How OTT in India Shifted Popular Representations of Masculinity

Be it Tripling’s goofy Chitvan (Amol Parashar), or Panchayat’s perennially-frustrated Abhishek Tripathi, OTT content has been instrumental in furthering the characterisation of its leading men beyond one-tone man-children or know-it-all macho men.
How OTT in India Shifted Popular Representations of Masculinity

2020 has been the year of unpredictability and change – in our understanding of needs versus wants, work experience, knowledge of science, and habits of content consumption. With films like Angrezi Medium, Gulabo Sitabo, Sadak 2, Dil Bechara, etc. starring numerous superstar figures like Amitabh Bachchan, Ayushmann Khurrana, Akshay Kumar, Irrfan Khan, Alia Bhatt, among numerous others, releasing on over-the-top (OTT) platforms, the Indian cinema is witnessing a significant evolution.

But there is more than just economic lucrativeness and necessity behind this transformation – it demands some form of content evolution in mainstream and popular Indian cinema. OTT content is not only structurally different from the way Bollywood theatre releases are, but Indian OTT has been an integral force in representing a new, layered understanding of gendered identities.

Masculinity, particularly, has been reconstructed and reformed in the way OTT approaches it. While the "angry young man" archetype of the 70s and 80s enjoyed unfathomable popularity and was lauded commercially for the rebellious and macho hero figure, the conventions of masculinity derived from and further developed it. It is the 21st century, but Hindi cinema still struggles to represent real men from our known, lived experiences. Kartik Aryan gets away with misogynistic monologues and starring in the same stereotype of the nagged-stressed poor guy, while popular stars like Akshay Kumar chase around women in a rather stalker-endorsing plot with films like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, different versions of Houseful, and more. Even more nuanced, emotionally-reviving cinema in the likes of Tamasha has men's coming-of-age journeys, wherein their behaviour borders on toxic partnership in romantic relationships.

OTT gained millennial support and steadily rose to fame with Indian creators like TVF breaking into the scene and bringing us the very memorable startup-struggle in Pitchers. While I do not know when we shall ever get a Season 2, what I can certainly affirm is the new brand of masculinity it opened doors to. Naveen, Jitendra, Yogi, and Saurabh were all men we knew around us – beaming with ambition and ideas but afraid of failure, kind-hearted but nervous to express vulnerability, and sometimes just plain silly. Even though Arunabh Kumar's Yogi had anger issues, the series never glorified those and showed us what blind aggression actually leads to in the real world – chaos. In a particularly moving scene between Naveen and Shreya (an excellent Maanvi Gagroo), the couple has to break up because of different professional requirements, and Naveen – unlike most Bollywood favourites in terms of heroes – is sad, but understanding.

In another triumph for positive masculinity on OTT, we had the Mikesh-Tanya story in Permanent Roommates. When it first came out in 2014, it was refreshing to find a male character who was able to express himself emotionally, instead of donning a tough exterior in tandem with a facade of hyper-masculinity. It was a rare, satisfying moment in time for Indian popular culture, where the dynamic between the partners was not furthered by excessive drama, hurtful lies, or betrayals, but the couple had to undergo real-life challenges concerning their own sense of independent space within the relationship, similar to millennials today. One standout sequence from the series between Sumeet Vyas' effortless Mickey and Shishir Sharma's Brijmohan (Tanya's father) even parodies the angry, young man trope and exposes it in all its absurdity, by showing them engaging in a drunken public scene while discussing what kind of men they should be.

Dhruv (played by Dhruv Sehgal) in Little Things was another example of the healthy boyfriend and new ideal of positive masculinity that OTT ushered into mainstream Indian pop culture understanding. He loved football, and shared a passion for chicken shawarma as well; he was a math-head, and he was invested in watching rom-coms with his girlfriend too – the characterisation of men in OTT had emerged as a multi-faceted representation, instead of an angst-ridden trope in need of a manic pixie dream girl and Dhruv epitomised the same. The second and third seasons of the same series delved even deeper into the character, with the latest season investing itself in the exploration of millennials' relationships with their ageing parents. The sense of guilt for being too distant, but not truly knowing how to act on one's nostalgia were brought to the fore in Dhruv's character-trajectory.

TVF's 2018-drama Yeh Meri Family was another significant milestone for a layered representation of masculinity. Set in the late 1990s,this series evoked a sense of nostalgia for the millennials of today, and the father in the series, Devendra Gupta (played by an excellent Akarsh Khurana) embodied the endearing middle-class man spirit we may recognise in our own fathers. Specific to its context, there was a gendered distribution of work portrayed by the series, but in representing a father like Devendra, the creators successfully depicted a combination of kindhearted, subtly strict, silly, and learning-his-way-through-fatherhood man.

2019, a year much closer to the traction-gaining discourse around the spectrum of gender and sexualities, was a path-breaking year with the arrival of Excel Entertainment's Made in Heaven. Neel Madhav's Arjun Mehra was one of the most nuanced, heartbreaking portrayals of a closeted, Indian gay man, who struggled with the homophobia of his family and immediate circles. Instead of caricaturing the gay man in a cross-dressed attire, Made in Heaven showed a story of lost love between Vikrant Massey's Nawab Khan and Arjun. The latter was a professional, with an identity outside of his sexuality, and the series critiqued the socio-cultural conditioning, wherein masculinity has been extremely conditional and unnervingly fragile. What the patriarchy and internalised homophobia do to men who do not fit within the socially accepted norms of masculinity was explored with deep empathy and sensitivity in the series. Vinay Pathak's Ramesh Gupta (Arjun's landlord) was the immediate product of his homophobic upbringing, wherein he possessed a sense of self-loathing for his own closeted homoerotic desires. It didn't caricaturise men, and understood that the same watershed ideals of patriarchy that subjugate women are toxic for men as well. With Ramesh, Arjun, and Nawab, Made in Heaven had a crucial role in showcasing men as both perpetrators and victims of misguided masculinity.

Be it Tripling's goofy Chitvan (Amol Parashar), or Panchayat's perennially-frustrated Abhishek Tripathi, OTT content has been instrumental in furthering the characterisation of its leading men beyond one-tone man-children or know-it-all macho men. There may still be men in violent settings shooting guns within the gangster-crime genre of shows like Mirzapur and Sacred Games, but the creators seem to have understood that real people are not one-dimensional, thus giving us strong motivations and tender nuances in the Bablus and Guddus of the OTT world. One man at a time, OTT content appears to be treading in the right direction for the portrayal of layered, relatable, and healthy notions of masculinity.

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