Pushpa, KGF and How Massive Beards Came to Replace Hairy Chests as a Sign of Masculinity

Pop Culture

Pushpa, KGF and How Massive Beards Came to Replace Hairy Chests as a Sign of Masculinity

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

In the recent Telugu super hit film Pushpa:The Rise, Pushpa Raj played by Allu Arjun sports a chubby, mangled beard he swipes his hand under every time he stomps the ground with some sort of primal authority. In the blockbuster KGF Chapter 2, Rocky played by the actor Yash, exacts brisk violence with the clandestine attitude of a robot with liquid steel running through his veins. In the Hindi film Bachchan Pandey, a rowdy, vigilante with one glass eye, walks the tightrope between lunatic and good Samaritan with a thick salt and pepper sheet clutching his jaw. Violence in these films is used as a language to both communicate and obscure different aspects of masculinity. Communication requires its visual cues, and when it comes to machismo there seems to be a tacit coalition between a man’s virility and the location and density of hair on his body. And the beard, it seems, has become the new hairy chest.

When it comes to machismo there seems to be a tacit coalition between a man’s virility and the location of hair on his body

Amitabh Bachchan’s Deewar (1975) was perhaps the first film to introduce audiences to the rough exterior of a man carrying some amount of trauma on the inside. The landscape of Vijay’s unbuttoned exterior, its unapologetic messiness hides the torment of the many burdens he lives with under the guise of menace. Ungroomed, shabby men had until then largely, been relegated to labels of evil and villainy, essayed in its most terrifying form the same year by Amjad Khan as Sholay’s Gabbar. But perhaps no film other than Satte pe Satta (1982) made a more ecstatic case for the right of the man to live as filthily as he could; unencumbered by society’s demand for grace or etiquette. It ultimately fed into the worn cliché of women importing order and discipline into households but before doing so it made a compelling case for the charms of tardy men doing as they willed.

The emergence of brawny, unconventional stars like Sunny Deol, Jackie Shroff, Akshay Kumar and Anil Kapoor in the 80s could be regarded as the peak of animalism, an era of cinema where bushy chests echoed the machismo of the man underneath. These men eventually descended into violence, but it was the primitive nature of conflict – men against love – that justified the means. The sight of hair pouring out of the shirt’s top drawer gradually became a way of self-identification. From running razors along our cheeks to masking the undergrowth of body hair with full-sleeved t-shirts, growing up in the 90s meant navigating a perverted manual for masculinity. A manual that told us what to think, how to act and how to look. Unfortunately for most teens like me, it also became a manual of how ‘not to look’.

Growing up in the 90s meant navigating a perverted manual for masculinity.

It’s hard to argue that being fair can be some kind of impediment in a colour obsessed country, but coupled with fragile skin and a diminutive personality, it can become a handicap. Especially when feminine qualities, despite their ability to temper or tame toxicity, are considered a weakness. A man who doesn’t rage, perhaps, is no man at all. The heroism of the 90s, though cathartic, never quite publicised violence as the solution but instead awkwardly embraced it as a last resort; as a moment of rare, careless, defiance after the opportunity to argue and deliberate had been let go. But in this new era of heroism, more specifically the ‘pan-India’ film, a new more brutal form of machismo has emerged. It’s savage, designed to pump violence as a form of discourse into the everyday life of men who go about doing arbitrary things in extraordinary ways.

Pop culture is framing hair as a sign of virility that could really just be the band-aid used to hide the wounds of toxicity

It’s easy to surmise how these films are constructed. Scale must compensate for intimacy, because death here is so trivial and ordinary, it rarely manifests through anything other than the tracking shot of a bullet exiting a man’s skull, the throat spurting blood like a smashed pipe or the slow-motion sequence of men being trampled by the sheer bravura of the protagonist. Never has violence been so fetishized, its fallouts rendered inconsequent by the sheer sexiness of it all. But it’s the beard’s precise habitation, it’s migration from the chest to the face that has assisted in this evolution of the male action star from being a product of the patriarchy he reluctantly had to carry, to becoming its most visible seed.

No amount of formal or informal criticism can stall the growth and popularity of narratives that though hastened in the push for popularity, were perhaps, imminent. The success of these ‘launda films’ can only empower the Kabir Singhs of this world, the Pushpas and Rockies to casually exhibit their toxicity. Not as a way of exacting justice, but as way of negotiating with a world that expects better. These films don’t speak to everyone but obviously they speak to a majority. Be it of the chest or the tardy, unkempt beard, popular culture is framing hair as a sign of virility that could really just be the band-aid used to hide the wounds of toxicity.

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