Tagged: Issue 1 Vol 7

Deconstructing the experiences of growing up as a male through a theme-based analysis of Udaan

Udaan (2010) attempts to deconstruct the experiences of growing up as a male in the contemporary urban, middle-class society of India. The movie is quite relevant in today’s times and revisits the popular notions associated with manhood and masculinity by situating arguments within the contexts of family and educational institutions. Moreover, it offers scope for the deconstruction of patriarchy and masculine constructs across different age groups and portrays a male child, an adolescent boy and middle aged men. The movie revolves around the male adolescent’s struggle to challenge the traditionally sanctioned interests and attitudes of men.

The paper, accordingly, highlights the resistance offered by the adolescent boy to the conventional masculine authority. It also brings about a transgression and a subsequent reconfiguration of the age old boundaries that were, until recently, dominated by conventional normative ‘manhood’. The paper situates these domains in relation to family and education and offers implications.

The story of Udaan revolves around a young adolescent boy named Rohan, who is expelled from his boarding school along with three friends. His father has not visited him in the last 8 years and when he returns home, he meets his strict and abusive father and a 6-year-old half-brother, Arjun, whom he was unaware of until then. Rohan has an ambition of becoming a writer but his father does not approve of this. He constantly abuses and humiliates him, and forces him to pursue engineering. His uncle, however, supports his ambition of being a writer.

As the story progresses, Rohan fails in his engineering examinations and his father has to rush immediately (leaving an important meeting in between) to school to take Arjun. This causes his father to lose an important contract. When Rohan returns he sees Arjun is being rushed to the hospital and his father leaving for Kolkata on a business trip. He later finds out that Arjun was beaten badly by their father. When the father eventually comes back, he finds out that Rohan has failed the exams and in a fit of anger, assaults him. A scuffle ensues and Rohan punches his father and runs away from home. He returns only to pick up his brother and leaves a note behind warning his father to stay away from them.

The movie depicts Rohan’s (the protagonist’s) father, Bhairav Singh, as a symbol of tradition and conservatism. With his dark glasses, trimmed moustache and the ‘serious’ look that he carries, he epitomizes the prototype patriarch who safeguards tradition from modernity. He exercises extensively every day, drinks every night, smokes throughout, doesn’t hesitate to use his belt on his six year old, ridicules his first son’s ‘feminine’ looks and is probably also proud of this skewed sense of masculinity.

Moreover, Bhairav Singh insists that his own children address him as “sir”, maintaining a distance from his children. He has a brother, and the fact that he grew up in a patriarchal set up is evident from the fact that although the two brothers live in nuclear households, Bhairav Singh believes in ‘joint-patrilineal household’ ties where the oldest son of the family assumes the role of the ‘head of the family’ after the death of the father. He also believes in enjoying certain privileges that are acquired by virtue of birth order – or simply by being the first born. His character therefore highlights the traditional notions of an ‘ideal’, ‘normative’ man.

His brother Jimmy, however, is the counterbalancing force to Bhairav Singh in the film. He is a progressive man who had chosen the road less travelled (and supposedly failed). Bhairav Singh does not support his son’s wish to become a writer but Jimmy believes that Rohan should do what he wants to. It is Jimmy who paid heed to what Rohan’s mother felt about her son’s career. Bhairav Singh, on the other hand, is disgusted by Jimmy’s attitude, which he also sees as non masculine.

Bhairav Singh and Jimmy portray two vastly different male/father figures, resulting from a schism within the family. At one end of the continuum is Bhairav Singh who shows the traditional male ideal body type, rawness and authority and at the other end is Jimmy who is comfortable with his body, living with the taboo of not producing a ‘son’, having ‘failed’ on a professional front and so forth. They are the choices ‘provided’ to Rohan, who similarly has to choose between industrial work and poetry. Obviously, he chooses to emulate Jimmy, and in a predictably rebellious manner.

The movie helps deconstruct conventional ‘manhood’ and gives way to the caring, nurturing role of the ‘provider’. Jimmy has a soft heart and lends an empathetic ear to his adolescent nephew Rohan. He portrays the changing face of ‘man’ who is nurturing, respects interpersonal relationships and is approachable and open to communication. He seems to be a model that adolescents and young adults can relate to.

