Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture   

Masculine Anxiety in the Films of Anurag Kashyap

Sarunas Paunksnis and Runa Chakraborty

Anurag Kashyap’s films often offer an opportunity to question stereotypes.1 This essay which explores the visual representation of masculine anxiety in fast-changing 21st-century India aims to do so through a nuanced analysis of the male protagonists of Anurag Kashyap’s films Dev D (2009), Ugly (2013) and Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016). In his films, particularly in these three, Kashyap focuses on the transforming social relations in post-liberalization urban India. He often portrays the anxiety of contemporary Indian men over the issue of female emancipation and their aggression towards those women who defy patriarchal codes of conduct and attempt to assert their own agency. By situating the neurotic, hyper-masculine heroes at the centre of the narratives, Kashyap points at the skewed gender relationship which – despite the pervasive rhetoric of women’s empowerment echoed throughout neoliberal India – is becoming increasingly fractured. Kashyap’s films thus act as representatives of a new social order currently prevailing in India and compel us to understand the complex process through which the notion of masculinity is being continually configured. A self-flagellating 21st-century Debdas (Dev from Dev D) or a violent sexual partner like Raghav/Shoumik/Rahul (Raman Raghav 2.0/Ugly) is not merely an example of what is traditionally deemed a patriarchal, oppressive Indian man. In fact, these characters all are born out of a neoliberal restructuring that, among other things, involves the introduction of new cultural codes into local contexts and the transforming of sexual relationships. Our aim in this essay is to trace the connection between masculine anxiety and the neoliberal social world by exploring the psychic and social lives of the fictional male characters created in Kashyap’s films.


Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0 presents Raghav and Simmy – a young couple caught in a troubled relationship. However, this otherwise mundane story becomes interesting when Kashyap portrays his male protagonist as a suffering hero who relentlessly attempts to assert his masculine authority in a fast-changing urban India. The lifestyle of Simmy and Raghav, given the interiors of their apartments, their clothes and forms of entertainment, suggest they belong to an urban middle to upper middle class. After having met at a nightclub, they enter into a mutually agreed-upon ‘sex only’ relationship. In one scene, after having sex, Simmy asks Raghav if he would marry her, to which Raghav, a police officer and a drug addict, reacts violently (Fig. 01). He reminds her of their ‘arrangement’ regarding the relationship as strictly ‘sex only’. He then begins threatening her by taking out his gun and pointing it at her.


This scene unmistakably underscores the social as well as sexual domination of women by men in a patriarchal society. The concept of the aggressive male is perhaps the most predictable image that we portray whenever there is a discussion on women’s status in a masculine world. However, what follows in the scene is not only uncommon in Bollywood films but also intriguing enough to unsettle the hitherto accepted patterns of gender relationship in India. Raghav’s intimidating voice gets interrupted as Simmy’s phone starts ringing. It is a call from her mother. Simmy picks it up and starts talking casually (Fig. 02). The man pointing a gun at her seems to have had no impact on Simmy – let alone being a cause of fear.

The fact that Simmy does not fear him leaves Raghav at a loss. He does not know what he should do next; how he should act, or adapt to a power balance that has suddenly shifted. He goes into the bathroom and cries, and perhaps the idea of suicide also crosses his mind. Non-living may be a more ‘dignified’ option than living in a world where one has to be humiliated by a woman! A woman is his object of desire, and he clearly needs one, but at the same time a powerful woman is too big a challenge for him to handle.

In the scene described above, Simmy’s nonchalant attitude and her dismissal of Raghav’s presence as the ‘master’/‘oppressor’/‘perpetrator of authority’ hints at a new gender equation which emerged in the wake of India’s economic liberalization and is gradually becoming more visible in the present social context. Whether or not Indian women are witnessing the arrival of the era of emancipation, is a debatable question and will be discussed later in the essay. But what must be emphasized is the new pattern of power relations as portrayed through the interaction between Raghav and Simmy. The image of a ‘modern’ independent (urban) Indian woman who lives her life on her own terms and conditions has become common in most of the films made in Bollywood today. While this portrayal is not unproblematic and calls for a nuanced scrutiny, yet a grossly superficial feminist interpretation may welcome this shift, as otherwise opportunities for the woman’s voice to be heard seem rare. However, this portrayal from the other end of the power spectrum requires critical examination to understand masculine anxiety. Such characters as Raghav, Shoumik, Rahul and Dev clearly do not rejoice living in an ‘inverted’ world. Their anxiety of being ousted from the dominant position of power, their fear of losing the privilege of exerting the rule of hegemonic masculinity, gets manifested through their frustration and anger. Kashyap’s films reveal the insecurity and helplessness of these heroes as they try to grapple with a changing social reality. Raghav cries inconsolably within the four walls of the toilet and Shoumik desperately tracks the calls of his wife even during his office duty. Dev keeps drowning himself in alcohol and in his attempt to ‘possess’ his woman – the object of his desire – makes several failed attempts to conquer other female bodies. These male characters all come out as ‘pathetic’ figures. Their hopeless endeavour undoubtedly strengthens the agenda of women’s emancipation currently prevalent in India’s social discourse; but it also implicitly hints at the growing hatred and resentment towards the rhetoric of gender equality and the formation of masculine protest – the manifestation of which is visible from celluloid to street; from reel violence to real gang rape.

