Sunday, November 2, 2014



The increasing objectification of male stars is disrupting the status quo, making some people uncomfortable while others celebrate. But does this mean gender equality is at hand?

By Anna M.M. Vetticad

Shah Rukh Khan’s naked torso caked in mud, his rippling muscles bathed in bronzed make-up, the anti-gravitational wonder of his low-rise trousers miraculously staying up, while teasing us with its revelations… If you’ve seen director Farah Khan’s Happy New Year (HNY), you know this image is not a figment of my fantasies, but a dominant visual from the film.
The past 15 years have been marked by an increasing display of the male body in mainstream Hindi cinema. With HNY though, Farah has taken the trend to a whole new level by ensuring that her heroes’ nude upper bodies overshadow even the tiny waist and endless limbs of her heroine Deepika Padukone. The objectification of the two men in the film (Shah Rukh and his perennially open-shirted or shirtless co-star Sonu Sood) is so in-your-face that it led one SRK fan to lament the exhibition of what she calls “Bollywood’s answer to cleavage” in an article on a prominent news website. The writer thought nothing though of introducing Padukone’s character in the film solely in terms of her legs. She is not alone in adopting this contradictory stance.
Why are so many people inured to skin show by a woman, but uncomfortable with a similar display of male flesh? When I discussed the double standards with friends, one gentleman in our group told us he sees nothing attractive in the six-packs paraded about by most male Bollywood stars these days. Fair enough. That’s his call. He then added though: “I don’t think even women like it.” Err… The ladies in the gang pounced on him in unison: how about letting us decide for ourselves?
So there you have it: the reason why SRK and Sood’s exhibitionism still invites comment while the pageant of bosoms, midriffs and legs from actresses worldwide is considered par for the course. Our reactions to objectification are governed by many factors, but most of all by social conditioning. All of us – men and women – have grown up on a diet of ads which use the female body to sell everything, including products for men; on films that emphasise the looks of actresses more than actors; on film industries worldwide that are prone to discard older actresses while giving actors far greater longevity, based on these notions: (a) that good looks are a bonus for male stars but essential for actresses (b) that women lose their looks early (c) that attractiveness is not necessarily a factor of age or even physical beauty for men since personality, charisma and talent count more for them.
We’re so accustomed to the misogyny intrinsic to these beliefs, that too many of us – women included – don’t question them. The increasing objectification of male stars in recent years (especially by Bollywood) has been disquieting though for the status quo-ists.
Feeling unsettled is one thing; being a hypocrite is quite another. Reacting to the spotlight on Daniel Craig’s body in Skyfall and expressing pain “from all the hours (Craig) has spent in the gym”, The Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote in 2012: “Gary Cooper in High Noon wins Grace Kelly by strength of character, not muscles. He was about 50, and Kelly was a mere 23... Maybe the best example of the unmuscled hero is Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Bogart was 15 years older than Ingrid Bergman and it did not matter at all. He had the experience, the confidence, the internal strength that can only come with age… These older men seduce; they are not seduced.”
About Craig, however, he wailed: “…he triumphs physically, not cleverly. He does not woo women; they just come on to him.” Boohoo! How blasphemous that a film should highlight a man’s physique, that women should be assertive lovers, that an older male actor should face the demands that female stars have always dealt with. Now consider what it does to regular women to be bombarded 24x7 with images of impossibly good-looking actresses, especially those defying age, many of whom are products not just of simple make-up and healthy habits but also of Botox, cosmetic surgery and so on. In such a scenario, men like Craig and SRK provide some respite by acknowledging the heterosexual female gaze (not to forget the homosexual male gaze).
Let’s not, however, claim a gender equivalence here. These men work hard on their bodies and show off the results, but they are nowhere near as many in number as their female counterparts worldwide, nor are their portrayals habitually reductive as is the case with women on celluloid. Their looks are just one aspect of the star package; they continue to dominate their films’ storylines; and we have yet to see them subjected to the kind of leering camerawork, low-brow choreography or insulting lyrics like “Main toh tandoori murgi hoon yaar, Gatkaale saiyyaan alcohol se (I’m a piece of flesh, come consume me with alcohol)” with which Bollywood’s ‘item girls’ routinely degrade themselves.
So yes, let’s offer kudos to male stars who sportingly offer themselves up for harmless objectification, but keep in mind that they operate within a power structure dominated by men. Let’s not for a moment equate the compulsions of heroines or marginal actresses with those of their male counterparts, or assume that gender equality is now at hand in film industries or elsewhere. Baby steps are always worth celebrating, so long as we remember that that’s what they are – baby steps.
(This column by Anna MM Vetticad was first published in The Hindu Businessline newspaper on November 1, 2014)
Photographs courtesy:
(1) Still from Happy New Year – Red Chillies’ Entertainment
(2) Still from Skyfall -

(1) A still from Skyfall did not run with this column in The Hindu Businessline
(2) This column should be read with an earlier article on objectification the author had written for Hindustan Times’ Brunch Special Collectors’ Edition 2013 titled “
Look Who’s Watching: Bollywood Has Finally Discovered The Female Gaze. About Time Too!”


  1. You are really becoming by day..

  2. There is one principle of a successful movie - "serve only what is liked" and people like muscular actors and slim actresses in most of the cases. When this principle is justified then comes the story, screenplay etc.