Where I live, calling a man a “momma’s boy” is a harsh insult. If my date quotes poetry, or dances more gracefully than I do, my friends inevitably tease me about my questionable taste in men. Our standard, of course, is the American hero idealized in Hemingway and Hollywood films. This gruff, reticent lone wolf suffers through his family reunions, would rather battle demons than discuss his feelings, and considers crying a purely female pastime. Emotional repression and physical force are the barometers by which he measures his masculinity.
So imagine my shock upon first watching a Bollywood film.
The year was 1998. Though the calendar claimed it was late fall, Jodhpur still sweltered. I and a few other students on a Hindi-language study program stumbled into the movie theater hoping for air-conditioning. What we got instead was Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and six large, ineffectual fans.
Twenty minutes into the film, I no longer cared that I was sweating. Shahrukh Khan ka jaadoo chal gaya tha (Khan’s magic had taken effect) and our little group, raised on Kevin Costner’s stone-faced charm, was fascinated and bewildered by why we found him so attractive. You see, the Bollywood hero breaks all the rules of American masculinity—and even to the Hollywood-trained eye, he makes the trespass look heroic.
The Bollywood hero is not just a Momma’s boy; he’s in willing bondage to her apron strings, whether he’s playing Romeo or a tough-as-nails commando. Americans raised on Lethal Weapon and Die Hard expect their action heroes to have dysfunctional family histories and bottles of whiskey stashed beneath their beds. In turn, Bollywood offers gun-toting teetotalers who, like Akshay Kumar in Talaash or Shahrukh in Karan Arjun, fire away in Momma’s name.
Even more bewildering, the Bollywood novice might sit down to watch a romance—say, Doli Saja Ke Rakhna—and encounter a plot twist in which the latter day Romeo responds to his mother’s disapproval of the match not by marrying Juliet in a bold show of independence, but rather by … giving her up. And when he remains defiant, as in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham or Saathiya, he pays for it with a painful family estrangement that corrodes his own happiness. For the Bollywood hero, there can be no happy-ever-after without Mom and Dad.
It’s a far cry from the lone wolf model. Yet instead of impugning the depth of his love for the heroine, the hero’s filial devotion only reinforces our belief in his capacity for romance. He is the anti-Kevin Costner, emotionally open, and deeply passionate. When he is in love, he admits it, often in breathtaking verse: “Bejaan dil ko tere ishq ne zinda kiya,” (Your love gave life to this lifeless heart) Salman sings in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. And when the hero cries openly, as Shahrukh does at his beloved’s wedding during the climax of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, we don’t think he’s a sissy. We cry with him.
It’s an entirely different brand of masculinity, and it works because the Bollywood hero’s demeanor leaves no room for allegations of effeminacy; rather, he brazenly flaunts his maleness. Suggestive dance moves, Shahrukh’s tight leather pants and see-through shirts, Hrithik’s arm-baring vests, and Salman’s shirtless strutting invite—nay, demand—that the female audience ogle them. Emotions are on display, but male sexuality joins them in the front window.
Indeed, if a Martian were to compare the heroes of Bollywood and Hollywood, he might conclude that Indian society was more accepting of female sexuality than its American counterpart. In Hollywood, men’s bodies are rarely sexualized in a way that caters to the female gaze, and the unlucky man who trades on his sex appeal can expect, like Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio, to endure endless slander regarding his sexual orientation. But the Bollywood Hero chooses his wardrobe and jhatka-matkas with an eye to seduce—and his comfort in seducing exudes a masculinity that scorns the empty postures of machismo.
Alas, in the real world, Bollywood heroes are in short supply, and the American male, minus a troop of backup dancers and Manish Malhotra to outfit him, has a tough time following Shahrukh’s act. If he brings me flowers, I’ll call him sweet. But if he writes a poem, I’ll inevitably be tempted to compare it to Gulzar’s. If he cries, I may suggest Prozac.
Yet if films truly have an impact on the way we perceive the world—-and judging by my friends’ giggles when a man does a Michael Jackson move on the dance floor, I must conclude they do—then far better that we judge men by Bollywood’s heroes than by Hollywood’s. “Momma’s boy” might be an insult, but as the old saying goes, a man who loves his mother is a catch in a million.
Meredith Mcguire runs a Web site Bollywhat.com: A Guide for Clueless Fans of Bollywood.