Why Feminists Must Appreciate Small Town Masculinities in Films Like Chaman Bahar
The Bambaiyya struggle stories, larger than life biographies, the lifestyles of the metro rich and their expensive romances in holiday destinations and foreign locations, and the everyday lives of the middle classes in big cities have been the major themes of Bollywood cinema in recent times. Small towns and rural landscapes have disappeared, unless in the context of biographies like Dangal, Paan Singh Tomar, Mary Kom and Bajrangi Bhaijaan or comedic satires such as PK. In this backdrop, Chaman Bahar comes as a breath of fresh air, a simple story about a small town in North India, with a pace of its own and characters who are real and nuanced. Apurva Dhar Badgaiyann, the Director, has mentioned in his interviews that the story of Chaman Bahar came to him through a friend, apart from his own experiences of having lived in Chhattisgarh. We feel like we have met these characters in real life; we know a Billu, Chhotu, Somu, Ashu, Shila, Kaptan Bhaiyya (the teacher who thinks his Hindi is bad, till you hear his English) and the Nanoriya family, including Rinku.
In this piece, we want to respond to some reviews that have dismissed Chaman Bahar as a film as another version of ‘toxic masculinity’. We want to start with the caveat that all films are the filmmakers’ version of storytelling, and we must engage with what the content is and not what the content could be, or content that was not. It bothers us that anything and everything is being labelled as toxic masculinity without unpacking the term itself. Among its many definitions, Terry Kupers defines toxic masculinity as “the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence.” This film or its characters certainly do not merit that description. Moreover, masculinity theorists like Raewyn Connell have systematically challenged the idea of typical hegemonic masculinity, instead allowing us to think through alternative frames of masculinity that allow for a more intersectional analysis of men’s behaviour and actions.
Chaman Bahar is a delightful film set in a small town, Lormi, in Mungeli district of Chhattisgarh; a vignette of a semi-urban life at the turn of the century. We reflected on why we found the film hilarious in most parts, and the film invites that moment of self-reflection from its audiences. Are the dialogues funny, or does the context, language and vocabulary look alien, or could it be that the characters are so real that we laugh in recognition of the bits of our own lives and everyday encounters portrayed on screen? Perhaps all of these. A Madhesi-Nepali academic friend from London had drawn our attention to this film, and she said she could relate to the story so well, as something that had been part of her own life experiences in Nepal. There is a familiarity that makes this film endearing and funny at the same time. It holds the mirror to us and also makes us uncomfortable at the same time as we encounter a tale of small-town lives and the aspirational youth. We escaped those conditions, as will Rinku Nanoriya, but there is very little hope for those young men in Lormi to move out and chart out respectable, alternative lives and careers.
The first few minutes of the film where the moped is moving at 25 km per hour in front of Billu, aka Prem Kumar Yadav’s, paan shop is an indication of the pace. The sheer boredom of Billu’s life (and the entire town actually) is broken by the arrival of a Government officer’s family with a teenage girl, Rinku, across the street from his paan shop. He is fascinated by the pretty schoolgirl, who drives a scooty, wears shorts and sunglasses. But he is not the only one. The novelty of the English speaking girl in town who drives a two-wheeler around attracts the attention of all the young men and teenage boys in the town, and they make Billu’s paan shop their adda or hang out place. Rinku is, mostly, oblivious to Billu as she is to the ruckus at his paan shop opposite her house. The film revolves around Billu and his attempts to remove fellow competitors to win over Rinku’s attention and affection. He schemes with alacrity and small-town wisdom, but things do not go according to his plans and his dreams are crushed. Rinku’s family moves out of Lormi and Billu returns to his paan shop.
There is nothing in that town other than petty small-town politics, small businesses and low-level government jobs for the young men who assemble at Billu’s paan shop. The arrival of a circus or fair, the shooting of a film or the visit of a national-level political leader may break the monotony of life in these towns. In Chaman Bahar it is Rinku’s arrival, literally announcing the arrival of spring (bahar) in the garden (chaman) of small-town life. Billu creates and lives in a fantasy world in which he falls in love with Rinku. That fantasy feels so real to him; he sees every man as a competitor and proceeds to take them out one by one. This fantasy world comes crashing down soon enough, Billu realises his mistake and apologises to the parents of Rinku. What is the high point of his life when Rinku’s family leaves town? He finds Rinku’s sketch of him standing at his paan shop. He frames it and hangs it in his shop. It is good enough for him that she registered his existence. Another attraction may be a girl maybe not, is round the corner, as a new family moves into the now-vacant house.
