Middle-Aged Mard, Here’s How to Stay Relevant: An Instruction Manual from Bollywood “Uncles”


Middle-Aged Mard, Here’s How to Stay Relevant: An Instruction Manual from Bollywood “Uncles”

Illustration: Akshita Monga

This is uncomfortable. We don’t want to acknowledge its presence but we know it has arrived. That thing that comes to us all. That thing that is no longer the discomfiting province of the Indian woman alone. Middle Age is now an Indian male affliction too. And if there has ever been a time to construct an Instruction Manual for the Ageing Indian Adonis, it is now.

He’s not ready, is he? We’re not talking of the wrinkles, the sagging musculature, and the thinning hair. We’re talking of the impending shrinkage of the Indian male ego that results from it.

This is not an unknown affliction. Named after Oscar Wilde’s now famous character, the Dorian Gray Syndrome affects more men today than it ever did. It is characterised by the unwillingness to transition to middle age and a headlong dive into anti-ageing endeavours. The psycho-social equivalent of re-upholstering an old sports car.

Mid-life crisis, you exclaim! Not quite. While the mid-life crisis heralds garish acquisitions, such as a growling Harley Davidson, or a blazing red racing jacket, or a glinting gaudy Rolex, the Dorian Gray Syndrome or DGS, is different. It reflects a cultural and societal phenomenon exhibited by a man’s unreasonable pride in physical fitness and a staunch refusal to accept the demands of bodily ageing.

You’ve already seen the first attempt of the Indian Alpha Male grabbing on gruffly to his Adonis aura, haven’t you? This was the test-drive of an unabashed attempt to adhere to aesthetic glory – his pursuit of a six-pack. Or have you forgotten, like Aamir Khan in  Ghajini, how his slim fit shirts signalled a soon-to-be trimmer torso? Perhaps you’ve blotted out the memory of him gyrating like Shah Rukh in “Dard-e-Disco”. Your invisible eye-roll has embarrassed him and he has almost evaporated. Unable to keep up with the vagaries of growth-hormone cycles, this version of the Ageing Adonis has vanished from sight. It was a worthy attempt though.

Now spare a minute to consider the alternative he has already tried. Sensing that his marauding machismo might be too much to handle, he attempted to play by your rules. For a while there, he became the doting patriarch like Amitabh Bachchan in Piku. He even sheepishly reminded you that “it’s not the age, it’s the mile-age” that matters, like Dharmendra in Johnny Gaddaar. But what did he get in return? Like the mega-stars of the past who attempted to play age-appropriate roles, he found himself imprisoned in the realm of the glorified “character actor”. True, you found him endearing and even accepted his follow request on Instagram but therein lies the problem. Tired of playing second fiddle and too used to a higher billing, the older male of the Indus is in the midst of a violent rebellion against his reticent hormones.

Here’s what it looks like. Dating apps for discreet married men to be indiscreet, a series of second attempts at marriage, and yawning age gaps between himself and his new nubile companion. Suddenly, his public image is spruced up, but much like Dorian Gray himself, you suspect that the man in the confines of his home is crumbling. Tormented perhaps by the tangling grapevine of gossip creeping around him. The gnawing rumours of an impending #MeToo exposé hushed up with the complicity of a doting wife to preserve a public image swirl. The vicious whispers about the use of recreational psychotropic substances. No matter where he turns, the ageing Alpha male must quickly improvise to escape this virulent dismantling of a carefully curated public persona.

It may be time for an unlikely saviour to show him the way. It may be time for Professor Sanjeev Shrivastava of the Bhabha Engineering Research Institute, Bhopal.

It was an evening like any other when the professor, fondly christened Dancing Uncle, came into our lives. Jabbing the air with a jovial gig, Shrivastava, filmed at a relative’s wedding, uploaded the video and your WhatsApp notification told you he had arrived. Prancing around on stage with his Govinda tribute, hot stepping in his sneakers, and clad in a Nehru jacket straining against a belly as rotund as his shiny skull. No washboard six-pack, no jet black puff of blow-dried hair, no accessories other than a broomstick moustache, plucky grin, and an approving wife. You couldn’t help endorsing this avatar of the ageing Indian Adonis by tapping the video forward to an unsuspecting array of Facebook friends.

