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The Hero Myth

Salman Khan unabashedly compared himself to a rape victim recently. The women who questioned him on the statement faced threats of gang-rape and were trolled on the social media. Based on the incident, Sonali Verma explores the myth of the hero and how it has shaped the Indian mentality.

Tickets sold in black. Uncomfortable, shrieking chairs. Possibility of a stampede. None of these would stop us from watching the first day, first show of a movie starring a young and macho “hero” avenge the death of his parents. We didn’t even shy away from hurling a whistle when he often beautifully romanced (stalked) his leading lady into submission. A tear or two too was shed when he came home to his blind mother after braving the goons.

The dictionary defines a ‘hero’ as a person, typically a man, who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. In the yesteryears of Bollywood, a ‘hero’ had to live up to his definition. The traditional hero of Indian cinema would often discover early in life that he was extraordinary and then spend three hours proving it. His strength, integrity and tenacity would be tested by battling the most vicious enemies. He’d miraculously survive, almost with no damage and a perfect hairline. At home, he’d take care of his ailing mother and find time to romance the idyllic sanskaari girlfriend by serenading her to cheesy songs.

This central element of the hero myth surrounded Indian cinema for years. And why wouldn’t it? Don’t they say that cinema projects the society we live in? An ideal hero in the Indian context justified the complacency in a man’s real life. He was everything that a man couldn’t but should be. He also promoted bravado and machismo as a brand that was cool and larger than life. His aggression was acceptable, it was a sign of his manhood, just like his patriarchal notions about women. He made it okay for generations of men to emulate these misguided qualities in the name of heroism.

Over the years, with the evolution of Indian society, thanks to education and globalisation, the concept of “heroism” has slightly evolved in the Indian cinema. The idea of a ‘flawed hero’ has been welcomed with open arms. For instance, the educated people are now comfortable watching a layered protagonist on screen rather than a knight in shining armor that saves his damsel in distress from harassing goons. The whole idea of the scene just seems dated in today’s context considering women are more than capable of taking care of themselves now. But that doesn’t mean that such films are not being made. Salman Khan and Ajay Devgn, the main propagators of a galmourised version of masculinity are still kicking their way to the bank. Not only do these keepers of systemised misogyny make money, they also have an ardent fan following that will blindly follow them to the gates of hell.

For example, Salman Khan compared himself to a rape victim recently and no-one batted an eyelid. Yes, there was some outrage on the social media, but mostly people were not interested as much in the comment, than on trolling the women who questioned him on the statement. When Bahubali was released last year, one of the most controversial scenes in the film was the rape of Avanthika, in which the female warrior is tamed into femininity by a coerced sexual act and no one batted an eyelid. In fact the scene was de-personalised to such an extent that most viewed it as romantic.

It is a dangerous example to set in films, to de-personalise women to such an extent that they are reduced to mere props for singing and dancing to add an extra element of glamour in the film. In a way, it is also an example of how we wish to see our women, we want them as passive observers that laud the activities of their male counterparts. It should therefore come as no surprise that the people who propagate this aggressive myth of the hero are not only pandering to the idea of a larger-than-life masculinity, they also deeply desire to embody it.

When an educated, larger-than-life superstar like Salman Khan trivialises sexual violence in a country that is plagued by the problem and people come out to defend him, it is time we look into the aggressive-psychopathic-myths of the “hero” that we seem to be propagating in mainstream cinema. If we are our role models, then there is no hope for the 100,000 fans out there who think that the outdated concept of macho masculinity is what makes a good person.

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