The popularity of the Indian male body has increased in recent years, thanks to its commodification via the Internet. The Web has offered Indian cultural producers the opportunity to export hetero-normative Indian masculinity—specifically the physically imposing, light-skinned prototype now common in Indian films, television and advertising--to global consumers.
As a result, the Indian male body, inscribed with the country's nationalistic ambitions and symbolic of a hetero-sexualized hypermasculinity, has gained significant traction on the Web, facilitated by pirated online films, fan forums and social media. More importantly, it has helped to create a homogenized version of Indian masculinity that seemingly erases cultural borders and regional differences, replacing them with a Eurocentric ideal of how Indian men should look. Thanks to this exporting, Indian masculinity has now been successfully commodified across the global marketplace. This essay will attempt to highlight how the cultural production of hetero-normative Indian masculinity has changed in the digital era and why commodification of the sexualized Indian male body has become transnationally viable.
In a Web video circulated on YouTube, "Facebook and Orkut, Tamil film star Suriya1 explains the importance of his six-pack abs to fans around the world." In the interview, the actor—switching between English and Tamil—notes the benefits and hazards of a strenuous workout plan that has made him one of the most chiseled actors in Kollywood and an international sex symbol to large diasporic populations in countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.
In the Web chat, "Suriya urges his fans to have healthy diets and not overdo their exercise," comments on YouTube, posted from around the world, reflected his fans adulation, with some noting that his dedication to his body made him a "true Tamil actor." Suriya isn't the only actor whose chiseled body has become an international commodity for consumption. Bollywood actors such as Shahrukh Khan, Aamir Khan, and John Abraham, to name just a few, are instantly becoming digital transnational celebrities, with videos and images of their shirtless torsos saturating internationally consumed Web sites and legions of fans creating social media pages in their honor. Highlighting the exportability of the Indian male body, one film critic gushed that the transformation of Indian actors into digital sex icons signified that "the time has come for the perfect torso, almost Grecian in appeal, the chiseled body, almost martial in appeal. But the face softly lit, almost beautiful. Masculinity seems to have turned a corner" (Bhattacharya, 2007). The "new" Indian masculinity embodied through the Bollywood and Kollywood stars serves as a celebrity testimonial for young Indians to consume in the form of gym memberships and skin lightening creams (Wax, 2008; Naval-Shetye, 2011).
The increased desirability of Indian male actors as international commodities paradoxically converges with the rise of nationalism in Indian popular culture, as many Indians across socioeconomic lines have enjoyed (figuratively if not tangibly) the country's economic rise over the past decade. Contrasting what Derne (2000) concludes in his study of Indian masculinity during the Indian independence movement and the years following independence, sexuality has become intertwined with normative, nationalistic Indian male identity. And through the rise of the Indian male star across global markets, this sexualization only fuels consumption of Indian masculinity. Actors such as Suriya, Shah Rukh Khan and Abraham are just a few of India's "consumable heroes," whose star quality in Indian films is globally exported for the primary purpose of attracting international consumption of Indian cultural texts (Deshpande, 2005).
More importantly, their bodies and sexualized masculinity conform to what Mayer (2000) calls the "heteronormative male project," an attempt by Indian cultural industries—indirectly in concert with the Indian state—to create an idealized Indian masculinity for international consumption. This global commodification of Indian masculinity, notably the Indian male body, has been accelerated in an era of globalization and increased foreign investment in the cultural industries, notably the film industry, over the past decade. The Web has offered Indian cultural producers, as well as the foreign companies that have made forays into the Indian media and cultural marketplace, the opportunity to cheaply and more rapidly export hetero-normative Indian masculinity–specifically the physically imposing, light-skinned prototype now common in Indian films, television and advertising–to global consumers.
Consequently, the Indian male body, inscribed with the country's nationalistic ambitions and symbolic of a hetero-sexualized hypermasculinity, has gained significant traction on the Web, facilitated by pirated online films, fan forums and social media. This essay will attempt to highlight how the cultural production of hetero-normative Indian masculinity has changed in the digital era and why the sexualized Indian male body has become a lucrative commodity in the global marketplace.
