Body banao, Bollywood jao! Are 6-packs more bankable than acting talent?

Is the role of the 6-pack more desirable and bankable in B-town than the actor's talent and acting prowess?

Representative image
Representative image

Monojit Lahiri

During a brief conversation with the charming late, Khullam-Khulla star Rishi Kapoor a decade ago at Delhi’s Siri Fort – in connection with some Film Fest event – we were discussing the difference between male stars, old and new. I mentioned the manic interest in physique and muscles in the new kids and told him how one of Hollywood’s early screen legends, Doug Fairbanks considered the world, not a stage – but a gym! The garrulous and extrovert Kapoor laughed long and loud. His elder brother Randhir, talking on the same subject with typical Kapoor wit, insisted that “We seem to be breeding a generation of stuntmen rather than actors. Soon there will be little acting left and more testesterone-babas floating around!”

Looking back, the Kapoor brothers had a point. Muscles are no longer the exclusive terrain of Dara Singh or He-man Dharam and in recent times, (the nineties) Suneil Shetty and Akshay Kumar seemed to have hit that button real hard, which exploded along the way. Actually, male bodies celebrating macho-giri in B-town has always been there. Shammi Kapoor, Dharam, Vinod Khanna, Big B were action heroes but the obsession for the 6-pack hadn’t arrived. Why? Because both, the manufacturers and consumers of the Bollywood fantasy earlier were more into romance, drama, songs, emotions, conflicts of the heart than flashing biceps.

Bollywood-trackers point towards Salman Khan’s shirtless number in Maine Pyar Kiya as the precursor to this virus. Today it is Bhai’s calling card, a trademark, a must-insert scene, eagerly awaited by his zillion fans and greeted with collective ceeties & taalis! SRK’s Om Shanti Om and Aamir’s Ghajini, got the other two Khans to join the party and this phenomenon caught fire.

Over time, John, Akki, Ajay, Hrithik, Emraan and gang muscled in, prompting an amused director to confide that “every time I ask a new actor about his prep for the role, he confidently answers with "Gym regularly jaata hoon Sir!" What happened? Why aren’t our great actors perceived as role models and inspirational touch-points? Why is the magic of screen-acting and emoting hi-jacked by body building?!

Social Scientist Ashish Nandy believes it is “a sociological backlash. The female gaze forever kept under tight wraps through social conditioning has finally cut loose and found confidence through education, media exposure, financial independence but most importantly, through a more liberated life-style in new-age India. The result is an enthusiastic and long overdue desire to express their hidden need to drool and enjoy the male body as an object of desire! Simply translated, it means that the earlier baggage of shyness, guilt, shame and embarrassment has been now brazenly slung out and replaced by a normal, healthy hormonal rush every time a sexy Johnny boy, Akshay or Salman Khan flashes flesh!”

Director Tarun Mansukhani (who was responsible for John Abraham’s deadly exposure in Dostana) believes that cinema is a visual medium and presentation is the key. “It makes total sense to get your hero look as sexy as your heroine. I wanted them to be perceived as hot hunks, admired and wowed by guys and get the girls to hit that raging hormones button!”

Author Shobhaa De goes along and takes it even further. “I love the idea of male actors being objectified and finally Bhagwan ne meri sun lee. Eye-candy thrills, over generations, has been boringly lopsided. The shirtless dude has restored the balance. It’s the equivalent of the fabled wet-sari routine!”

Sneha Anand however begs to differ. The Mumbai-based documentary film maker believes that, “while school and college students along with young women may salivate over the great parade of male bodies, they are totally replaceable because they are gym-manufactured; assembly line stuff. A Nawaz/Pankaj/Manoj/Ayushmann... they are irreplaceable. Remember, like Bimbos, Himbos too have a short shelf life and as for the acting part, we won’t even go there!”

So at the end of the day, while Arnie and Sly have indeed got an entire generation to zoom towards the gym, other critical areas that go to make an actor, seem to be dumped.

A memorable performance is about understanding, assimilating, interpreting and claiming ownership of a role to make it your own. Invest it with layers that power it with verisimilitude. Sure, a good body is great but movies are neither ramp-shows nor Akhara–competitions. Dazzling the eye is one thing. Romancing the heart is another. What better way to conclude this piece than returning to what the late Chintu Baba was reported to have said “Yaar, 6-pack facial muscles or expressions ke upar bhi galti se, focus karo. Tarzan ka film to nahi bana rahe, na??”

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