What happened to masculinity that it would need reassertion? The question that becomes pertinent in this context is: What propels patriarchy to reconfigure itself? The literature exploring masculine anxieties or their representations in the modern era is rich and diverse, ranging from psychoanalysis to sociology, from philosophy to film theory.2 The roots of gender disequilibrium in present-day India lie in the phenomenal economic transition that swept across the country in the late ’80s and early ’90s of the last century.

Masculine Anxiety vis-à-vis Economic Liberalization
Understanding the rise of masculine anxiety and shifting gender relationships involves locating them in a broader context of economic changes that began with the liberalization of the Indian economy. This was the time when India transitioned from a planned, protectionist economy to a neoliberal one. Neoliberalism, however, is far more than just a new economic doctrine or regime, but a driving force behind a fundamental reshaping of social fabric and values. On the political level the driving force behind the economic changes was resurgent Hindu nationalism in the ’80s, represented by the newly formed Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and drawing its support mostly from urban Hindu middle classes. According to Arvind Rajagopal, ‘Hindu Nationalism represented an attempt to fashion a Hindu public within the nexus of market reforms and the expansion of communications.’3 What nationalism and neoliberalism have in common are the desire to refashion society, to produce a new individual, new sensibilities and new points of reference in understanding the world. As Comaroff and Comaroff put it, neoliberal culture ‘is a culture that…re-visions persons not as producers from a particular community, but as consumers in a planetary marketplace: persons as ensembles of identity that owe less to history or society than to organically conceived human qualities.’4 Both nationalism and neoliberalism in India ‘drew on market forces energized in the process of neoliberalization, on the support of middle classes asserting their newly legitimated right to consume and of business groups seeking a successor to a developmentalist regime in eclipse.’

As stated above, neoliberalism has never been purely about the economy. It always had the far more ambitious project of remaking humanity, and giving birth to a new human being – homo economicus. Culture, therefore, is of massive significance to neoliberalism. It is not only important what individuals do in the market, or what the market does to an individual, but also the remaking of the value system. Neoliberalism strives to forge a new subject, and new experience of phenomena, as many scholars have demonstrated.6 Dardot and Laval call this new/neoliberal subject a ‘neo-subject’, and claim: ‘we are no longer dealing with old disciplines intended to train bodies and shape minds through compulsion to render them more submissive.’7 What has changed, according to them, is the forging of the ‘desire to realize oneself’ in the production of a neoliberal subject, which is shaped as an entrepreneurial subject. What is manufactured is the desiring subject; desiring to succeed, to be efficient, to be a self-contained enterprise. Entrepreneurial culture promoted by neoliberalism affects all segments of society and, importantly, provides an emancipatory impulse for those groups that have been for a long time subordinated. For this essay, the group that is of utmost importance is women – especially the ones who now can aspire to climb the social ladder with the help of higher education; who are mostly located in urban areas and therefore are able to participate in the new consumption-driven economy. By understanding the effect of the ‘realizing oneself’ culture on women, we can understand the changing gender dynamic, and the roots of masculine anxiety located in economic processes.

Neoliberal entrepreneurial logic, on the abstract economic level, is gender-neutral, as everyone is conditioned to develop new subjectivities and sensibilities. However, such gender neutrality transforms in unexpected ways in a patriarchal setting – creating emancipation and greater egalitarianism, but at the same time re-aligning the old power balance. Nationalism is a deeply patriarchal ideology, and when it works successfully in tandem with neoliberalism, patriarchy transforms in order to function within a changed cultural landscape, and masculine anxiety is an integral part of this process of patriarchal negotiations.

Neoliberal rationality, the rise of the new middle classes, new forms of cultural distinction and subject formation should be considered as a background against which, broadly speaking, a new imagination is taking shape. The production of new modes of cultural distinction has had a significant impact on the shifting gender balance in India, and masculine anxiety has to be seen as a reaction to this change. As a hegemonic system, neoliberalism created a social class often referred to as the new middle class, which promotes a new type of ‘global Indian’ sensibility, as many authors have demonstrated.8 The culture of this class is constructed as hegemonic and projects itself as a goal to be attained; as an object of desire in itself.

In more practical terms, it was the IT sector, a flagship industry of post-liberalization India, which spearheaded the transformations in the ’90s, and the emergent culture of this group can be considered to dominate the new social imaginary, and act as an aspirational one for many social classes desiring to succeed in ‘new India’. The elites of this industry ‘assumed intellectual, economic and ideological leadership of the new middle class,’9 and the industry was instrumental in shaping the new cultural sensibilities in terms of forging the idea of ‘global India’. Neoliberal subjectivities were channelled through this sector and those working in it, and this group also dictated new trends and fashions, being economically able to consume and at the same time possessing ‘global’ knowledge.

Though the IT sector can be seen as rather small one, it is not the actual number that matters. The symbolic power that this group has had in shaping the cultural values of ‘new India’ and projecting new subjectivities as desired and to be aspired for is of enormous significance. According to recent statistics, the IT sector is the largest private sector employer in India, and from 2009 until 2017 its employees grew in number from 2 million to 3.7 million.10 The sector is often understood as merit-based, but it remains a male-oriented industry, where women usually occupy lower positions.11  However, the new employment possibilities it created allowed educated women to enter this industry, and thereby to enter the world of symbolic cultural power and be trendsetters significantly contributing to the development of the idea of the ‘new Indian woman’.

