WATCHING PRAKASH JHA’S Rajneeti (2010), I thrilled to what felt like a genuinely transgressive moment, a feeling rarely evoked by contemporary Hindi film. Ranbir Kapoor was in the shower. We saw his back, and then, he turned around. I gasped. My companion asked me what happened. “He has hair on his chest!” I exclaimed.
A male chest with hair on it has now become so absent from the landscape of Bollywood bodies that this altogether natural sight seemed almost forbidden; erotic in some unregulated way. It is not a sight that has since repeated itself on the mainstream Hindi screen, as far as I know.
The man with hair on his chest, his testosterone abundantly on display, has always been one of the traditional symbols of masculinity. I remember giggling through a conversation with my aunt and a friend of hers in the late 1980's, as they discussed the many positive qualities of Dharmendra. “That’s how a man should be,” said my aunt, with a big grin. “He-man, with hair on his chest.” Already, by then, the idea of a “he-man” was passé, cartoonish, a throwback to a notion of masculinity that did not fit with changing notions of gender.
We had begun to locate a man’s attractiveness not so much in conventional physical good looks, as in some intangible quality of sexiness or appeal. The rising stars at the time were the three Khans, still going strong today, of course, and they we