The first line of Mardistan (Macholand), a documentary by Harjant Gill that has been produced by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT) and will be aired on Doordarshan next month, pretty much sets the tone of what to expect: “While growing up, I realized there are certain types of men I would not like to become." This line is spoken by Amandeep Sandhu, the author of Roll Of Honour, a semi-autobiographical novel set in the 1980s in an all-boys military school, where sexual violence, usually by older boys, is rampant.

Sandhu is one of the four men that Mardistan, shot over two years, interviews. The other three are Chandigarh residents Tarun Dhamija, a student of architecture, Dhananjay Chauhan, an HIV/AIDS activist, and Gurpreet Singh, who works as a modeller in a university and is father to twin girls. While all the four are from different backgrounds and age groups, the one thing they have in common is a shared sense of both the privileges and burdens of masculinity.

For the 33-year-old director, who is an assistant professor of anthropology at Townson University, Maryland, US, the interest in the study of masculinity emerged from an important realization. Sexuality—his area of interest since he was a teenager taking a queer film-making course in San Francisco—couldn’t be addressed unless issues of gender were addressed first. “You can’t talk about sexuality without talking about gender. We talk of sex in very gendered terms, and gender in very sexualized terms," says Gill, who is in India to shoot the third of a trilogy of films on Punjabi and Sikh masculinity.

A still from ‘Roots of Love’
A still from ‘Roots of Love’

Gill got a post-doctoral grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which supports worldwide research in all branches of anthropology, to make this film. He hopes it will be ready by January 2016. Most of his films are available on YouTube for free viewing.

For Gill, this “transnational migrant" is central to his examination of Sikh masculinity. “The transnational migrant’s body is flexible," he says. It is capable of giving up privileges, such as the honour that comes with wearing a turban at home, in the face of economic and political pressures in a country like the US where, in a post-9/11 world, a turban is a signifier of Otherness. However, the turban is back when the migrant returns to his village.

Tarun Dhamija in ‘Mardistan’
Tarun Dhamija in ‘Mardistan’

For Gill, it was important to also explore the critique of masculinity from within the community. He admits that getting his subjects to talk about their gender was not easy, because we are not brought up to think critically on these matters, but to accept masculine and feminine roles as natural. “We have a lot of representation in the media of men who behave badly. We see representations of sexism and patriarchy. What we don’t see are men who defy and challenge the conventions of masculinity," says Gill.

Scratch the surface of Dhamija’s machismo, for instance, and you can see his anxiety about his virginity. “The guy who decides to wait is ridiculed by his peers for wasting an opportunity to have sex," he says in the film. Dhamija has, like his other friends in college, found himself a girlfriend. The first time she hugged him, he says, he was stunned. “I tried to find ways to get her to hug me again," he says, smiling shyly.

Singh saw blatant son-preference exercised in his favour while growing up with two elder sisters. “When we discovered that we were expecting twins, I was advised to get a sex determination test done, even though it is illegal in India (so that) if it turned out to be girls, we could think about abortion. Our society has always given preference to men over women," says Singh. His refusal to get the test done signals a push-back to patriarchy that, as Gill says, isn’t commonly talked about. “I just want my girls to grow up healthy, become good citizens and do what they want to do," says Singh.

The intersection of queer sexuality with masculinity is also a subject that Mardistan tackles with sensitivity. Chauhan, who is an activist, is also a married gay man. He talks about coming to terms with his sexuality in the midst of societal pressure to behave in a manner that is more masculine and acceptable. “When I came out to my wife, she said that I don’t want my husband to be manly, I want him to be a good person. And I am that good person. I can’t leave my wife. If I divorce her, society will think it’s her fault. Why should she suffer because of me?"

Chauhan’s honesty allows him to lead a life where his responsibility to his wife and two children coexists with his orientation. “I won’t shrug off my familial responsibilities. But I have to fulfil my desires outside of my marriage," he tells Gill in the film.

“We don’t hear this in narratives about coming out and gay experiences in India," says Gill. “But at the same time, even someone whom we think of as marginalized has a privilege that his wife doesn’t. He can seek pleasure outside his marriage, but his wife can’t."

Mardistan will be screened at the @SCRIPT Film Festival in Kochi on 20 February and aired regularly on Doordarshan as part of the PSBT’s Open Frame film festivalstarting mid-February.