The symbolic place of a woman as a reflection of the nation is important one, and it is possible to draw parallels between the place occupied by a woman throughout the 20th century, and the one in post-liberalization India. While in the nationalist understanding which dominated both the late colonial and postcolonial periods the woman was understood as a repository of traditional culture, in the post-liberalization period a woman’s role, although remaining the same, has got significantly ‘updated’. She has to be a site where tradition is reconciled with entrepreneurial subjectivity. Radhakrishnan, with reference to the IT sector, maintains that the ‘increasing number of women both inside and outside the workplace [has] made them key mediators of this new cultural formation in India.’12 Although the IT industry is overwhelmingly male-centric, as mentioned above, it is the power of the image that matters here. William Mazzarella in his seminal study of the post-liberalization advertisement industry clearly reveals how the new middle class is engaged in such ‘weaving of dreams’.13 The transforming subjectivity of a woman in such setting causes the transformation of the whole patriarchal system. A new balance of power has to be forged, and this necessarily means that the patriarchal regime has to give up some of the power it had before. The attempts to adjust to the new culture, and perhaps the difficulties in doing so, give rise to a peculiar type of neurosis, which we define as masculine anxiety.

Hence the relationship between man and woman, as well as masculine violence – both towards the woman and towards his own self – has to be seen as a reaction to the transforming social, cultural and political landscape. Such violence, which we term as masculine protest with a nod to Alfred Adler who coined this concept in a different context,14 is a defensive reaction against the loss of authority in fast-changing circumstances. Excessive, violent emphasis on and manifestations of masculinity occur due to anxiety, which may be the result of a feeling of weakness, of fear, of inability to do something one is expected to do – in short, a feeling of inadequacy.

What is an average Indian male expected to do, and what is he unable to do? There may be many answers to this question. Perhaps the inability to accept gender equality is one. The inability to be a ‘New Liberal Indian Man’ given the baggage of patriarchy he has to bear makes his situation worse. Tensions arising from tough competition in the job market, and difficulties in successfully living the dream of ‘global India’, may also be significant factors in this context. There may be different combinations of problems and circumstances leading to the development of the neurotic condition of masculine anxiety, and the imaginary wound that a man bears. However, what gets accentuated in these varied circumstances is the fear of loss of the hegemonic power and authority, which became a reality in the wake of the rise of The New Liberal Indian woman at the beginning of the ’90s.

It is worth reflecting here on the changing concept of femininity in India in the late ’80s and early ’90s as a result of the liberalization process. A ‘new’ and liberalized nation needed a new type of woman – an emancipated individual, but also a desiring consumer.15 Thus the new woman had to be, as she had been throughout the 20th century, an amalgam of tradition and modernity. As Purnima Mankekar notes, ‘the “uplift” of women became a crucial component of [the Indian] state’s agenda to construct a modern national culture.’16  Rupal Oza states that ‘India and Indian women have emerged out of decades of state control and finally have the opportunity to express themselves,’ and further, ‘the discourse of the new woman implies that the liberalization of the economy opens up spaces and possibilities for Indian women to express themselves and satisfy their aspirations in ways not previously possible in a closed economy.’17 Needless to say, the liberalization of the economy meant more job opportunities for women in the corporate sector, facilitating their greater participation in the public domain.

Hegemonic Masculinity under Siege
In light of the above, the type of masculinity that emerges from negotiations in an environment of female emancipation expresses a sense of social castration, a striking reflection of which is visible in New Bollywood films. Simultaneously, the representation of the female protagonist in these films as a strong, independent person, standing tall against the odds posed by a patriarchal society, becomes equally prominent. In such a scenario the hegemonic, or pre-neoliberal, masculinity finds itself under siege. As Lynne Segal claims in her research on masculinities, shifting economic and cultural patterns, among other issues, significantly contribute to male insecurity vis-à-vis women.18 One possible outcome of this is the rise of hyper-masculinity, or, in other words, of masculine protest as a means to mask weakness.

Kashyap’s characters, especially Raghav and Shoumik from Raman Raghav 2.0 and Ugly respectively, are brilliant examples of hyper-masculinity. Their protest, which is physically abusive and violent in nature, is an expression of their fear of being overshadowed by their women whom they have been wont to consider as their subjugated property. In the new ‘global’ India, where women – especially middle-class, educated women – not only join the work-force but also begin to assert their desires and choices, the manifestation of masculinity through violence seems to become inevitable. ‘A structure of inequality,’ as Robert W. Connell suggests, ‘…involving a massive dispossession of social resources is hard to imagine without violence. It is overwhelmingly, the dominant gender who hold and use the means of violence.’19

It is important to mention in this context that the masculine fear of castration in earlier Bollywood and pre-Bollywood Hindi cinema, was reflected through the character of the vamp – an ‘indigenous’ (and yet highly transcultural) version of the classic femme fatale. The vamp acted as an object of male desire, and was outside the social realm.20 She was squarely meant for the fulfilment of male lust and her presence as a counterpart was needed to define ideal femininity. In other words, the image of the ideal Indian woman who is portrayed as chaste, modest and obedient was not possible to be constructed without the creation of the voluptuous, transgressive vamp. However, since the ’90s, the demarcating line between the chaste, all-sacrificing heroine and the lascivious femme fatale started becoming blurred. The female protagonist’s/heroine’s rejection of sexual taboos and her frankness in declaring her sexual choices in recent Bollywood films mark a new dynamic in contemporary India’s gender order.

