In the middle of the climactic fight scene in Ek Villain Returns, John Abraham takes matters into his own hands and rips off the T-shirt he's wearing. Although the move is part of the scene's choreography, it feels almost as though this is an executive decision Abraham takes because his opponent — Arjun Kapoor playing a hapless but dynamic hairball named Gautam — has failed him. They've been throwing punches at each other for what feels like eternity. Walls have collapsed as a result. Yet there's Abraham's white tee, determinedly holding itself together. What is the point of a fight in a Bollywood action movie if it doesn't deliver a shirtless hero? In recognition of this, Abraham does the deed himself. By his own hand, he reveals to the audience's gaze the miracles that are his sculptural torso and the gravity-defying trousers, which hang so low on Abraham's hips that the eye barely registers the waistband hovering at his crotch. It may not be revealing enough for talking heads to declare "We can see his bum", but it's close.
Shirtless, blood-streaked and quivering with rage, Abraham as the deranged Bhairav — who is a part-time taxi driver, part-time zoo keeper and full-time serial killer in Ek Villain Returns — embodies a certain flavour of masculine power. You know the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which broken pottery is repaired with gold? Bhairav is something similar, only his cracks have been joined with testosterone and male tears. His refusal to be broken down by "one-sided love" makes him a hero to other men who have been jilted. He may have lost his mind, but what else is a man to do when a woman in a short dress toys with his heart and behaves like it's perfectly normal for her to not be attracted to a crazy taxi driver who has been stalking her since she took a ride with him?
No one who chooses to watch Ek Villain Returns is expecting a feminist manifesto and while misogyny does inform how women are depicted in the movie, it's difficult to take issue with any of it because it's all so hilariously bad. In addition to the clichéd demonising of women, we get 'deep' scenes like the one in which Disha Patani's character metaphorically fuses into a tiger named Hero, who then leaps on to (a shirtless) Abraham to maul him savagely. Is the moral of this episode that misogyny (and murder) don't pay? Is it an ode to gender fluidity or a poetic plea for better conditions for caged tigers? We'll never know.
More interesting than the film's noxious anxiety about powerful women is how Ek Villain Returns sets up an ideal of the alpha male. In this graceless world, there are no 'good' men to show the way or be role models. There are two fathers in Ek Villain Returns, and both fail their sons by being callous and self-centred. Being a man is to be alone and survive in this world despite being misunderstood by everyone and tortured by 'bold' women who, for all their apparent smarts, can neither see nor appreciate the goodness of men. Channelling anger into violence is a big part of masculinity as we see it in the movie. Rage and physical strength make it possible for men to navigate a way through the perceived unfairness, giving them agency while other emotions, like love and sadness, leave them weak and vulnerable to being crushed. The behaviour of traditional Bollywood heroes, with their emotions and sensitivity (read: tears), is seen as pathetic. Which is why Gautam and Bhairav are both villains (as is practically every character in Ek Villain Returns. They tell us as much repeatedly).
For all this rejection of the sentimental Bollywood hero, even in Ek Villain Returns, the victorious alpha male is the one who comes to the rescue of the damsel in distress. The reason he succeeds is his physical strength and we're reminded of both Bhairav and Gautam's muscular power at regular intervals. The male body in Ek Villain Returns is a weapon. It's forged in the flames of toxicity, neglect and misunderstanding. Its muscles are not from carrying kettlebells, but the weight of great expectations and greater disappointments. From bending cage bars to lugging dead bodies and demolishing a Metro carriage, the movie's 'real' men can do it all, and bounce right back to cast smouldering gazes into the camera. Their longings and the sensuality of their body are camouflaged under bombast and violence. Desire in Ek Villain Returns is not a thing of beauty, even if it is articulated using two impossibly-beautiful actors. It's tangled up with being manipulated by a femme fatale, making it a man's tragic weakness. When Abraham stands in a space that's artfully grungy and rips his T-shirt apart, you can pretend to not notice how much care has gone into the aesthetics of the scene and instead claim to be mesmerised by his incredible strength.
