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Mardistan: Four men talk about masculinity in Harjant Gill’s film

Harjant Gill turned the camera on Punjabi men and asked them to talk about masculinity in his film, Mardistan.

A still from the film A still from the film.

A frequently asked question leaves filmmaker Harjant Gill fumbling. An Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Towson University in Maryland, USA, he often finds himself standing in front of a frowning face that wants to know, “What is wrong with Indian men, why are they raping their women?” To give an answer, one would have to wade through a quagmire of sociocultural history that informs, and complicates, what being a man in India means. Gill decided on a more direct approach —  he had four men face the camera and describe their ideas of masculinity. The result is Mardistan (Macholand), a 28-minute film by Delhi-based organisation Public Services Broadcasting Trust (PSBT), in which remnants of feudal stereotypes share an uneasy space with modern realities such as the coming-of-age of the gay movement in India.

Gill made Punjab the site of study because “from colonial times, Punjabi masculinity has been held up as an exemplar, physically at least”. “What is frustrating is that in most discussions about sexual violence, there is almost no discourse about masculinity. To be a man, it seems, one must protect his wife or his girlfriend and I found this problematic. I wanted a film that offered a more critical investigation,” he says. Gill was born in India and lived here till his family migrated to the US when he was 14, exposing him to the different definitions of masculinity in India and the West. The 32-year-old’s comments have emerged in earlier films such as Milind Soman Made Me Gay, about his own gay awakening, and Lot’s Wife, a story of two gay men in Turkey.

The opening scene of Mardistan seals the film’s intention — the camera pans on writer Amandeep Sandhu as he says, “While growing up, I realised there were certain kinds of men I would not like to become. I would not like to become an uncle of mine who would beat my mother up. I would not like to become seniors of mine who would define themselves by sodomising their juniors, I would not like to pull a gun on somebody because I have had a gun pulled on me.” Sandhu doesn’t only give an insight into the presence of violence in a boy’s upbringing but also stresses his rejection of it. The other men have also broken free in many ways — engineer Gurpreet Singh recalls how his parents favoured him over his sisters even as he hugs his twin daughters and declares that he doesn’t want a boy. Tarun, who the filmmaker expected to be a “lafanga, chheroing girls around Punjabi University”, turns out to be a mufti-clad biker reeling under the peer pressure to lose his virginity.

“When you talk to them, you realise that some of these guys, even when they are performing this hyper-masculinity, are so unsure and insecure about what is it to be a man,” says Gill. As the men, and one woman expert, Nivedita Menon, share their opinions on camera, they also expose prejudices through references to female foeticide and how many men feel that women are to blame for sexual assault “because they stay out late”.

Gill’s study of masculinity wouldn’t be complete without the experience of Dhananjay, a social activist. “When I told my wife I was gay, she replied, ‘I don’t need my husband to be manly, I need him to be a kind human being’,” he says. Dhananjay must act as the “man” of the house and cannot divorce his wife because “society blames a woman for a bad marriage”. Against a backdrop of sexual liberation — Dhananjay is open about his gay status — is a man’s age-old duty of a provider.

As Dhanajay recounts his experiences, the camera once slides over a calendar picture of a god in the room, leaving the label of pati parmeshwar hanging unsaid over the scene. Such visual treatments are frequent and add layers to the film, especially since Gill uses an anthropologist’s academic approach of clean shots and precise interviews. “These are snapshots of experiences you don’t hear in the film,” says Gill.

Mardistan follows Roots of Love, about the turban as a rite of passage, and is likely to be followed by a film, tentatively titled Sent-Away Boys on Punjabi men migrating to foreign countries almost as a growing-up ritual.

Mardistan will be screened on September 2 at IIC as part of Open Frame Festival.

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