Localizing the Global: Importing Standards, Exporting Bodies
Before showing how the Web has helped to expedite the commodification of Indian masculinity, it is important to understand the evolution of Indian male identity in cultural texts, particularly its transformation to heteronormative and hypersexual over the past decade. One of the primary factors in influencing mediated representations of Indian masculinity was British colonialism, which, as Birch et. al (2001) note, imposed upon colonized people a standard of "acceptable" male and female appearance and behavior. More importantly, it normalized patriarchy and created an ideal predicated upon heteronormativity and puritanical notions of sexuality. As Derne (2000) observes, the Gandhian approach to masculinity was based on the notion that the West was weaker than India because Westerners lacked self-control. Gandhi himself tried to showcase this self-control by reportedly sleeping next to naked women. Derne argues that Indian men—particularly in the North—began to embrace body-building and sexual abstinence to showcase their willpower and masculinized nationalism. Though Derne's argument is flawed when juxtaposed against the time period of Indian cinema (when male actors did not necessarily reflect Eurocentric standards of masculinity), he does make valid assertions about the importance of sexuality and physicality in the early development of a nationalized male identity in postcolonial India.
In the 1970s, popular Hindi films—which later became part of the cultural industry known as Bollywood - focused on representing masculinity as anti-authoritarian yet ideally nationalistic. The "angry young man" image championed by "Bollywood film star Amitabh Bachchan (who, at 6-foot-2, towered over many of his counterparts)" corresponded with feelings of anger against the government of Indira Gandhi, who imposed a state of emergency that severely restricted Indian freedom of expression (Banerjea, 2005). Bachchan would influence a generation of everyman heroes in Indian films, including Hindi actors such as Anil Kapoor, Jackie Shroff and Ajay Devgan; Malayali actors Mammootty and Mohanlal; and Tamil actors Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth. These male actors embodied an underdog masculinity (often in the form of a sympathetic villain or criminal) intertwined with moral patriarchal masculinity and nationalism. Indeed, in films such as the Bachchan's Sholay (1975) and Tamil classic Nayagan (1987) starring Kamal Haasan, the male leads were depicted as complex and flawed. Yet these characters embodied the struggles of many working-class Indians left behind by years of state corruption and socioeconomic discrimination (Banerjea, 2005). Ironically, Indian filmmakers often took creative chances and challenged political hierarchies because they were not bound to the state or to the monopolized business sector; instead, many of India's top film producers were tied to the black money from organized crime, which, as Chopra (2007) observes, reflected in sympathetic renderings of underworld dons in major cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta and Chennai.
In 1991, the Indian economy began to open its doors to foreign investment, setting off a chain reaction that would fundamentally change cultural production and the representations of masculinity in film and television. Mitra (1999) notes that with international media companies eager to take advantage of the Indian market, Indian consumers were saturated with an influx of foreign-owned satellite and cable channels (distributed in partnership with Indian media companies), as well as programs that beckoned Indians to join the global marketplace. Companies like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Proctor & Gamble and Unilever advertised on television, while Viacom-owned MTV India debuted in 1996 with localized versions of MTV shows airing in other parts of the world (Mitra, 1999; Balaji, 2008).
In 1998, the film industry gained industry status from the Indian government, loosening access to credit and allowing film producers to extract themselves from the informal economies that financed their projects. Foreign lenders and non-resident Indians (NRI's) were among the prominent investors in Indian film, and as a result, two of India's most prolific cultural industries—Bollywood and Kollywood2—ascended into the transnational realm. Of course, Indian films—particularly Bollywood fare—had international circulation for years, but following the international success of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), the format for many popular Indian films was premised upon Indians living abroad. Yet, as Uberoi (1998) notes, masculinity continued to be represented according to idealistic virtues of honor and self-control. In DDLJ, Shah Rukh Khan's character, a London-based playboy, affirms his allegiance to Mother India by telling his romantic interest (played by Kajol), that he would never take (sexual) advantage of her. This expression of self-control, which was echoed of other films in the 1990s, catered to the immigrant communities outside of India whose conservative values reflected an idealization of a morally pure homeland (Uberoi, 1998; Deshpande, 2005).