The film has invited feminist scrutiny and criticism, and we wish to address those concerns here. Some reviewers have complained that Rinku does not get to speak in the film which marks an erasure of the female voice. But Rinku is not the subject of the film! To those familiar with small-town contexts, they will immediately relate to the men and masculinity in this film. One must also remember that the DFO’s (Divisional Forest Officer) son does not have a single word in the film, although he is an important character. His class sets him apart from the rest of the young men. To us, it seemed perfectly appropriate that Rinku does not speak, not only to underline the class difference but also to bring out her exalted status in the eyes of the men who do all the talking. Moreover, the film is about the activities around the paan shop, Billu’s home, his life and a public space like the police station where there was no need for Rinku to speak or even to be present.
There are criticisms about the objectification of Rinku who is being chased by every other man in the film. Unless we want to see screen adaptations of scripts that show men and women in evolved feminist spaces and relationships alone, the criticism is unfair. In Chaman Bahar, at no point do we get a sense that Rinku feels threatened by all the attention she is receiving and appears like a confident young teenager who is probably aware of all the attention but in a peripheral way. Neither is she prevented by her parents from going to school nor from riding her scooty because of the adda at the paan shop. It is also interesting to note that Lormi does not have outstanding schools as Rinku goes to the same local school with some of the boys who assemble at the paan shop. Her class difference does not translate into better educational facilities; the teacher (also infatuated with her) speaks poor English and references are made to the convent school of Bilaspur, the next big town.
The charges of toxic masculinity can hardly stick to the male characters in this film because absolutely no one in the film mustered enough courage to say so much as a word to the girl. Billu does drop off the I love you card at her doorstep, but does not own the act when enquiries are made by Rinku’s father and by the policeman. Despite rampant sexual violence against women and girls in small towns across India, and male entitlements, class, remains a significant barrier to cross in most cases. It is not always possible for men of lower classes to approach the object of their desire and express themselves. Lower class and status, poor English language proficiency, and the rustic upbringing of the boys is a sharp contrast to the ‘outsider’ status of the girl who till the end remains unreachable and unapproachable. When Billu goes to her house to thank her parents for paying his bail money, Rinku brings him a cup of tea and Billu is not even able to look her in the eye. Staring from a distance, feeling one-sided love, or having normal desires is not exactly toxic masculinity.
The main story has many subplots to be noticed and appreciated in this film. Is there anyone in India who has not seen a heart drawn on a rock or a pillar with the names of lovers engraved in it? In a social world where men and women interact in severely restricted spaces, announcing your love is an act of defiance. As is the desire to name the girl who doesn’t reciprocate. In Chaman Bahar, Billu pays a heavy price for acting out his frustration and anger. He also makes the audience feel uncomfortable with his actions and is severely thrashed, humiliated and jailed briefly for it. If anyone demonstrates toxic masculinity, it is Bhadoriya, the police inspector who beats up the men and runs ‘Operation Majnu’ or a form of moral policing to target young men, as we are informed. We know how problematic moral policing of love affairs or romance in India can be.
Billu had given up the job of a forest guard to become a paan shop owner; wanting to make a name for himself. Billu’s relationship with his father, who is disappointed in him but hopes to sort out his life by getting him married, is another nuance in the film. The sensitive father who works as a chowkidar in the Forest Office, cooks and cares for the boy who had lost his mother at an early age. Billu’s one confidante is the Sadhu Baba who supplies chillum to the boys. There is a poignant moment in the film alluding to the class difference when Billu tells the Baba about the birthday celebrations of his father’s boss’ son that he was not allowed to attend. Poor Billu wailed, and his mother arranged a biscuit cake with candles for him with the neighbourhood kids in attendance. When Bhadoriya asks him ma behen nahin hai, almost rhetorically, Billu’s defiant answer tugs at the heartstrings. Nahin hai sir, he says truthfully.
The Babaji is another interesting male character who became a mendicant after his love interest, Ramkali deserted him. Baba had her name tattooed on his chest. He is always full of wisdom and lends a sympathetic ear to Billu, who also performs his last rites when Babaji dies suddenly. Rinku’s father is a typical government official, but he is also not pleased with the excesses of Bhadoriya and goes to rescue Billu from the police station. He seems like a progressive father, who does not police his daughter. Not a lot of men belonging to his class and status in small towns would allow the same freedom to their girl children. The local woman politician, Shila’s mother, who is a contender for political space along with other men in this small town, suggests the varied lives of women as well.
