kind of fluidity.
Going hairless also became popular as metrosexuality became fashionable in India (around the early-mid 2000s) without really disturbing the ethos of masculinity. Perhaps an exception here would be SRK who has consistently been hairless and lean. No longer did we see the carpet of hair on Anil Kapoor’s chest and when we did see Akshaye Khanna’s in Race (2008), it was cringeworthy!
Akshay Kumar in Namastey London, Ranbir Kapoor in Saawariya, and Saif Ali Khan in Salaam Namaste and Love Aaj Kal showed off shredded bodies to a point that was unnecessary.
In the last decade starting 2010, Sidharth Malhotra played the role of a school student that didn’t need him to look like he was Photoshopped. Arjun Kapoor, with his muscular body, played the romantic hero in several films including 2 States, Half Girlfriend, and Ki & Ka. Sushant Singh Rajput in Raabta, Ranveer Singh in Band Baaja Baaraat and Dil Dhadakne Do, the list is endless…
One argument may be that several Indian women prefer the perfect muscular body but then again hasn’t Bollywood cultivated that idea? Hasn’t propagation of homogeneity vis-à-vis body type deluded the audiences into appreciating only a specific kind of body, therefore completely excluding the “other”?
There was a certain kind of charm in being a regular Desi boy. Now, all of Dhawan’s contemporaries are mere powerhouses of testosterone. Imagine a lanky Salman Khan from Maine Pyaar Kiya or Saif Ali Khan with his long, back-brushed hair from Yeh Dillagi in lead roles in 2020. There’s not a chance they would’ve made it!
So what has happened is that Bollywood has propagated unrealistic ideas of what a man’s body should look like, and anything more or less than that is not acceptable. It’s undesirable.
Isn’t it time the industry takes some onus and starts contributing to the various discourses around gender fluidity and body positivity by portraying and popularising bodies that are outside the purview of what is conventionally considered “acceptable”?
It’s 2020 FFS!