By the 2000s, transnationalism was a common theme in many Indian films (regardless of language), and Indian masculinity began a slow but noticeable homogenization. Indian men were increasingly sexualized and physically imposing, and both those traits were celebrated within the plots and as part of international marketing for the films. The exportation of the Indian male body, begun in earnest by the introduction of Bollywood star Hriththik Roshan and his V-shaped torso, also involved the importation of male actors whose body types conformed more to Europeanized standards of beauty. As a result, British-born models such as Milind Soman and Upen Patel, as well as other internationally circulated models such as John Abraham and Dino Morea, became Bollywood stars. Their bodies have become box office commodities in India and abroad, and their characters often conform to an idealized heteronormative hypermasculinity. Unlike previous generations of film, (hetero)sexual promiscuity is presumed for the new leading men in Indian films. In 2007, Abraham starred in Dostana, a film set in Miami, in which he and co-star Abishek Bachchan are urban playboys vying for the affections of Priyanka Chopra. The opening song, "Shut Up and Bounce," became an international music video hit, circulated on the Web through sites such as Myspace and YouTube. In the video, Abraham, wearing nothing but a g-string, is serenaded by numerous women—including B-list Bollywood actress Shilpa Setty3—and flaunts his body through a variety of torso closeups. As the next section will demonstrate, Abraham's torso wasn't the only one to be internationally commodified and celebrated on the Web.
The Indian male body as sexualized cyborg and Web commodity
In his examination of cyberculture, Nayar (2010) argues that the increasing interconnectedness of global markets through technology has created "transnational classes and publics" (p. 140). While he notes that this could have positive impacts, he cautions that cybertechnology also reaffirms power relations in which "Euro-American 'sites' control the lives, labors, and identities of non-white races across the world and where 'cybertypes' abound in virtual worlds" (p. 162). Through this lens, Nayar also notes that male (and female) bodies are transported through transnational regimes of cybertechnology, allowing their commodification and consumption to happen virtually simultaneously. The Web has created a new venue for the commodification, commercialization and mass consumption of gender and sexuality. As Nakamura (2000) notes, sex tourism on the Web has become an internationally lucrative business with little regulation from nations involved, which has helped to facilitate the digital consumption of the Other.
While women are primarily the objects of consumption, catering to heteronormative and hypersexualized fantasies of femininity, the commodification of the male body has been equally profound, though often overlooked. Nakamura (2002) also argues that commodification of gendered bodies through the virtual realm leads to the creation of racial, ethnic and gendered cybertypes. These cybertypes—and the power to define them - have largely been in the hands of Western cultural and media producers, though globalization has helped to introduce new players into the market of transacting cyber identities.
In India, the commodification of the Indian male body internationally through cybertechnology has been facilitated by the use of social media and other Web tools to exchange and disseminate Indian cultural texts (without regard to copyright laws). Cultural producers and the Indian government have not discouraged this practice because it serves to advance a political and an economic bottom line. For starters, the cultural texts get international consumption and - due to India's low currency exchange with Western countries—Indian cultural producers are not losing significant revenue. In fact, Indian cultural producers' ability to get "buzz" ahead of movie releases helps to draw international audiences, who have become the primary targets for many of their cultural products. Secondly, the projection of the ideal heteronormative hypersexualized Indian male body as the projection of the country's own nationalistic self-image, even if such an image conflicts with demographic and social realities. The heteronormative and hypersexualized man, embodied by Indian male stars, is a commodity that India exports as both an economic imperative and an ideological one. As I have argued previously, and scholars such as Birch et. al (2001) and Banerjee (2005) note, Indian masculinity is constantly constructed in response to the West's representations of Indian masculinity. If, as Mayer (2000) notes, masculinity is inextricably connected with nationalism and nationhood, then Indian masculinity generated from India becomes a politicized commodity bearing the weight of a country's post-colonial insecurities and its longstanding perception of mediated emasculation by the West. In many ways, the cultural industries have become India's weapon to counter this perception, and conversely, the role of the private sector in remaking the Indian national image has grown significantly. As one Indian diplomat noted, "Business has really become the de facto substitute for Indian diplomatic engagement. And that works out nicely for India" (Yardley, March 31, 2012).