And so, it has come to pass. The very thing he wasn’t aware he could be might be the thing the he must become to win your approving acceptance.

It is time for the Beta version of middle-aged masculinity in today’s India. Time to journey into the realm of the Indian man who makes age an irrelevant dimension altogether. To become that quirky chameleon who tries on different personalities for size and sweeps you off your feet for a range of reasons. Say hello to his different avatars.

Middle Age is now an Indian male affliction too.

Dangal da Daddy

The most highly rated of avatars, he is intense, knowledgeable and the master of all he surveys. Never boastful of his glorious achievements, he is always ready to grapple with the issues of the day. But he will surface only once a year to wow you. Seized with compulsive curiosity and blessed with the Hirani-esque comic timing of an alien visiting your world, he will ask probing questions in his quest for self-discovery. Uncharitable aunties will quip about an alleged dalliance with that young woman he is “mentoring” and raise an eyebrow about a permissive better half. But he will brush this aside to be Azaad of debilitating judgment. He is here to let his brilliance rub off on you so that you, not him, feel like the secret superstar.

Boisterous Bhaijaan

Forget his past. That macho mix of indiscretion driven by a lack of impulse control. Now he is your elder brother, your protector, and your guardian angel all rolled into one. True, his past haunts him every time you shine the dull glow of a Tubelight on it but then look at everything he has done to redeem himself. Breadwinner, big brother, Bigg Boss – he is the battle-scarred boy trapped in a man’s bulbous body, whose raw, chiselled definition is long gone. Moody as ever, you may find him brooding today as he flexes his protein-powered biceps over an amateur attempt at art. Tomorrow, he wrestles his past demons like the Sultan of his own fate and comes back, as if from the dead, roaring with vigour. Ask him for help and he will even let you ride him piggyback on a dangerous trek over unfriendly territory. Here he is now, not seeking romantic pursuit but ruling over hearts anyway as he bounds from one trivial pursuit to another in search of hero-worship.

Cause Marketing Kaka

His legendary athleticism and aquiline facial features notwithstanding, this avatar of the ageing Indian male isn’t just your defender. Unlike Boisterous Bhaijaan, he is the defender of the entire realm, the solver of problems that society should be solving. Name your cause and he can somersault into the discussion like the prime player he has always been. The need for sanitation and sewage? He can raise consciousness while tackling the tricky gender politics that go along with it. Feminine hygiene? He can cotton on to that. The incredible injustice of radiation that our avian friends have to suffer? He can swoop down on that too. What’s more, he preempts the whole conversation on #MeToo by being unbelievably supportive of his charming spouse’s alleged talent. And if that isn’t enough, has he told you he can cook a nifty Basmati meal too?!

Uncle “Humblebrag” Harry

Very simply the cleverest avatar of them all. You can count on him for a quick quip to cheer you up. You can also count on him to drench you in nostalgia when he holds his arms out to recount the romance of an era gone by. You can even count on him to use self-deprecating humour to deliver a TED Talk – inspiration and false humility all at once. Even if you’re not entirely certain of his brilliant brain, you can’t help yelling “bravo” for his bravery. Not exactly the perfectionist that Dangal da Daddy is, his trump card is versatility, not virility. Watch him as he straddles different worlds. The world of the doting dad nudging his cubs into the limelight. The world of the instinctive entrepreneur. The world of cricketing controversy. His command of contemporary culture is unparalleled. He’s his own greatest Fan but needs your endorsement nonetheless. He’s the improbable impresario, with an outsized aura that can go from Zero to Hundred and back again in the time it takes to see a three-hour-long movie. Nothing is beyond his grasp. His charm, even in this darkening dusk of manhood, is enough to impress anyone from the beauty queens of this world to the aliens on Mars.

So there we have it. The field guide to recognising the middle-aged modern Indian man. Gone is the virile Dorian hankering to be the eternally youthful He-Man. Even the grumpy Gray-ing patriarch has petered out. This the ever-experimental Beta version you find more acceptable. We don’t wonder whether this is appropriate or not. All we know is that it is amusing enough to leave us awash in grudging admiration.

The Ageing Indian Male can be all of this as long he doesn’t try to stay the Alpha Adonis he had once hoped to be.