The movie highlights the variance and inconsistencies in the unsaid-unwritten rules set by the society for males and females. This is suggested in the movie when Bhairav Singh declares that he is going to marry for the third time. He justifies that by saying that because he is ‘still young’ he needs to remarry. This suggests that in a patriarchal society, a man is given the freedom to remarry according to his own volition, but whether for women societal approval takes primacy over one’s self wish needs to be debated. In another scene where Jimmy shares a desire to keep Arjun (Rohan’s step brother) with him, Bhairav Singh picks up a fight with his brother and calls him a ‘loser’1.

Moving back to Rohan, his, and his three friends’, expulsion from school comes when they are caught watching an adult movie off-campus by their warden. Coupled with the risk-taking behaviours that the adolescents are often believed to manifest, this poses a classic episode. It presents the characteristic socio-psychological period of ‘stress and storm’ as experienced by the adolescents. There is a genuine curiosity to know the other gender. Krishna Kumar writes that segregating boys and girls after puberty makes boys perceive girls as ‘objects’, which annihilates their chances of relating to a woman as a friend and as ‘any other human being’ in an adequate way. In order to become ‘men’, boys need to know the symbolic meanings associated with being a woman (Kumar 93). Their self-image is much more positive in presence of girls.

Psychoanalysts like Erik Erikson argue that adolescence is a period of role confusion and identity formation. Adolescents are often confused by the demands put to them by the society (Erikson 235). At times, they are expected to behave maturely, though on many occasions they are ‘silenced’ as ‘childish’ and ‘immature’. At a number of places in the movie, Rohan wants to defy and confront his father. When his father resorts to physical and verbal aggression, Rohan refrains from hitting back at his father. His socialization as a member of the Indian society forbids him from confronting one’s own father, which is considered ‘in-appropriate’ and ‘un-acceptable’ behaviour. There is a societal ‘pole’ that restricts his ‘urge’ to directly or indirectly confront and show aggression at his father. As Sudhir Kakar, has also observed, “the hierarchical principle of social organization” is so much ingrained in Indian society, that “confrontation on the issues simply do not occur” between the young and the old (Kakkar 120).

When Rohan is unable to beat his father in the morning racing task and the father expresses disgust, Arjun also imitates his father and does so. This clearly points out to the fact that early childhood is an impressionistic time and messages sent to the children should be sensitive. From early childhood, males are socialised to have and display physical prowess. Through everyday interactions, they are made to compare their physical strength with other male role models in their life. Late maturing boys find it difficult to maintain ‘male-ego’ and supremacy. They are socialized ‘not to cry’ and conceal emotional outbursts, show aggression and so forth. Boys or men are treated to be ambitious, achievement-oriented and independent. Their masculine characteristics are necessary for success within a competitive system (Bhogle 288). In most societies masculine traits are treated as superior to feminine traits. Mostly, instrumental traits like aggression, suppression of emotions, independent thinking, rationality and intellectual superiority come to be regarded as masculine whereas expressive traits like warmth, caring, sensitivity, dependence, weakness and passivity are considered feminine traits.

In the movie, Rohan seeks to reclaim his freedom from his tyrannical father. This desire for freedom propels Rohan to start sneaking out of the house at night. He takes his father’s car and goes to a local bar where he meets his seniors from his college who try to rag him but later become his friends. This also points to the fact that there is a certain kind of legitimacy given to males to show aggressive behaviour when stressed out. In order to challenge his father, Rohan deliberately fails in his engineering examinations. Further, towards the end the movie, Rohan runs faster than his father, only to declare his ‘manhood’ and growing physical and other capabilities as a ‘male’. He also punches his father in a bid to run away.

Another significant issue raised in the movie is that because Rohan has an ambition to become a writer, a career that his father does not approve, he is faced with constant verbal-physical abuse and humiliation at the hands of his father. This highlights societal pressures to pursue certain career options and aspirations which are perceived relatively ‘prestigious’ by the public opinion. Regardless of the fact whether the child wants to pursue it or not, the yardstick for success is defined by careers like engineering and medicine, failing which, no other career choice is ‘sane-enough’. A child’s achievement is not just seen as an ‘individual’ achievement but becomes a matter of family pride. In a collectivistic culture like India, parents invest highly in their children’s achievement. Children bear the responsibility of carrying forward the family business/work. Often, parental unfulfilled desires are lived through children, who are pressurized to fulfill them.