The Indian male body has taken on a sexualized cyborg role in cyberspace, becoming an object of fetishization. Gender and sexuality have always taken on cyborg qualities in the commodification process, and their de-humanization (especially of women's bodies), facilitates consumption. But the cyborg aspect of Indian male actors' bodies creates a superhuman quality that erases flaws and re-packages A-list actors as perfect for consumption. While such de-humanizing occurs in American cultural industries, the heteronormative, hypermasculinized and sexualized Indian male body's significance as a national symbol—particularly to diasporic populations and other groups outside of India—cannot be understated. Their export value through the Web is in many ways a projection of the Indian nation, reflecting both the significance of popular culture as intrinsic to national identity and the male body as a marker of global power (Mayer, 2000; Hogan, 2009; Mehta, 2011).
Beyond the workout videos of Suriya, clips of Bollywood stars Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, and Aamir Khan (not related) working out have generated millions of hits on YouTube (Naval-Shetye, 2011). But these workout videos pale in comparison to the finished product: a sculpted, physically exaggerated body circulated through movie clips and music videos. The Indian versions of entertainment gossip sites such as glamsham.com or bollywoodhungama.com have downloadable pictures of various actors (and actresses) in states of undress. Additionally, hundreds of global web sites celebrating the bodies of Indian male actors have been created, frequently by fans living outside of India. For example, a fan created site, shahid-kapoor.net, was dedicated to the "eight-packed" Bollywood movie star whose looks and physique have made him a sought after spokesman for international sponsors such as Vaseline, Pepsi and Levi's. Kapoor and other popular Indian male actors are packaged as heterosexualized objects of female desire, ready to showcase their bodies with a click of link.
Fan sites add a layer to the commodification of the Indian male body that serves as free promotion for the cultural texts in which the body is featured. While not all the Indian stars' followers are women, the heteronormative positioning of these actors (and their bodies) as digital commodities makes it virtually impossible to separate their appeal to women and the hypersmasculine standards they set for men throughout the Indian diaspora. The fan sites operate as separate industries (many have their own advertising) but are also part of larger production regimes that rely upon the cultivation of consumption. While Gray (2010) notes the importance of paratexts in helping to connect media and cultural products to audiences, fan sites devoted to Indian male actors function a bit differently. This is because the fan sites developed outside of India serve as important gateways for foreign consumers to know more about the actors. Scholars such as Mehta (2011) have argued that the rise of India Inc.—the successful packaging of an idealized India through popular culture - has fueled consumption, particularly with the relative ease in accessibility of Indian cultural products via the Web. India Inc., the embodiment of the cluster of Indian and foreign cultural producers who have reaped the benefit of making India itself into a transnational commodity (and whose benefits might now always align), is always seeking new markets to cultivate consumption. Fan sites for some of Bollywood and Kollywood's biggest male actors helped to advance this bottom line, even if their creators - sometimes motivated by pure hero worship—are unaware of this connection. Corporations seeking to take advantage of the commodification and distribution of Indian actors on the Web have also started web sites. One company, Jaan Productions, a Queens, N.Y.—based video and production firm, operates shahrukh.com, an altar to Shah Rukh Khan. The slickly designed site features wallpaper photos of Khan and quotes that highlight his sensitivity and "Renaissance Man" persona. There is even a tab called "Favorite Actresses" in which Khan ostensibly pays homage t his favorite leading ladies, another affirmation of his heterosexuality. Jaan isn't the only American company exploiting Indian actors' desirable masculinity in global markets, as a number of non-Indian firms have ventured into the realm of buying and maintaining domains (Vora, 2012). The increasing lucrativeness of the Indian male body on the Web has only hastened the investment of these firms into the realm of fan sites.