Dev D
A brilliant example of this is seen in Dev D. This film, which is Kashyap’s reinvention of the Bengali literary classic Debdas by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, sets itself apart from other Bollywood renditions of the same novel by problematizing the traditional notion of masculinity. Paro (the ‘heroine’) who was hitherto portrayed as the epitome of coy, chaste, obedient, ideal Indian womanhood, goes through a phenomenal reversal in Kashyap’s Dev D and comes out as a self-asserting ‘modern’ Indian woman. According to patriarchal notions, expressions of sexuality by a woman make her a slut. In Dev D (unlike other renditions of Debdas) Paro masturbates while she is talking to Dev on the phone, and, upon his request, sends him photos of her naked body. An in-depth analysis of the film shows how the complex manifestation of masculine superiority, which has always been the hallmark of this text, is given new nuances to negotiate with the transforming sociocultural scenario in 21st-century India.

Dev, or Devendra Singh Dhillon, is a son of a wealthy businessman from a small town in Punjab. Spoilt by the abundance of material comforts Dev turns rebellious, and as a result he is sent to London to study where, as we understand, he spends many years, and comes back in his 20s as a peculiar cultural hybrid – something that is suggested by his choice of clothing (strictly Western throughout the film, even during the traditional functions like a wedding in a small town) and his consumption of quintessentially global food products like chips and Coke (Figs. 03 and 04).


He is the film’s antihero – a heavy-drinking, heavy-smoking macho man with ‘a transformed identity’, as others describe him; and Paro, a not-so-rich Punjabi girl he falls in love with, is his threatening femme fatale. Though Paro is his object of desire, he rejects her after his return from England. Paro then marries Bhuvan, a rich businessman from Delhi, herself transforming into an urbane and sophisticated middle-class woman. Dev, initially experiencing a sense of jouissance from the fact that he has managed to keep his object distant, spirals down into self-destruction and into the Delhi underbelly of brothels, drugs, thugs, illegal bars and nightclubs (Fig. 05).


He gets pleasure from pain, from self-inflicted torture. He has rejected Paro, but is close to her physically. He observes her through a spyglass as a voyeur, and uses Rasika, Bhuvan’s sister (with whom he has sex at the beginning of the film as revenge on Paro) to get closer to Paro. Rasika tells Dev: ‘All you wanna do is fuck’, to which Dev replies ‘Don’t you?’ (Fig. 06). Dev does not care about Rasika. He does not care about Paro, and not even about Chanda the prostitute. In conflict with his father, unsure about his own desires, he develops masculine anxiety (Figs. 07 and 08).


Dev is at the centre of Kashyap’s narrative while all the other characters, including the woman who he thinks he loves, as well as those women who care about him, are objects aiding his enjoyment. To ‘enjoy’ – this is the only thing Dev wants, and what can be more enjoyable than jouissance, an orgasmic pleasure in pain. We can say at this point that a woman exists only in the male gaze. As Jacques Lacan argued, a woman in a patriarchal space does not exist as a subject; and this idea of the ‘non-existence’ of a woman and her presence only in a man’s gaze has attracted the interest of various scholars.21 Žižek, in explaining Lacan’s thesis that woman is a symptom of a man, looks at Freud’s concept of symptom, and the anti-feminist position of Otto Weininger, an early 20th-century German intellectual, who claimed, according to Žižek, that ‘woman is nothing but materialization, an embodiment of man’s sin’. She is, as Žižek maintains, ‘…not an external, active cause which lures the man into a fall – she is just a consequence, a result, a materialization of man’s fall.’22 A woman in such a universe does not exist as a subject.

Implementing this idea in the context of Dev D, we can claim that Paro as a real woman does not exist. She is the mirror for the narcissistic self of Dev, and is the object of his desire as long as she is unattainable because ‘the psychical value of erotic needs is reduced as soon as their satisfaction becomes easy.’23 The narcissistic self then creates artificial obstacles preventing the attainment of the object, or in other words, preventing satisfaction, which is an illusion in the first place. The satisfaction lies in the impossibility of it. Coming too close to satisfying one’s desire annihilates the desire itself. But is it not the lack (in other words the un-attainment) that is desired? Dev does not want to have sex with Paro. He needs to keep her as his objet petit a, at a distance. That’s why their attempts to be intimate are constantly interrupted – her father always comes at the wrong moment. This interruption saves Dev, because without the Father, without The-Name-Of-The-Father as prohibition, to use the Lacanian notion, he probably would have to have sex, and would lose his object of desire. Moreover, the proximity turns the Woman-as-ideal into a terrifying Other. Žižek claims that ‘our “official” desire is that we want to sleep with the Lady; whereas in truth, there is nothing we fear more than a Lady who might generously yield to this wish of ours – what we truly expect and want from the Lady is simply yet another ordeal, yet one more postponement.’24 When postponements are exhausted and Paro takes terrified Dev into the sugarcane fields to have sex, Dev runs away during the initial phase of lovemaking. There is nothing Dev fears more than having sex with Paro. He probably never even has sex with Chanda, nor are we shown any kind of physical intimacy between them. He reluctantly has sex with Rasika; in this case sex is simply a tool of power for Dev to demonstrate his manliness and his potency to Paro. Hence it is understood why Dev rejects Paro and runs away to a violent city where he can dissolve into the anonymous crowd while continuing his melancholic and self-destructive existence. On the surface we have his desire for Paro, his disgust, his machismo, while in the unconscious different processes are occurring related to his own insecurity and instability as a man who is losing his power as he is losing control over his woman’s sexuality. However, because he cannot be seen to be losing it, on the conscious level there are interruptions, accusations, distancing, subsequent alcoholism, drug usage etc.

