Reimagining Cultures of Masculinity in Punjab: A Review of Mardistan
Mardistan (Macholand): Reflections on Indian Manhood is a documentary directed by Harjant Gill who is a queer professor of Anthropology at Townson University, USA. In this documentary the global term of toxic masculinity has been placed in the local frame of Punjabi culture. The idea of masculinity in Punjab is dominated by the image of a hyper masculine Jat warrior. In a screening and discussion with Harjant Gill, organized by National Law School Queer Alliance, the documentary and notions of masculinity in Punjab and Punjabi culture has been unpacked and discussed. The documentary is available online for viewing here.
Unpacking Notions of Masculinity
The documentary is an attempt to unravel some of the notion that is deeply entrenched in Punjab’s conservative patriarchy. The documentary is told through the lens of four men. Gurpreet, the father of two girls, is constantly pressurised to have a son. Dhananjay is a gay man who came out to his wife after 20 years of marriage and continues to live with her, else she would be a social outcast. Writer Amandeep Sandhu describes the physical and emotional abuse he has witnessed in an elite military academy. He also brought forth his experiences of growing up in a household with a schizophrenic mother and a father who was shamed for not “disciplining” his wife. The fourth story is the story of Tarun who notions of romance are coloured by the Punjabi pop icon Honey Singh and wants to lose his virginity to show his sexual prowess. The feminist perspective in the film is brought forth by academic and theorist Nivedita Menon.
The prime reason for making the documentary, states Gill, was to re-examine the notions of masculinity that was pervading public discourse post Delhi gang rape of 2012. The media rhetoric to the Delhi gang rape was looking at masculinity in sharp binaries of either a perpetrator or an honourable man. The portrayal of men was within this sharp binary. Gill found this notion to be problematic. He says there is much more to navigating the space of masculinity, the space has many shades of grey and nuances and using this lens he portrays the men who don’t fit into the tight category of macho.
Gill picks up Punjabi culture as the site of intervention for his documentary because he has an insider perspective on this culture. Born and brought up in Chandigarh, he migrated to USA when has 14. Exposed to both the Punjabi masculinity and the western notions of being a man, he also navigated his queer identity within his framework. Hence, Gill is an insider to the culture and also an outsider at the same time due to his migrant identity.
Who is the Real Man?
Gill says the notion of patriarchal masculinity rests upon aggression and exerting control. Unless you are able to exhibit these traits a man keeps falling short of require measure of being a man. The notion of being a man rests upon hyper masculine heterosexual dominance. The standards to live up to are so impossibly high the men are constantly trying failing and feeling a lack. Gill states that the reason for drug abuse in Punjab is to make up for the lack men feel when they cannot meet up impossible standards. While this is Gill’s speculation it is backed by studies where drugs are used as a means of discharging pain. This come from a deeply entrenched notion that showing emotions is a sign of weakness and if and when men portray emotions they are disciplined by violence. Hence, they learn very early in life about the normalisation of violence and the rewards that come when they exert it.
The narrative of the men is narrated through them telling their stories to the camera. It is through their stories; the audience gets to hear their experiences, their struggles. The men are constantly navigating their masculinity in a world that is changing and shifting but the ideas of masculinity continue to be entrenched in conservative and feudal patriarchy. Through the story of Dhananjay we also learn how the LGBT movement also interferes and intervenes with these traditional notions. He is a gay man who came out to his wife. While, he balances the traditional role of being a husband and a provider, he is also navigating an identity that sharply opposes the notion of masculinity.
What Is Missing?
The documentary brings forth notions of masculinity through the voices of four men in Punjab. The documentary missed out on capturing the voices of women and the impact of masculinity on them. The only woman in the documentary is Nivedita Menon who brings in the feminist perspective. However, the narrative of the men tend to be one sided. As a viewer, for example, I wanted to know how Dhananjay’s wife navigates his identity. While Dhananjay battles with his identity in a conservative society, being a married man his wife is also impacted by his identity. To get her view on the documentary would explain how women relate to conservative notions of patriarchy and then the picture would have been complete.
As a woman and a member of the audience I wanted the voices of the women telling the viewer’s how they are impacted by the toxicity. Men are definitely and undoubtedly affected by it, women also bear the brunt of these notions as the violence and control is ultimately exerted on them.
Why it Matters?
This documentary starts an important conversation in a land which is a hotbed of masculinity starting from a martial history to enlistment in the army. In such a culture questioning and unraveling notions of masculinity is a brave step. The viewer gets to see the vulnerable side of men speaking of their difficulties of navigating roles that is assumed they will know how to carry on. The documentary brings to the forefront what it means to be a man and is it even possible to live to the impossible standards that we expect our young boys and men to live up to.
Priyanka Chakrabarty is an intern at SheThePeople