Fan sites serve as a gateway to learn more about an actor and get access to photos meant to highlight his desirability. But as global distribution of cultural texts and commodities becomes more concentrated as a result of corporate takeover of social media, the most rapid exposure is often through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Orkut, a Google-owned social networking site popular in India. Within these portals, fans of certain Indian actors can reproduce a male star's sexual desirability and highlight his "strengths" in much the same ways that fan sites of many women actors throughout the globe. As noted earlier, social media has also played a significant role in the commodification of the Indian male body, thanks to the distribution of authorized and unauthorized clips of Indian male actors in various states of undress or in displays of physical and sexual prowess. The creation of the invite-only American social media site WhoSay, a joint venture between Amazon and Creative Artists Agency has created a portal of connecting to Indian celebrities, most notably the actors and actresses with extensive commercial appeal in the United States (Vora, 2012). With the rise of these invite-only sites, Khan's body as commodity becomes accessible to only those granted permission. For those not fortunate to gain such access, pictures and videos of Khan are still readily available on Facebook and Twitter, while YouTube has made viewing the Indian male body accessible instantaneously. Just as Abraham's Dostana video and Suriya's workouts have become viral hits, the sexualization of the Indian male body on YouTube has been legitimized by cultural producers starting their own channels on the site. For example, Shah Rukh Khan's blockbuster film Ra.One, in which his character's sexualized hetenormative masculinity is showcased in the music videos for "Criminal," sung by American R&B/pop artist and Hindi playback singer Vishal Dadlani, and "Chamak Challo," was distributed virally by London-based distributor Eros Entertainment. The "official" music video for "Criminal," available on the "Chamak Challo" channel, generated 2.6 million hits within its first eight months of distribution.4 The video, in which Khan is surrounded by scantily clad women, also generated millions of hits in unauthorized versions. Similarly, music videos from other Bollywood films, as well as those from Kollywood and Tollywood5, have become instant hits on YouTube while featuring the Indian male body - both as a national symbol and object of heteronormative desire - prominently. Most of these music videos are inherently transnational, aesthetically conforming to the same sexualized and heteronormative tropes commonly found in their American and European counterparts. Indian masculinity, at least through the representations exported through the Web, becomes defined by consumption of women and overt physicality, the same tropes that have defined other dominant masculinities in the West.
Sanctioned social media sites aren't the only channels by which these representations are channeled. The explosion of pirated movie sites on the Web has also helped to saturate the global marketplace with the commodified masculinity now idealized in Indian popular culture. Because of India's lax copyright laws, movie piracy is a booming business outside of India, although Indian cultural producers indirectly benefit by increased demand of their products (Desai, 2005).6 Moreover, these channels provide another way that the Indian male body reaches global audiences, objectified as symbols of the country's strength and a testament to its projected heterosexual prowess. The pirated leaking of Saif Ali Khan's spy film Agent Vinod ahead of its March 23, 2012 release did little to hurt its opening weekend box office sales of $10 million (Rs. 50 Crores). The movie, touted as the Bollywood version of James Bond, celebrates the same tropes of masculinity as the British franchise: heterosexualized consumption of women, physicality and conquest in transnational settings. With Khan as the Indian superagent flexing his shirtless body and conquering women (most notably a Pakistani spy), Indian nationalism was on full display via the Web.
The pirated distribution of Vinod is not disconnected from geopolitics, either. Since Pakistani censors banned the film's official distribution because of the movie's "anti-Pakistan" content, the Web became a key source for Bollywood fans in Pakistan to watch the movie (Bhushan, 2012). Moreover, the piracy on the Web still found ways to re-connect consumers to officially sanctioned Agent Vinod sites. On Facebook, the movie's homepage had more than 150,000 followers within its first week. The site provides teaser clips from the film as well as YouTube links to the movie's music videos.
As I argue in the final section, the exportation of Indian masculinity through the Web has underscored the construction of nationalism through transnational processes. Moreover, I will attempt to explain how nationalism, the male body, heteronormativity and hypersexuality are blended together by Indian cultural producers and digitally exported for global consumption, creating a lucrative commodity with ideological and geopolitical attachments.
Conclusion: Celebrating India through the digitally commodified male body?