Erikson is of the view that individual development occurs within a social context where societal expectations require a selection from available choices, within which the individual needs confirmation of choices and community acceptance. He holds that society must provide for mutual trustworthiness to assure self-chosen values and interests, experiences with ego-autonomy so that an individual can independently select his/her future, and obtain encouragement to achieve a sense of purpose and promise of its fulfillment. Society must give space for experimentation and provide acceptance for self-selected choices (Erikson 197).

Peer group and friends play a vital role in emotional well being and emerge as strong support systems. When Rohan feels emotionally broken, he calls his friends for emotional support. This seems to be universal, where friends play a central role in ‘understanding’ fears and triumphs. Adolescents find confiding in friends a safer option.

The movie sensitively deals with the issues of parenting and changing family structures, especially in urban households. ‘Uninvolved’ parenting style is portrayed in the movie as Rohan’s father’s only responsibility rests in providing for the fees but not beyond. He does not offer himself as an emotional anchor for his children, either for Rohan or Arjun. He acts like his own father acted towards him and metes out the same kind of punishments to his children as his father had to him. Rohan’s father assumes the right to keep decision-making with himself and takes decisions for ‘everybody’. He decides to send Arjun to a boarding school while Rohan is directed to work full-time at the factory. He leaves no scope for a dialogue or even an argument for that matter. He also sets the rules for appropriate behavior, and often gives coercive, corporal punishment. This provides scope to understand that males are not socialized since childhood into nurturing and care giving roles. There are differences in the child-rearing practices employed for males and females. Females are often given chances for ‘sibling-care’ and ‘alternate mothering’ but traditionally males were not assigned such roles.

The movie brings to fore the changing face of ‘active parenting’ through the characters of Jimmy and later Rohan. When Arjun is hospitalized, Rohan’s father reports that Arjun fell down the stairs. Hospitalized, Arjun is left with Rohan while their father goes to Kolkata on a business trip. Meanwhile, Rohan lies to his father that he has passed his exams. In the hospital, Rohan bonds better with his brother by telling him a story. Here, the importance of secure, warm and caring relationships stand significant.

Ultimately, Rohan assumes the responsibility of providing care and support to his younger step-brother who grows fond of him and shares his secrets with him once the ‘attachment bond’ is developed enough. Here, Arjun’s character defines a child’s need for affection, care and anchors in life. His insecurities are evident through his harmless acts of hiding his toys from a seemingly more powerful ‘male adult’. He is not allowed to speak until asked; he cannot participate in the decision making process or expressing desires freely and is always disciplined under strict adult supervision. However, under Rohan’s care, he sheds his reluctance.

Indeed, Rohan manages to demonstrate the possibility of gentleness in fatherhood. Just as Jimmy plays the role of alternate ‘father-figure’ for Rohan, so does Rohan for Arjun. The movie ends with Rohan and Arjun walking away holding hands. It brings to the audience the emotional connect and attachment that Rohan develops for his brother through everyday experiences. The pleasures of self-expression and the thrill of ‘finding oneself’ are revisited through this last segment of the movie. It represents the struggle to achieve and define one’s identity through incorporation of commitments made, and therefore takes into account the changing nature of gendering in contemporary family structures.

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Notes:

1 Sudhir Kakkar has pointed out that since the time of Ramayana and Mahabharata, producing a male child was seen as a primary duty of a male (Kakkar 196).

Bibliography:

Bhogle, Sudha. “Gender roles: The construct in Indian context.” Culture, Socialisation and Human Development: Theory, Research and Applications in India. Ed. T.S. Saraswathi. London: Sage, 1999. 278-298. Print.
Erikson, Erik.H. Childhood and Society. New York: Norton, 1950. Print.
Erikson, Erik.H. Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton, 1968. Print.
Kakkar, Sudhir. The Inner World: A Psycho-Analytic Study of Childhood and Society in India. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1978. Print.
Kumar, Krishna. What Is Worth Teaching. New York: Orient Longman, 1992. Print.
Udaan. Dir. Vikramaditya Motwane. Sanjay Singh and Anurag Kashyap Productions, 2010. Film.

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Ravneet Kaur is a research scholar; she also serves Mata Sundari College, University of Delhi, Delhi as an assistant professor in the Department of Elementary Education. She may be contacted at ravneet1kaur@gmail.com.