Rahul Roy: Addressing “masculinities” through film

My blog post for Harvard South Asia Institute on Rahul Roy’s documentary film series on ‘masculinities’
Filmmaker Rahul Roy, right, captures in his films the nuances, masculinities and realities in a slice of urban life over the years.

Filmmaker Rahul Roy, right, captures in his films the nuances, masculinities and realities in a slice of urban life over the years. Photo: Ashima Duggal

By Beena Sarwar

Indian filmmaker Rahul Roy first met and began filming four young men in 1999 for his documentary film When four friends meet, interacting with them and filming for about two years in the Delhi slum where they live. He stays in touch with the four – Sanjay, Sanju, Kamal and Bunty – over the years and 12 years later, returns to do a sequel titled Till we meet again.

Both films, screened as part of the Rahul Roy Film Festival from September 22 – 25, provide rich material for discussions on “masculinities” – to use Roy’s term – and the relation of these masculinities to gender violence not just in India but in South Asia as a whole.

Both films address issues and and raise questions that have a wider resonance beyond the slum in which they are set. They will be familiar not only to other South Asians, but to urban dwellers in other cities that have grown rapidly and unplanned around the world.

Aside from underlying issues of crowded urban spaces and the rat race to eke out a living in the films, they reveal disturbing attitudes towards women and mind-sets that urgently need changing if we are to move towards justice, equality and peace. But how do we do that in such urban jungles that foster the opposite? The films provide no easy answers, but plenty of food for thought

What shines through the films is the craft of the filmmaker – Roy, the cameraman. He films both documentaries with sensitivity and an eye for detail, characterised by slow camera movements. Each film has one scene in which he spins the camera round to create a dizzying movement that underlines a sense of entrapment.

At a panel discussion after one of the screenings, I talked about these and other aspects of this series that struck me.

One is that through this medium – extended filming over a period of time, building trust, not treating the protagonists as ‘subjects’ – the filmmaker addresses critical issues of urbanisation, gender roles, inequalities, and the economic system that traps people in poverty. This is a conversation that must continue. The films are hugely informative about the realities of urban life and struggles. And they form a major contrast to the breaking news and superficial information that dominate the media landscape – all sound and fury, signifying little.

Rahul-Roy-Still_Four-FriendsInterestingly, both films speak to the unplanned development of cities and economic systems and issues of mental health and wellbeing that the Harvard SAI project on the Contemporary South Asian City also addresses.

What is the redeeming humanity? We may cringe at some of the things the protagonists say and do but their vulnerability and the realisation that they are victims of the system makes it impossible to see them as villains or as evil.

The four boys grew up amidst grinding poverty, dirt and squalor. They were put to work young to supplement the family income, except Kamal whose father had a college education and dreamt of his son doing better. For them, a better life comprises the usual material dreams of urban dwellers: a house, a fridge, a colour TV and – in those days, a VCR.

“Isn’t that everyone’s dream?” asks Sanju, looking up from the monotonous, mechanical work he is doing.

The streets are rough. Violence is routine. They believe they have to be the aggressor in order to get respect and not be bullied. One of them recounts how, despite knowing he was going the wrong way, he behaved aggressively with some boys he collided with. His friends support his behaviour. If he had apologized and admitted his mistake, they say, he would have got beaten up.

Although they still live in the same urban slum, their children’s lives are markedly different from their own childhoods. For one thing, none of the children is put to work – they all go to school, unlike the fathers. But the underlying menace of violence still exists. None of them has any meaningful relationship with their children, though they love them.

In one spine-chilling scene, Sanjay lets his young son swear at and abuse a female neighbour. When she objects, he replies that the boy needs to know how to be rough. And not just with words – he knows where the knife is kept and can get it out when needed.

Still, Roy points out another major change between their childhoods and their children’s. The “idea of fatherhood has changed” – they didn’t really experience their fathers. They are present for their children, even if the relationship isn’t ideal.

Aspirations have changed. They want intimacy, but can’t seem to obtain it with their wives. The wives too, express the desire for better relations with their husbands, more companionship, something that their mothers would never have expressed.

Domestic violence is routine – only one of the four thinks it’s wrong to beat his wife. But here too, the forms of violence have shifted, points out Roy. The level of violence has dropped significantly and is “more controlled”. Filming for the earlier documentary, he says it was common to see a woman every few days running from her husband, screaming for help. Now there are women’s helplines and police stations just a phone call away. So they content themselves with the occasional slap or punch, not something that will get her running for her life.

When they were young, they saw girls almost as another species. They learned about women and sex from porn and blue films – “Iearnt all the shots”.

The most sensitive one in the earlier film, Bunty, tragically lost his wife – she was electrocuted in the bathroom, leaving him with small children. He went to Calcutta to get a bride who is like a slave. She is a tiny, underweight creature from a very poor family who is clearly in his house primarily as a domestic servant to look after the children and his mother, cook, clean. She has even agreed not to have her own children.

On another level, the films affirm the lives of protagonists, who have no other recognition. In the second, film Roy gives them handy-cams to document their own lives.

The fact that they allowed Roy to make these films about their lives – he ran the cuts by them before making them final, exposing many sordid and ugly details along with the humor and humanity, says something about the importance of bearing witness, of being acknowledged by others.

In some ways, the filmmaker plays the role of a psychologist, a counsellor as he films them. The protagonists talk to him about their fears and insecurities, hopes, dreams and frustrations. Roy, on his part, asks them probing questions that make them think, and they themselves figure out the answers.

Some of those answers aren’t pretty, or satisfying. But then, neither is life always.

Beena Sarwar is a journalist, editor and filmmaker, focusing on gender, media and peace issues. She is teaching a writing seminar at Brown University this fall. She tweets @beenasarwar

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