What is interesting in Dev D is that Paro breaks down the barrier between the ‘sublime’ beloved and the ‘disgraceful’ vamp/other woman. Her bold attempts to be physically intimate with Dev and her own choice to marry another man (after Dev rejects her) point at the transformation in the gender order that has become a major part of the landscape of contemporary India. Quite expectedly, therefore, unlike his classic counterpart, Dev in Dev D does not die. In a differently-oriented world such as the one he inhabits masculinity has to redefine itself to justify its survival. The increasing trend of merging the vamp and the heroine can be interpreted as an effect of the rising masculine fear regarding the shifting role of women in Indian society. Surveys confirm the assumption that such a shift intensified and became more prominently visible after the liberalization of India’s economy in the ’90s.

Kashyap’s films capture this moment of transformation. His films reflect the male anxiety of being in a relationship with a woman who is in control of her sexuality and asserts her individuality. Ugly (2013) reveals this dark anxiety and the violent misogynistic manifestation of troubled masculinity. The patriarchal slogan that manliness matters resonates through this film. It begins with Shalini – a deeply distraught woman who has clearly been attempting to commit suicide for some time. The scarf tied to the fan, empty whisky bottles, aspirins, and the loaded revolver in her mouth which perhaps does not go off because of the ‘untimely’ entry of her daughter (Fig. 09), tell us that she is caught in what is commonly described as a troubled marriage.


The film continues to provide us with adequate information about her frustrated life. Her present and second husband Shoumik who was once her college-mate is a police officer. He came back into her life after her divorce from her first husband Rahul, also a friend from college days. In college, Rahul was the ‘tough one’ vis-à-vis the ‘meek’ Shoumik. But later in life things change drastically. Rahul becomes a struggling actor barely making ends meet. In several scenes he is shown lifting weights in front of a mirror, adoring himself. But his power ends just there. His masculinity is limited to the exhibition of his muscular body. Shoumik, on the other hand, is a police inspector, a powerful figure in reality with a ‘license’ to beat and bully, which he does often (Fig. 10). Such violence is also reflected in the official film poster (Fig. 11) which represents Shoumik chasing Rahul, with a hazy view of the city in the background waiting to swallow the protagonists within its murky chasm. The city is more than just a site for the themes explored in the film. It is a character in its own right, transforming the lives of the protagonists even as it is transformed itself. Another poster of Ugly also suggests a similar position towards the city (Fig. 12). Although the poster is populated, the people are just background figures, and even an image of what may suggest a male protagonist is not fully visible. The purpose is to keep the human protagonist unidentified. Similarly, two posters of Raman Raghav 2.0 illustrate this well (Figs. 13 and 14). Neither contains the film protagonists – only a bleak and menacing city is present. This may suggest that rather than the human protagonists it is the city that is more important, or perhaps equally important, for the film. The usage of human-less images for the posters illustrates well the overall characteristic of the urban imaginary in Kashyap’s films. Films like Paanch (2003, unreleased), Black Friday (2004), No Smoking (2007), Dev D (2009), That Girl In Yellow Boots (2010), Ugly (2013), Bombay Velvet (2015) and Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016), portray various seamier aspects of Mumbai, with the exception of Dev D, which is largely set in Delhi’s underbelly. In several of his films Kashyap explores semi-urban locations that have very different power and gender dynamics at work, like in Gulaal (2009), two parts of Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) and Mukkabaaz (2017). However, the present essay focuses only on his ‘urban’ films.


The stench of the dark city seeps into the urban middle-class drawing room of Shoumik and Shalini. Though apparently Ugly may seem like just another film that subscribes to the patriarchal agenda of subjugating women, at a deeper level the film narrates the dark fears and anxiety of troubled masculinity. The persistent pressure of proving masculinity to a social order that is no more completely one-dimensional and male-dominated, and is constantly reorienting itself according to the requirements of a globalized market economy, marks the underlying theme of Ugly. The challenge to be a ‘man’ (‘Mard bano’) and the failure to be one in this fast-changing India often breed the feeling of inferiority – the commonest outcome of which is seen in violence directed towards others. Unlike Dev in Dev D, the major male characters in Ugly express their angst by unleashing violence upon others – whether a wife or a random person arrested for a crime.