As this essay has shown, Indian masculinity has been circulated internationally, and the Web has only accelerated this distribution. Within the context of globalization and the increased consolidation of cultural industries, the Web has become a primary platform for the distribution of cultural texts. With Indian cultural production now reaching audiences faster, nationalistic imagery idealizing heteronormative hypermasculinity can more rapidly saturate the marketplace, presenting a homogenized representation of Indian masculinity around the world. As noted earlier, India's use of its cultural industries to advance its nationalistic aims fits neatly with the latter's desire to distribute consumable products appealing to Indians and non-Indians alike. While the cultural industries have benefited from the distribution of cultural texts featuring heterosexualized hypermasculine images of Indian male actors, India's gains from this type of commodification and global consumption cannot be overlooked.
Nationalism projected in the global area has always had gendered connotations, notably through the use of American and European popular culture (Rambo, James Bond, etc.) to distribute images of nationalistic masculinity to other markets. But now that globalization has created a reverse flow of images from countries such as India and China, the same tropes of nationalistic masculinity – which conform to hegemonic images imported from the West—are being used to project economic and geopolitical strength. Global consumption reaffirms this projection, particularly for India as it seeks to enhance its status as a top-tier economy. The channels of distribution available via the Web have made the exportation of these images less time and labor intensive while helping to cultivate an image of Indian masculinity that symbolically and economically stands alongside the dominant representations of American masculinity. Stars such as Suriya, John Abraham, Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan are Web commodities because they project the idealized nationalistic Indian male image: physically imposing, hypersexual (at least in the roles they play), and light-skinned. Moreover, with films such as Ra.One and Agent Vinod circumventing traditional channels of distribution (and censors) through their presence on the Web, the Indian male body is directly consumable to global audiences. As a result, a fan of Saif Ali Khan in Lahore, Pakistan, can watch Agent Vinod on a pirated Web site or see the movie's sexually suggestive music videos on Facebook or YouTube, thereby consuming the masculinity that India wants the world to see.
While this essay has focused on some of the geopolitical and economic factors that have shaped Indian masculinity and facilitated its distribution, the domestic repercussions cannot be ignored as India becomes more of a consumer nation. The commodification of Indian masculinity, as well as its connection to Indian nationalism, is a byproduct of India's rapidly growing participation in global capitalism and evidence that exported representations of Indian men will continue to be inherently transnational. Because the Web is a transnational platform, India's glorification of the new Indian man—which is simply a glocalized Xerox of American/Eurocentric masculinity – is constantly being uploaded for global audiences. Even if this commodification has positive short-term economic and geopolitical ramifications, such narrowcasting—as evidenced already by the consumption of idealized masculinity legitimized by Bollywood and Kollywood icons—could have ideological consequences within the country, cultivating consumption based on unrealistic gender prototypes. Because Indian film stars have enormous influence over consumption within India (and in other countries), the pressure to fit these prototypes is only likely to increase. For now, however, India's new masculinity and the globally consumable stars representing it have too many "likes" from fans for the cultural industries to change course.
- 1. Like most Tamil actors and actresses, Suriya - born Saravanan Sivakumar - goes by one name.
- 2. Kollywood is the name given to the Tamil film industry.
- 3. Setty had some leading roles in Hindi films in the 1990s and early 2000s, but she is best known as a contestant on the popular British reality show Big Brother. Setty was subjected to racial abuse by two other female contestants, notably Jane Goody, who became a reality show fixture in the country.
- 4. As of March 2012.
- 5. Tollywood is the name for the Telugu language film industry.
- 6. Scholars such as Desai point out that Indian film industries are not as inclined to pursue copyright infringement because of their own dubious history of copyright infringement. However, in recent years, large Indian cultural producers and distributors such as Eros Entertainment have begun cracking down on copyright infringement and piracy in order to protect their financial interests.
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Murali Balaji is the director of education for the Hindu American Foundation. He is the author of The Professor and the Pupil: The Politics and Friendship of W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson. He is also co-editor of Desi Rap: Hip-Hop and South Asian America (with Ajay Nair) and Global Masculinities and Manhood (with Ronald L. Jackson II). His research focuses on cultural production, political economy, race and gender.
© 2014 Murali Balaji, used by permission