Within the first 20 minutes of Satyajit Ray’s popular Feluda film, Joi Baba Felunath (1979), Lalmohan Ganguli (Santosh Dutta) has an epiphany. The troika, Feluda (Soumitra Chatterjee), Lalmohan Ganguli and Topshe (Siddhartha Chatterjee) have just returned to their dormitory in Varanasi after a day of sightseeing. As soon as they walk in, their attention is drawn to the fourth occupant of the room, a bodybuilder. The man has just had a shower and has a lungi wrapped around his waist. Droplets of water glisten on his bare torso, as he dries himself. The pecs, the cuts, the immaculate V of the torso — Lalmohanbabu’s eyes light up like he is seeing a strange and beautiful beast for the first time. Lalmohanbabu, the bungling, rotund novelist with a penchant for exaggeration, is the prototype of the Bengali everyman. He has probably never seen the inside of a gym in his life, nor stood bare-bodied in front of the mirror, and here he is, confronted with the aesthetic possibilities of the human body. Like Bengali tourists touching the walls of Taj Mahal, he wants to ensure the biceps are for real. “Uri baba! E toh manusher gaaye haath dicchi bole monei hochche na moshai ! (Wow! It doesn’t seem like I am touching a human being),” he says.
Indeed, before air-conditioned gyms took over every street corner of Kolkata, Siliguri, Durgapur, Burdwan, Purulia and their more distant suburbs, before Tollywood matinee idols like Jeet and Dev dared to go shirtless in choreographed fight sequences, a well-sculpted body was a trick of nature for most Bengalis. And Manohar Aich, who became the second Indian to win the Mr Universe title in 1952, was the biggest and the most long-standing trick.
Earlier this month, the 104-year-old Aich breathed his last. In the 1950s, Aich, at 4ft 11in, became a household name in Bengal and was nicknamed Pocket Hercules. Roughly around the same time, another embodiment of Bengali masculinity, Uttam Kumar, started making it to the covers of popular Bengali tabloids like Ulto Rath. Him of the pearly whites and buttoned-up kurta. For generations of swooning Bengali women and men, Kumar, who never went shirtless on screen, was the man.
Film magazines and newspapers were splashed with pictures of him doing regular Bengali things like devouring fish cutlets on film sets, performing Lakshmi puja with his partner in spotless white kurtas and looking his sexiest best, with a cigarette dangling from his lips.
While pictures of Kumar adorned the walls of most youngsters’ rooms, Aich and Monotosh Roy were deified in akharas and gyms. A college-going, Charminar-puffing, Karl Marx-quoting Bengali youth had very little interest in body-building, for he was brought up to believe that his marksheet and his poetry-reading skills would get him all the action that he needed, which basically meant holding hands and walking down Park street.
“Boys weren’t encouraged to be bodybuilders. I don’t think most people want their children to be body builders even now,” Manohar Aich had said in an interview to The Indian Express when he turned 100.
In his memoir, Jibansmriti, Rabindranath Tagore wrote about morning wrestling lessons in childhood. However, when it came to sexualising the male body, Bengalis remained prudish. Tota Roy Chaudhury, one of the very few actors from the Bengali film industry with a sculpted body, talks about how it got him nowhere when he started his career. “Till the 2000s, actors who worked on their body were cast as negative characters. They would never get lead roles. If you are jobless enough to work on your body, you had to be a gunda or a freak,” says Tota. The change happened sometime in the mid 2000s, feels Tota, when the six-pack fever took over Bollywood. “Suddenly, there were gyms in every para. That’s when all youngsters started enrolling in gyms,” says Tota. The Lalmohanbabus of Bengal finally started looking at the mirror.
At Bishnu Manohar Aich’s Fitness Centre & Multigym in north Kolkata, a portrait of Aich showing off his biceps, hangs right at the entrance. Managed by Aich’s youngest son, Manoj, the centre boasts of more than a 100 regular trainees and many more in the waiting line.
Inside, boys sporting undercuts and designers beards sweat it out in treadmills and multi benches, unabashed in their body love. “Can you imagine the kind of adulation he would have got had he won the Mr Universe title in this era?” asks Manoj.