Another important thing that should be understood in this context is the hierarchy created within the concept of masculinity. In a more Adlerian sense, masculinity here means power of any kind – physical as well as, and perhaps more importantly, economic and social. Rahul’s masculine assertions limited to the walls of his room are overpowered by Shoumik’s exhibition of masculinity which primarily comes from his socio-economic status. The reflection of Rahul’s bare muscular body becomes blurred in comparison with Shoumik’s active, uniform-clad figure of authority. However, both Rahul and Shoumik turn out to be insecure in front of Shalini. She leaves the violent and irresponsible Rahul (Fig. 15) for an apparently ‘calm and safe’ middle-class life with Shoumik. However, what is interesting to note here is that this act of leaving an economically weaker partner (or a potential partner, as in the case of Paro and her choice of Bhuvan over Dev) for a much wealthier partner/husband is the result of a conscious choice made by the female protagonists. Contrary to the earlier image of Indian women whose decisions on choice of partner used to be largely taken by family members, the present representation allows us to look at contemporary Indian women as more successful (though still in a restricted manner) in asserting their agency. Shalini and Paro confirm that assertion.


Shoumik, interestingly enough, despite his ‘show’ of control over Shalini, dwells in an insecure world – wiretapping his wife’s phone and listening to her conversations, or preventing her from going out on her own. The threat of strong femininity to the patriarchal status quo resides at the core of the film’s narrative, though on the surface Ugly can be seen as a commentary on contemporary society’s limitless greed and desire to climb the social ladder. This becomes more pronounced in the last scene when the maggot-fed dead body of Kali (daughter of Rahul and Shalini who was kidnapped at the beginning of the film) is finally recovered. The way she is found proves the utmost irresponsibility of the society she belongs to. Every character – Rahul, Shoumik or Shalini – has used Kali’s disappearance to fulfil their own agenda or settle scores. Chaitanya, Rahul’s friend, decides to pose as a kidnapper and calls Rahul and Shalini demanding ransom. Rahul seems to care more about his rivalry with Shoumik. Shalini wants a new life away from both men, and here the ransom money comes in handy. Thus the disappearance of Kali fades into background and what surfaces out of the seemingly clean middle-class urban life is difficult even to imagine. It depicts not only a hopeless, consumerist, morally paralysed society but also troubled masculinity, its increasing insecurity and its preemptive strikes through fits of violence in order to regain what it has ‘lost’. Quite predictably, the film is replete with scenes that portray the husband’s attempt to exercise power over his wife – a power that patriarchal norms deem sacrosanct. Both Rahul and Shoumik make that attempt and Shalini in the end leaves them both, and even injures Shoumik by firing a bullet at him (Fig. 16).

Shalini’s action is certainly more than a frustrated wife’s desperate attempt to break free. It points at a transforming gender order where the courage to speak up against an abusive relationship comes from the awareness of a changing world and one’s right to live in it with freedom and dignity. Kashyap’s films delineate this tension between the emerging voices of Indian women claiming their rightful position in society and the desperate aggression of ‘intimidated’ men who have been culturally indoctrinated to believe that they are ‘naturally’ superior and that the source of their power – their manliness – lies in the phallus. It is understandable why, therefore, the male protagonists of Kashyap’s films choose rape as a means to assert their authority and their seemingly unquestioned position of privilege. Rahul, Shoumik, Raghav, Dev – all use rape as the sole weapon to prove their manliness which they feel is under siege in a transformed Indian social milieu. Their attempts, however, reveal the acuteness of troubled masculinity when they are juxtaposed with the disregard, defiance and nonchalance of the female characters.

Raman Raghav 2.0
A particular scene in Raman Raghav 2.0 makes the foregoing argument strikingly explicit (Figs. 1720). Raghav who feels emasculated by his partner Simmy’s strong individuality brings home another woman, Ankita, whom he has met at a nightclub. On the way up to the apartment, in the elevator, he takes a Viagra pill. After reaching the apartment he shares with Simmy, he tries to have sex with Ankita while Simmy watches television in the next room. But even with the pill Raghav remains ‘impotent’, and impotence here should be read also as a metaphor for emotional helplessness and inadequacy, which we discussed earlier in the essay. Ankita laughs; Raghav hits her and tries to rape her, though all in vain. The fact that Simmy is not broken by such a ‘powerful show’ of masculine virility exasperates Raghav and makes him turn violent towards her. In the physical confrontation that follows their verbal arguments, Raghav fatally injures Simmy and she dies on the spot.


Kashyap’s penchant for depicting a police officer continues once again in Raman Raghav 2.0. In popular imagination a police officer functions as a symbol of masculine power and authority. However, what is of interest to us is to see how Kashyap presents a figure of authority as an example of threatened masculinity. Raghav – a highly troubled, homicidal and suicidal police officer – is assigned the duty to catch an elusive serial killer – Raman. The latter becomes Raghav’s arch-enemy, and in many ways his double. While Raghav is a melancholic and a violent cop, clearly demonstrating masculine protest, Raman, his alter ego, is an effeminate homme fatal. But why is Raghav violent and melancholic? This question without a clear answer is ever-present throughout the film. What are the origins of his condition? An unresolved Oedipal complex is one possible answer.


