By Arnav Das Sharma Aug. 02, 2016
For me, shifting from checking a woman out during my teens, to calling it objectification when I am almost pushing middle age, is where I think I grew up.
In a scene from Q’s Brahman Naman, the protagonist Naman and his two friends are sitting on a pavement in Bangalore, watching a woman and her little sister pass by. The setting is the early 1980s, a time when the city could still pass off as a small town. The sequence is shot in slow motion – the three men transfixed as their eyes hover, like a drunk fly, from the woman’s legs to her thighs, to her derrière, reducing her to various anatomical parts, both seen and imagined. In other words, a classic case of “objectification”, and what men would invariably term “checking the girl out”. As for me, shifting from checking a woman out during my teens, to calling it objectification when I am almost pushing middle age, is where I think I grew up.
I was raised in Nagpur during the late decades of the 1990s. Our collective reality comprised of a sleepy residential area, lined by trees, the avenues favoured by old men for evening walks in the colony. The town’s slowness was punctured only by the constant complaints of aunties about their useless sons and morally ambiguous daughters during weekend kitty parties, while our dads instilled in us the qualities of being born a Brahmin, the twice-born caste. Away from the gaze of our parents, my friends and I did what most teenagers do. We frequented seedy bars, bought cigarettes, and lusted after the body of Jennifer Lopez, whose “Waiting For Tonight” was pushing our testosterone to maddening levels.
This is the small-town hormonal milieu that Brahman Naman aces. Long after my laughter over its numerous funny scenes and incredibly witty dialogue had passed, I realised that no other film in present memory had, so powerfully and beautifully, captured a certain kind of Indian man: Growing up in a mofussil land, driven crazy by his hormones, and absolutely no way to channel or sate his desire.
Another scene from the film stands out for me. Naman, who is lusting after Rita, the girl he and his friends watch on the road, is in a train bound for Calcutta for a quiz show. The boys meet some girls from Madras and soon, Naman falls head over heels for Naina. After a drunk evening spent talking, he passes out in his bunk and dreams of Naina transforming into Rita, and Rita becoming Naina. Rita dressed in lingerie, Naina in a pair of “decent” shorts: One, an object of his affection, the other, of his lust, the “whore” and the “goddess” entwined together. Is there a better explanation of confused male sexuality than this riveting scene?
I still remember that distant afternoon when I had just joined college. My then best friend, let’s call him V, took me out for a few drinks. I was still a lightweight then, while V had already proven himself a champion – in alcohol consumption as well as on the subject of women. Through the course the afternoon, he relayed to me, like a guru to his disciple, the mysterious art of checking girls out.
“Keep your head down. Be surreptitious,” he advised, like a teacher adept in a curriculum of his own making. “Don’t ogle. You shouldn’t come across as someone creepy. Slowly, like an aesthete, glance – for remember, a thing of beauty, is a joy forever! Avoid her eyes.” It was as if this very ritual was a rite de passage, an entry into the hallowed portals of adulthood. If a man failed here, he could surely expect to fail at other crucial quarters. I, of course, could never rise up to V’s expectations of becoming an ace aesthete, for I’d always end up making eye contact, which would land me in a middle-class Brahmin purgatory of shame. I’d immediately look down, scared, and thereby, as V put it, “lose the game”.
It was only later, as I began to read widely, that I slowly came to understand the difference between a man’s interpretation of checking out a girl, and any sane person’s idea of objectification. And the answer to that difference lies in the very fragility of our masculinity.
We refuse to see a woman on her own terms, for who she is, rather than solely on ours. And this is why men do not deserve the women we are with.
In many ways, Brahman Naman, is a telling comment on this fragility. Naman is an ace quizzer, a “Brahmin fundamentalist”, a chauvinist, and an all-round loser. This latter definition emerges gradually in the second half. Filtered through Naman’s trivia-filled consciousness and his lofty, almost arcane British dialect, what really comes through is his failure with both real and imaginary women.
Naman’s dreams of that prized acquisition – coitus – are thwarted when Rita sees through him on their first meeting and calls him a coward. With Ash, a lovelorn girl on his quiz team who pines for him, we see Naman’s utter ugliness. He isn’t interested in Ash because she has severe acne – and when the two try to kiss, he has her face covered in a veil.
These little moments of unpleasantness are peppered throughout the film. Toward the end, we are left with the same lingering questions – will Naman ever have a moment of clarity about his actions? And more than anything, is he ever going to be capable of love?
Some of these questions resonated during my first year of college. I fell in love for the first time with a person I am going to call UD. I met her in the long corridor that led up to the English department. On that fateful day, for one split moment, it was as if words ceased to exist. When she extended her hand, I caught her wrist, dropped my bag, picked it up, my eyes and face flushed with shame and embarrassment. I remember mumbling some flimsy excuse and walking away. And all V could say was, “Did you see those titties on her?” If I had a hammer then, I’d have taken it to V’s jaw.
In the odious nights that followed, I would lie awake, my head swirling with hybrid images of UD, and other anonymous women whom I had met. Years later when I look back upon those days, a curious question runs through my mind: During those heady days when desire overruled our hearts and nether organs, were we capable of love? Did it exist? Does it exist?
Naman too is unable to come to a conclusion about whether he can love. In my case, long after UD and I broke up and moved to different cities, I asked her the reason why we couldn’t be together. She replied in words that were as simple as they were vague: “You were coward enough to not say the right words. You never said them.”
Naman doesn’t either. And here’s why we men are losers. We refuse to see a woman on her own terms, for who she is, rather than solely on ours. And this is why men do not deserve the women we are with. Even at the end of the film, we are not told whether Naman ever grows up. As a viewer, though, with a fairly chequered romantic past, I hope he eventually does.
Arnav Das Sharma is an independent journalist and a doctoral fellow at the Delhi School of Economics. He writes on cinema, literature, caste politics and music. He is currently working on his first novel.