The boys of the town who are not yet men in any sense are always looking for some excitement and adventure; we get no sense of their education as most are possibly school dropouts. The two men, Chhotu and Somu who call each other ‘daddy’ attach themselves to anyone they think is stronger, wealthier or more privileged than the previous one. In the very last encounter we see between Chhotu, Somu and Billu, they talk about pool games at Shila’s place and invite Billu to join them. They have dropped the daddy epithet and are using bhancha instead. We also see them paying off their dues to Billu. In fact, it is heartening to see that none of the local strongmen with some power and clout through their families, politics or business connections, like Shila, Ashu exploit the local paan wala, Billu. They always pay him and clear their dues, sometimes even paying him in advance. The local economy thrives on the goodwill, and even though Chhotu and Somu are traditional muftkhors (freeloaders), surviving on credit, they manage to retain their integrity in the end by paying off Billu.
Some Reviewers of Chaman Bahar have compared the film to Kabir Singh for several reasons, and this comparison is misleading. Kabir Singh is located in a cosmopolitan urban contemporary context. In Kabir Singh, the protagonist is wealthy and training to be a doctor and in the course of the film becomes a surgeon as well. In contrast, Billu of Chaman Bahar is the son of a government office chowkidar, who aspires to nothing more than to own a small paan shop in his rundown town. Perhaps, the only thing that connects the two films is that both are love stories, in a manner of speaking. There the similarity ends. Kabir Singh is framed as a hot-headed violent person given to extreme reactions from the beginning. Preeti, his love interest, is a participant in their romance. The intensity of their feelings for each other and the recklessness with which they live out their affair is captured in the film. Kabir goes on a downward spiral of alcohol and drugs when the romance doesn’t work out. There are also redeeming features to the man, and while we would be cautious to not dismiss Kabir Singh as a film about male toxicity alone, we think the comparison with Billu of Chaman Bahar is like chalk and cheese.
There are any number of Bollywood films that reek of ‘male toxicity’ and masculinity. Agnishakshi (a remake of the Hollywood film, ‘Sleeping with the Enemy’), Darr, Baazigar, Anjaam, Dabangg, Singham, in recent years have been applauded by audiences and critics alike. With male entitlements, six-pack muscles, violent fight scenes, sexist dialogues, bare-bodied women in item dances and little screen time for women, most films would not qualify as progressive. When we turn the clock backwards, we find many male, ‘progressive’ filmmakers, having left behind films endorsing masculinist world views and patriarchal controls of women’s lives and bodies. Films made by Raj Kapoor (Sangam, Ram Teri Ganga Maili ), Guru Dutt (Mr and Mrs 55, Chaudavin ka Chand) Manoj Kumar (Purab Aur Paschim, Sanyasi) and even Gulzar (Ijazat, Andhi) and Govind Nihalani (Akrosh) are deeply masculinist and problematic.
Contemporary films that appear to be progressive may present women of higher classes who enjoy sexual freedom, job, status and are able to access the vocabularies that were earlier restricted to men. Women in some films have been shown to have sexual partners on equal terms, can verbally abuse like men, be violent and can also demand sexual pleasure, challenging conventional gender norms and roles. Same-sex relationships are also getting more attention. All of this was unthinkable in the past. However, these cannot be the only signs of progressive feminist films, and emulating masculinist traits and behaviour cannot be the only measure of women’s liberation and gender equality in a country with so much multilayered inequalities and discrimination.
Chaman Bahar offers great insights to those of us invested in feminist politics and in efforts to empathetically understand and unpack the multiple masculinities that exist in small towns. These men are active players in society and polity today and demonstrate great cultural anxiety and disconnect with the urban rich and middle classes. Men like Billu, Chhotu, Somu and Magnet are also the ones who eventually may even choose to migrate out for better opportunities and lives. Destiny might take them to the metro cities, where they become the nameless, faceless, bhaiyyajis, judged continuously, ridiculed, erased and lost in the inequalities and fast pace of city lives where only the privileged get to tell their stories.
A feminist critique of films should not end up delegitimising or criminalising love, romance, passion and sexual desire. This film is a brilliant entry point to understand small-town men, their aspirations and unpack the alternative masculinities in place. Badgaiyann and the terrific actors of this film, themselves from these small-town milieus who are migrants in the cinema world of Bombay, have done us a favour through this nuanced storytelling which reconnects us to parts of India that do not feature in our imagination and narratives. In summary, Chaman Bahar is a heartwarming tale, an audiovisual journey into the world of small aspirations, desires, challenges and unrequited love that breaks the monotony of small-town life. It is funny, it is silly, and the characters are real for us to recognise and engage with.
Swati Parashar is Associate Professor at the School of Global Studies, Gothenburg University, Sweden. Prabha Rani is Associate Professor, Department of History, Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi.
Picture Credit: Netflix
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