In one scene Raghav comes to his parents’ house – an ‘old middle class’ dwelling. His father is reasonably well-off, and a respected member of society. Raghav comes to visit his parents though he’s high on drugs, and his bloodshot eyes are concealed behind his Ray-Ban sunglasses.25 His father confronts him, and starts scolding him, to which Raghav reacts very violently, and comes close to punching his father (Fig. 21). The film does not elaborate on Raghav’s relationship with his parents, but from this scene it is clear that he has had serious problems with the authoritative father figure, and he is what we could call a ‘failed son’. As mentioned before, both he and Dev from Dev D could be interpreted as sons who want to break out of the shadow of the father, and seemingly succeed only to spiral to the bottom, unable to resolve their Oedipal complex, unable to function in any meaningful relationship with a woman, and directing violence, either physical or mental, towards themselves and others. Both of them embody a complex manifestation of troubled masculinity as they simultaneously struggle with their unresolved Oedipal anxiety and try to fit themselves into a world that apparently encourages new gender roles.

Here, as in Ugly, the macho man is shown to be impotent on many levels. Although Raghav’s physical ‘impotence’ is caused by drugs, he also feels socially impotent as his one and only way to assert himself is through traditional masculinity where his position as a male is now being ‘challenged’. The male fear of losing control over women – who are emerging as ‘subjects’ instead of nonexistent selves – connects Ugly and Raman Raghav 2.0. Readers can understand these film texts as instances of a newly emerging social order which is being structured on the foundation of a changing gender-relation pattern. What does remain of a man who is unable to fit his ‘male’ ego, his patriarchal position in this drastically transformed world? Perhaps he either becomes an annihilator like Raghav, a self-destructor like Dev or a powerless onlooker like the ‘impotent’ husband of Rakhi in Ugly.


Rakhi – Shalini’s friend and Rahul’s sex-partner – has been portrayed as a woman who boldly demonstrates her sexuality. She gets into physical relationships with men but does not get too attached to them. She is that ‘other’ woman who lives outside the family and has been projected by patriarchy as the threat; the destroyer of the integrity and the status quo of society. However, interestingly, in Ugly she is the only person who gets away with the booty while all the other characters – especially the major male characters – experience loss, suffering and agony. Rakhi gets what she wants and perhaps she alone embodies Kashyap’s version of the ‘new’ Indian woman who is often portrayed in media as an ‘unbounded’ free individual in control of her own choices. Simmy in Raman Raghav 2.0 dies; Shalini in Ugly wades through the slush of a violent marriage. Only Rakhi succeeds in trampling over the old-world masculine superiority. This becomes pronounced in the scene where she changes her clothes in front of her husband who quivers with passion and yet is unable to have sex with her (Fig. 22). With mockery in her voice and pity in her eyes, Rakhi grabs his crotch and says: ‘I see how much you love me.’

The man just stands there, unable to say or do anything. The feeling can be interpreted as one of castration. However, impotence here is just symbolic, similar to the above-discussed scene in Raman Raghav 2.0. It represents the impotence of traditional patriarchy and masculine anxiety in the face of the 21st-century ‘new’ Indian woman. This scene, no doubt, is a phenomenal commentary on the nature of gender relations in a country where marital rape still remains at the top of the list of crimes committed against women within the family. It forces us to think/rethink about the power dynamic that is now deemed to have been tilted in favour of women in India.

Are Indian women really in control of their own choices? Is there any gender equality in present-day India? Does manliness still matter? There is no denying the fact that the liberalization of the economy created a new space for Indian women to participate in the social discourse. The need for a stronger workforce and cheap labour necessitated this transition. A concomitant growth in the field of technology aided the process and became instrumental in enhancing the opportunities for women to be educated and self-reliant. Needless to say the awareness of global movements advocating for human/women’s rights has enabled a large number of women in present-day India to claim their position as equal partners. Their assertion, strengthened by their economic self-sufficiency, has undoubtedly destabilized the basis of traditional patriarchy and consequently posed a threat to the notion of masculinity. However, drawing an easy inference of women’s emancipation/weakened patriarchy from these social phenomena would be to turn a blind eye to the intricate nuances that are etched within the fabric of the gender order. A new world certainly demands new patterns of gender relations and hence the blatant rhetoric of masculine superiority that has been in vogue needs to be rephrased. But it is not an easy task. Indian men (and women as well) who since birth have been taught the superiority of manliness find themselves ‘impotent’ in this shifting social environment. Caught between a fractured patriarchy and a social compulsion to prove their liberal ‘global value’, these men find themselves fraught with a classic existentialist dilemma. The most predictable outburst in such a context of confusion is masculine protest – the vehement urge to forcefully reclaim the position of privilege he is ousted from. While there are attempts of negotiation to become a harmonious part of the changing scenario, the most pervasive expression of the angst of ‘wounded’ masculinity is found in a wide array of violence towards women – from street rape to the corporate glass-ceiling. Though rape has always been a persistent problem, yet its increasing visibility and its brutality in the post-liberalization period underscore its complex connection with the troubled masculinity in neo-liberal India.

