Toxic masculinity in films has become one of the hotly debated topics this year. Shahid Kapoor’s latest film Kabir Singh, the remake of Telugu hit Arjun Reddy, received scathing reviews from critics and audience alike for “glorifying” certain aspects considered to be harmful masculinity.
The top objection against the film may stem from the fact that there was no counter-point to Kabir Singh’s aggressive ways of expressing his manhood. It was a film about a deeply flawed character named Kabir Singh and the main purpose of the film was entertainment, hence it was told in a single perspective. It was a one-sided affair.
If you are looking for a more accurate depiction of toxic masculinity, in the guise of moral policing, and the devastating impact it leaves on its victims, watch Ishq, a crackling Malayalam thriller.
Ishq, as its tagline reads, is “not a love story.” It is the story of two men trying to strip each other of their treasured masculinity in front of the women they love.
Director Anuraj Manohar and writer Ratheesh Ravi take the rampant moral policing culture in Kerala to the task in a compelling but uncomfortable film.
It is Vasudha’s (Ann Sheetal) birthday. Her boyfriend Sachi (Shane Nigam) plans a day out which involves a romantic late-night drive. The road is nearly empty. It’s night-time and the couple feel safe and peaceful as the car they are travelling in provides the cover of privacy on the public road. A sensual voice on the radio is reading love messages from its listeners and playing classic romantic songs. Everything is just going fine. In fact, a little rain, as Vasudha’s wishes, could have made the day almost perfect for the couple. The romantic interlude turns into a never-ending nightmare when Sachi deviates from his course to find a secluded place, where the couple can grab a quick kiss. The couple reaches a parking spot of a hospital and what follows next is a series of claustrophobia-inducing scenes that turns your stomach thinking about the amorality of the very idea of moral policing.
Alwin (Shine Tom Chacko) represents aggressive patriarchy that asserts its supremacy through domination and violence. Sachi belongs to the subgenre of patriarchy as his male supremacy feels like a controlled burn unlike Alwin’s, which rages like a wildfire.
What’s more baffling is Alwin’s ignorance of the cruelty that he commits on his victims. He believes that he showed kindness to Vasudha and Sachi. He keeps reminding the couple that the situation could have been worse if they were caught by others. Just take a minute to digest his view of kindness. He barges into a private car, invades privacy and terrorises a couple and still, he thinks he is qualified to claim a moral high ground. How broken are we as a society?
Alwin draws his power from the fact that Sachi or Vasudha won’t cry for help as they are worried that the public might join forces with their harassers and further endanger their safety.
When Sachi gets his turn to assert his masculinity, he invades the privacy of Alwin’s home. He tries to mimic everything that Alwin did to him and his girlfriend by gradually but firmly intruding the personal space of Alwin’s wife Mariya (Leona Lishoy). The rights of women are the first casualty in the contest of masculinity.
Sachi’s sense of justice and righteousness is as broken as Alwin’s. He thinks he is right in giving Alwin a taste of his own medicine. He feels it was the “minimum punishment” that he could hand over to Alwin. Maybe Sachi thinks he was kind to his harasser, the same way Alwin was to his victims.
Sachi did not seek revenge against Alwin for terrorising Vasudha. He would have probably let the incident slide if Vasudha had told Sachi what happened between her and Alwin when he was locked out of the car. He was more concerned about Vasudha’s chastity that he did not even ask her “if she was doing okay” after a terror-inducing episode. The source of Sachi’s vengeance is his sense of ownership on Vasudha. Not the quest to teach a wrong man a right lesson.
Ishq is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.