By Kartik Iyer
Anupama Chopra sat down with actors for a discussion. She brought up a comment shared with her by a tradesman: testosterone filled movies will work in the future. Unsurprisingly, Ayushman Khurrana was first to call it out as a ‘patriarchal’ statement. Fellow actors followed in tandem with Vidya Balan rounding up the person as a ‘misogynist and sexist’. I was surprised at the lack of thought put into the dissection of the statement. Only Varun Dhawan vocally attempted to see beyond the language used and get the point. Others found it best to use the opportunity as a posturing exercise.
If you look at the statement beyond its language, you notice that the tradesman has noticed a phenomenon. S/he may have been inaccurate in describing it, but few can deny what is being described does exist. Let’s first look at the problematic word from that statement: testosterone.
“Testosterone is everyone’s usual suspect when it comes to the hormonal causes of aggression”, writes Robert Sapolsky in his book Behave. He goes on to explain how people believe testosterone causes aggression. However, the reality is that testosterone is heavily dependent on context. “It exacerbates pre-existing tendencies towards aggression rather than creating aggression out of thin air”. Testosterone’s context dependent increase is triggered by challenges. Levels rise when a dominance structure is being formed or undergoing change. An important caveat: testosterone does not directly increase aggression. “It prompts whatever behaviours are needed to maintain status”. Since in male primates, the only way to maintain power status is by being aggressive, testosterone prompts aggression in them. There is a remarkable study where testosterone led to men being nicer than usual. What all of it suggests, and Sapolsky concludes, is that “testosterone makes us more willing to do what it takes to attain and maintain status”.
I don’t expect the tradesman to know his/her science. Moreover, I do not blame him/her for mixing testosterone and aggression. It is a common mistake. If we were to substitute testosterone with aggression, which I believe was the intention, none of the actors would’ve said what they eventually did. With the substituted word, the statement goes: aggression filled movies will work in the future. Let’s take Gangubai Kathiawadi as an example.
We have a character whose status was challenged. Her position in society was threatened. She fights back. Using the scientific, biological explanation of what testosterone does, barring the sex difference for the sake of argument, is Gangubai Kathiawadi a testosterone (aggression) filled movie? Yes. Did it work? Yes.
What seems to be the problem then? Testosterone is a hormone secreted in men. It promotes behaviours that will help a man maintain status when a challenge is posed. That’s the arc of majority of the movies that have succeeded financially in cinema halls: from KGF to RRR. The underlying pull of the Angry Young Man archetype has been this biological urge to overcome a challenge.
The tradesman did unnecessarily use testosterone to make his/her point. S/he may be wrong in stating that only aggressive, maybe even violent, movies will succeed. The likes of Queen will not. There is nothing wrong in holding an opinion. You will unfortunately be called names if you cannot express them in an appropriate manner.
This is not intended to be a defence of that tradesman. I do not know who they are. This is to emphasize that just because the packaging of a point is incorrect, it does not become invalid. In this case, there is enough evidence to suggest that aggressive movies are working in cinema halls. They may be acting as a vent for unaddressed frustration and anger. Public sentiment is being expressed. May be. The point is: don’t invalidate an opinion without understanding it. And don’t take actors seriously. As Naseeruddin Shah wrote in his autobiography, actors fundamentally just want attention (not quoted verbatim).