In Kashyap’s films discussed here the major male protagonists suffer from masculine anxiety accentuated by a transforming social order (Figs. 23 and 24). In their desperate endeavour to prove their masculinity – the only means to mark their ‘superiority’ – they use violence as their ultimate weapon. They fail miserably, though their counterparts in real life continue to create havoc defying the fine rhetoric of equality necessary for an upward-scaling consumerist global India. Unfortunately in this fight between pretence and reality; between loss and gain; between ‘subjugation’ and ‘emancipation’ – what remains ever elusive is love and camaraderie.



1 At the time of writing, Anurag Kashyap is widely considered to be one of the most original film directors working at the crossroads of Bollywood and non-mainstream Hindi cinema. We refer to this cinema as New Bollywood. Aesthetically different from both Bollywood and indie cinema in a strict sense, this new cinema began to emerge in the first decade of 21st century as an effect of globalization, of economic, social and political changes following the liberalization of India’s economy in the early 1990s. Mostly these films tend to focus on city life in the late 20th–early 21st centuries, and its many aspects.

2 Adler, Alfred, The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler: A Systematic Presentation in Selection from His Writings, edited by Heinz L. Ansbacher and Rowena R. Ansbacher, New York: Basic Books, 1956; Parsons, Talcott, Essays in Sociological Theory, Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1954; Carrigan, Tim, Connell, Bob and Lee, John, ‘Toward a New Sociology of Masculinity’, Theory and Society 14(5), 1985, pp. 551–604; Connell, R.W., Masculinities, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005; Lehman, Peter, Running Scared: Masculinity and the Representation of the Male Body, Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2007.

3 Rajagopal, Arvind, Politics after Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008, p. 1.

4 Comaroff, Jean and Comaroff, John L., ‘First Thoughts on A Second Coming’, in Millennial Capitalism and the Culture of Neoliberalism, edited by Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001, pp. 1–57, see p. 13. 

5 Rajagopal, Politics after Television, p. 1.

6 Brown, Wendy, ‘Neo-Liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy’, Theory and Event 7(1), 2003, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/theory_and_event/v007/7.1brown.html; Brown, Wendy, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, New York: MIT Press, 2015; Harvey, David, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

7 Dardot, Pierre and Laval, Christian, The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society, translated by Gregory Elliot, London and New York: Verso Books, 2014, p. 288. 

8 Mazzarella, William, Shoveling Smoke: Advertising and Globalization in Contemporary India, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003; Fernandes, Leela, India’s New Middle Class: Democratic Politics in an Era of Economic Reform, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006; Oza, Rupal, The Making of Neoliberal India: Nationalism, Gender, and the Paradoxes of Globalization, London and New York: Routledge, 2006; Brosius, Christiane, India’s Middle Class: New Forms of Urban Leisure, Consumption and Prosperity, New Delhi: Routledge, 2014. 

9 Upadhya, Carol, ‘Software and the "New” Middle Class in the "New India”’, in Elite and Everyman: The Cultural Politics of the Indian Middle Classes, edited by Amita Baviskar and Raka Ray, New Delhi: Routledge, 2016, pp. 167–192, see p. 169.

10 Radhakrishnan, Smitha, ‘Gender, the IT Revolution and the Making of a Middle-Class in India’, in Elite and Everyman: The Cultural Politics of the Indian Middle Classes, edited by Amita Baviskar and Raka Ray, New Delhi: Routledge, 2016, pp. 193–219, see p. 195; and Fact Sheet of IT and BPM Industry, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, Government of India, http://meity.gov.in/content/fact-sheet-it-bpm-industry, accessed 23 March 2018.

11 Radhakrishnan, ‘Gender, the IT Revolution…’.

12 Ibid., p. 194.

13 Mazzarella, Shoveling Smoke.

14 Adler, The Individual Psychology.

15 Rajagopal, Arvind, ‘Thinking About the New Indian Middle Class: Gender, Advertising and Politics in an Age of Globalisation’, in Signposts: Gender Issues in Post-Independence India, edited by Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001, pp. 57–99.

16 Mankekar, Purnima, Screening Culture, Viewing Politics: An Ethnography of Television, Womanhood, and Nation in Postcolonial India, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999, p. 106.

17 Oza, The Making of Neoliberal India, pp. 25, 27.

18 Segal, Lynne, Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities, Changing Men, 3rd edition, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 

19 Connell, Masculinities, p. 83.

20 Mulvey, Laura, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, in Visual and Other Pleasures, New York: Palgrave, 1989, pp. 14–26. 

21 Ibid.; Žižek, Slavoj, Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out, New York: Routledge, 2007; Lindop, Samantha, Postfeminism and the Fatale Figure in Neo-Noir Cinema, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

22 Žižek, Enjoy Your Symptom!, pp. 175, 176.

23 Žižek, Slavoj, The Metastases of Enjoyment: On Women and Causality, London and New York: Verso Books, 2005, p. 94.

24 Ibid., p. 96.

25 Ray-Ban is an American luxury brand of sunglasses. This brand and especially its Aviator range has become a status symbol in India. These sunglasses are among the coveted commodities that allow the one wearing them to experience middle–class-ness. They are worn in many of Kashyap’s films, and knock-offs are often sold cheaply on the streets in many Indian cities. 

This essay is part of the 'Manly Matters: Representations of Maleness in South Asian Popular Visual Practice'

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