In the past three weeks, many of us have been delighted by three films that have depicted masculine fragility in deliciously diverse ways. There was Oppenheimer, where a Great Director made a Great Film about the ethical dilemmas of a Great Scientist. Karan Johar and a team of writers imagined the hellishly sexy Ranveer Singh as Rocky, unshackling decades of emotional stunting accorded to shiny “all about loving one’s family” Punjabi himbos and the gender norms within their families. And there was Greta Gerwig’s kinetic Ken—played by Ryan Gosling—with his own insecurities, lack of independent housing, and theme song in Barbie. All this as we build anticipation for Shah Rukh Khan’s continued attempt to redefine the tired tropes of the Indian action hero with a crew of women soldiers in Jawan, a film that appears to be like Chak De! India meets Pathaan via Chennai. Men are fun at the movies again. At least, for some of us in the audience.
I have no interest in opining on the merits of these movies; most of us are exhausted by the number of post-modern hot takes these pictures have generated online. Instead, I will take you on a strictly offline ground-up tour of the audiences watching them at cinema halls. Across seven cinema halls in Delhi, Faridabad (Haryana) and Mumbai, I observed and interviewed viewers. This is hardly an exhaustive and representative take. However, hanging out at cinema halls offered three signposts to help understand the appetite for a modern and vulnerable masculinity in contemporary India.
First, we run the risk of doing a great disservice to young men—particularly those from Gen Z and Gen Alpha turning up in sequins and pink for Barbie or cheering the men performing Kathak in Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani (RRKPK)—if we surmise that Oppenheimer’s box office collections being higher than Barbie’s in India is a simple marker of the general masculine reluctance to engage with films that tell stories of how all is not healthy with our gender norms. Across cities, I witnessed a mixed crowd of male and female school and college students at the Barbie screenings, united in their giggles and enthusiasm for the “I’m Just Ken” song. Some of the young men—they must have been 16 or 17—were humming the lyrics to each other. Others complained that they felt peer pressure from their liberal feminist classmates to watch Barbie. Unlike conversations on Indian social media, a space where 67% of users are male (according to a 2021 Meta paper), the boys at these screenings were relatively silent through it all. There was no jostling to out-discourse anyone. Walking out of a show of Barbie in Faridabad, I overheard a young man tell his friend, “bandon par bahut barsi yeh film (the film rained attacks on men).” When I asked him if he enjoyed it, he smiled and said he did and would insist his family watch it.
I spoke to Sanjeev Bijli, executive director of PVR INOX Ltd, the largest cinema exhibitor in India, about Barbenheimer. He said he was “heartened” by the box office performances of both films. When I asked him about the age and gender composition of the audience, his insights, based on data from his screens, aligned with what I had witnessed. “Twelve- to 34-year-olds remain the primary audience at cinema halls in India,” he said. Barbie did witness a younger audience, with far more women. “Oppenheimer was typically 60-70% men in the hall. Barbie had a female skew, which is different from the worldwide trend where both men and women have come out to see the film. I wish more men had come to see Barbie in India but the film’s business is more than respectable for an English language film that is not dubbed or massy.” He makes an important point.
Familiarity with English belongs to a sliver of the upper-caste urban population, men more so than women. According to survey data collected by the not-for-profit Lok Foundation and business information company Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) in 2019, only 6% of Indians surveyed were comfortable speaking English. Oppenheimer had both English and Hindi shows; Barbie was only released in English. In India, in its first week of release, Gerwig’s film was released on 850 screens, while Oppenheimer played on 1,900.
Bijli said the decision to allocate screens is based on analytics of past audience responses. The Barbenheimer numbers are not a straightforward story of women’s compromised access to cinema, they tell a story of the interest expressed by audiences (both men and women) in science and Oppenheimer director Christopher Nolan’s work within the minuscule elite market for English content.