The male body in the Paper photoshoot is no less muscular and the bulk of Singh's body is as stereotypically masculine as it gets. However, in the poses he strikes, strength becomes secondary to sensuality. This is a different vision of masculinity that enjoys its physicality with frankness and confidence. Singh seems unbothered by the need to come up with excuses to lose his clothes. It's as though he casually walked into a warehouse, found a carpet and lay down, stark naked, simply because it made for a beautiful photo.
This is, of course, a façade. Nothing is more carefully constructed and choreographed than a nude scene, whether it's for a film or a photograph, and this photoshoot seems to be rich with intent. In each frame, light and shadow ripple along the taut lines of Singh's expertly-bronzed body to make you notice the contrasting textures and tactile shapes. There's nothing in the minimalist setting to distract the viewer's attention. Neither is there anything in the space — no colour or photos on the wall, no pillows or any other props — that would reveal any additional detail about Singh. In most of the shots, he looks directly into the camera, inviting you to lock eyes with him. In the nude photos, his face is arranged into studious blankness, leaving it to the viewer to fill it in with their imagination. Singh may be the only one in the photograph, but he's not alone and his nudity is a performance for both his pleasure and yours, should you have the courage to participate as a viewer. This is a performance that is as much about being a man as it is about articulating desire in a way that doesn't feel reductive to either the subject or the audience.
The whole point of Singh's photoshoot is to present a figure that is powerful, masculine and victorious against the conventions of an increasingly-conservative and restrictive society. Singh presents himself as a man who is confident enough to volunteer as the subject of your gaze, whether its female or queer. The way he engages with his imagined viewer, using the sensuality of the scene and his body, is almost aggressive. Yes, this photoshoot is the latest in a long and illustrious line of male nudes (the internet has mapped connections to everyone from Burt Reynolds to Kabir Bedi and Shakti Kapoor), but seeing Singh carefully arranged on that carpet, it's impossible to not think of Cleopatra who, it is said, wrapped herself in a carpet that was unfurled before Julius Caesar. For both Cleopatra and Singh, their graphic beauty is what makes them powerful. It shifts the power dynamic by making the beholder feel beholden.
The way Singh and Abraham's bodies are picturised tap into different social concerns and collective desires. The maniacal rage that Abraham embodies in Ek Villain Returns reflects how so many feel emasculated by circumstances beyond their control. In contrast, Singh presents masculinity as something that isn't threatened, but empowered and confident. It's disruptive not because it outrages the modesties of those who don't want to see Singh's bum (and other body parts), but because the photographs demand a level of honesty from the viewer. Ultimately, it's for the public to decide which of these interpretations of masculinity will gain currency. Let's hope we lean into a masculinity that isn't straitjacketed by repressed desires and fury. After all, Abraham's Bhairav in Ek Villain Returns is not just ridiculous; even within the world of the film, he proves to be clinically insane.
Meanwhile, Singh's nudes broke the desi internet and became the subject of a national debate, which is ironic for a country whose cultural history is crammed with nude figures. Whether you look at ancient Indian art or our vintage film magazine shoots, we have a robust tradition of men who have proudly flaunted themselves, happy to be briefly objectified (before returning to their regular programming of patriarchy-backed power). The nudity in Singh's photoshoot is not what makes the actor and his photos significant. Rather, it's the masculinity he's projecting and the reaction it evokes in others.
Seeing Singh's nudes and talking about it requires us to acknowledge the emotional responses we have to the sight of the actor laid out for our viewing pleasure — whether it's anxiety about the standards his body sets for male beauty, insecurity about one's own body image, gossipy speculation, or fantasy-fuelled pleasure. The knee-jerk negativity that Singh as nain-sukh (something that gives pleasure from just the sense of sight) has evoked says a lot about present-day Indian society. Yes, it indicates how repressed many of us are, but the outraged responses are also a reminder of how little it takes to disrupt the status quo. Apparently, all you need is a beautiful man, his bum and a clean carpet.