Reejan naal khadkaune aan ni, peg, daang te vairi nu (I relish clinking glasses, clacking my wooden staff and belting my rivals). Regular ‘man stuff’ from a recent Punjabi hit, German Gun, that has 114K YouTube likes and counting. Guns, flashy cars and drooling women is how “real men” in countless Punjabi songs roll. And when they are challenged, they respond.
On September 11, this unruly gender-role script almost set off a public brawl between two Punjabi singers — Elly Mangat and Rami Randhawa — on the streets of Mohali. While one flew all the way from Canada to settle scores, the other waited for him at home, as promised. Both vowed not to stop until the other cried uncle. Young fans, with little supervision, turned up to display strength in numbers. Finally, the Punjab Police prevented an escalation. Randhawa has since regretted using unprintable profanities against Mangat in expressing his prudential concern for Punjabi culture and values which, he felt, were under attack. And Mangat has alleged torture by Punjab Police, who have come out looking as the real tough guys.
It is the only thing remotely funny about a spat supposedly triggered over an aggressive pursuit of crimes against Punjabi culture. But if you pluck away all the layers, at the core lies a cult of hypermasculinity bandied about with ferocity of a foghorn by the Punjabi music industry — the country’s biggest player in the business of non-film music.
Consider the portrait of a ‘man’s man’ Mangat sketches in his songs that run with titles like Affair, Daku, Gunda Touch, Hardcore, Show off, Thug Life, Savage Bande, Shikar and Kartoos Anthem, among others.
This man is someone who claims to be a fan of lethal weapons since Class 5 (Panjvi class to aan fan gun de). A hunk who has had breakups because he puts his guy friends, who are like Ak-47s (Yaar ‘47’ Jehe), above everyone else (Iss gal to affair kinne tut gaye, munda top utte rakhda aye yaaran nu). He is a criminal that a girl must stay away from (Apradhi tera yaar kude, tu reh range to baar kude). Who counts his drinks not in humble ‘pegs’, but bottles (Do-tin botlan gadich karde). Who enjoys his sulfa (cannabis) and nagni (opium). Who is averse to women, who are all over him, but loves his cars (Naaran to parhez, caran da craze) and buys a new set of wheels every second day (Shonki munda teeje din car badle). And of course, it all adds up to the final assertion of manhood – ‘Hardcore Jat Poora Mafia’ . And Mangat is not the only one.
While it would be an unfair leap to suggest that Punjabi pop/rap injected hypermasculinity into the Punjabi society, it certainly did put a beat to it. With music as the central cultural vehicle, these songs have been holding up an unhealthy ideal of manhood as a life vision to many boys and men. It is a model that presents only two responses — aggression and anger — as a stylised way of social interaction in a man’s world. Hit back, when hit. When hurt, hurt back. Pind sarpanch vi matha onu teke ni, thokan laga na sing agga-pichha vekhe ne (Even the sarpanch bows to him, he doesn’t care for consequences before beating up his rivals). The song Badnam by Mankirt Aulakh goes on to glamourise a boy buying a stolen gun, drinking “neat” at a wedding, and spilling blood on the dance floor in an apparent fight over a girl. Another one by Sidhu Moose Wala, declares: Goli badle, goli milu, hisab sadde sidhe aa ni, Jat da muqabala das kithe aa ni (A bullet for a bullet, our rules of engagement are clear. Who can measure up to this Jat, you tell me). These and other macho fantasies in popular songs frown upon curbing the urge to retaliate in anything and everything.
In 2017, gangster Babli Randhawa purportedly bragged about brutal killing of a rival in FB Live set to the tune of a popular song. “Main ni kenda mere kolon bhul hoi aa, ho layi e ladai appan mull hoi aa (My act is not a mistake. I have earned this rivalry),” he sings along, asserting: “Poore hosh vich maare fire Jat ne (I fired in my senses)”. Moments like these matter most in seeing the blurry lines where pop machismo and criminality merge to dangerously fill purpose-void for men, culturally baptised in the ‘ankhi soorma’(vainglorious braveheart) archetype.
Beyond celebrating deviant behaviour in bristly verbal jibes, most songs also subject women to subordinate roles. In this script of hypermasculintiy, the men are Byronic tailchasers and the only roles for women are either smitten accomplices (Mom, Dad puchde munde di degree, ki dasan 8 chalde tere te parche — My parents ask about the boy’s education, how do I tell them you’re named in 8 FIRs) or gun-totting “bro-chicks” (Jatti Jeone Morh (a celebrated dacoit) Di Bandook Wargi). In the end, what’s put out in the world as entertainment is textbook toxic masculinity — suppressing everything associated with the feminine and putting everything macho on a pedestal. An all out act to prove dominance.
It is no surprise then that when this ‘tough guy’ infatuated with extreme power and economic success crashes against the wall of reality, medicating the pain with substance abuse or picking petty fights over personal slights to prove being ‘man-enough’ are choices he finds hard to resist.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 14, 2019, under the title ‘Mistaken Identity’. Write to the author at saurabh.kapoor@expressindia.
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