Data clearly shows that men hold more free time and purchasing power than women. This skewed access to independent incomes and safe spaces, compounded by crippling time poverty, results in women being unable to watch the films they wish to at a theatre. Such a gender gap is far more relevant for Hindi films, where language does not restrict access. Bijli said early data suggested the audience for RRKPK was gender-balanced, with the film doing particularly well in metros. I imagine if women in smaller towns had more money and more freedom of mobility, you might see Bollywood romances doing even better at the box office.
Second, this is not to say that the relentless orgasmic squealing from tech-bros and history uncles (and the people they have mentored or brainwashed) about the Greatness of Nolan’s film does not signal a patronising lack of curiosity to engage with what is dismissed as “women-centric” content. Nearly every young and middle-aged woman who watched Barbie and spoke to me complained about how several men in their immediate social circle refused to consider the film “serious”, often discounting it as feminist man-hating froth. The Oppenheimer shows I frequented were more packed, more male and more self-serious in monochrome.
Not all Indian men reject Barbie or Bollywood romance but a certain type of anglicised upper-caste Indian millennial male and middle-aged uncle will never accept them. I know this man very well—he believes he can only learn from Great Men and Dead Women; he is convinced that all art made by women and queer people is meant for women and queer people; he thinks any commentary on family, love or sex—principal sites that curtail female freedom and impose surveillance—is frivolous. He can only appreciate gender struggles when they are presented with an adequate dosage of female misery. The fact that India is one of the only countries where Nolan’s film outperformed Barbie at the box office is not a sign of sexism writ large. Rather, the box office collections and my interviews, supplemented by the internet commentary, highlight that a certain category of self-serious men (who enjoy more purchasing power, influence and space than most of us) love movies about other serious men.
The tribalism that many English-speaking Indian women display in favour of Barbie is not wanton wokeism. It is anger directed against a type of man who continues to dismiss and demean our stories, worth and enthusiasms. These men will always place an unfair burden on women to prove brilliance. Rest assured, they adore the impossibly poised yet supportive women in the Nolan movie—the quipping sexy wife and the sexy Communist siren. More interested in wife jokes on WhatsApp groups, they will hate Barbie because all the jokes are on them. They hate Shah Rukh Khan and Ranveer Singh because their insistent sexiness flusters them. It is not that these men do not take women’s art or interests seriously, it is that they struggle to take women seriously at all. They will pat themselves on the back for being such grand liberals at not being offended by the use of the Gita by Nolan. They are most comfortable in the boys-club worlds imagined in Oppenheimer, where the language of genius allows them to keep women at a safe distance. So, the reaction to these films captures a deeper masculine malaise amongst our elites.
Finally, in a country that seems to be losing its moral moorings, where many of us deploy an arsenal of whataboutery to avoid asking ourselves tough questions, these films and conversations reminded me that the power of entertainment is to offer ethical encouragement as opposed to tedious sanctimony. In each of these films, a man confronts his morality and shows the audience how he relishes and relinquishes the power society bestows on him. Some do so through science, others through dance.
I watched Barbie, RRKPK and Oppenheimer more than once across two cities without any research intent in mind. Rather, like others in the audience, I hoped to escape the odious violence of our daily news cycle and my own mundane routines. Watching Barbie, I could feel a cumulative flinch from the women when the line about an “undertone of violence” was mentioned. Perhaps I imagined it. Perhaps I needed to. At RRKPK, I watched a woman seated in front of me cry when Singh offered his monologue on the traditional family. She was watching the movie with her son. I thought about the conversations they might dare to have at home after the film.
Following an Oppenheimer show in Lower Parel in Mumbai, a young aspiring engineer said he felt so worried. “Look at our news. We must be careful about how our leaders behave and how we behave.” I hoped the self-serious uncles watching the film might give the film’s moral bargains a good long think, praying more of us spend time feeling through films as opposed to analysing them. In deeply dark times, perhaps a darkened cinema hall can lead us to some light.
Shrayana Bhattacharya is an economist and author of Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women And The Search For Intimacy And Independence.