Screenwriters and headline writers, novelists and academics have attempted to answer the question of what women want for years. As any woman will tell you, the question should equally be addressed to men. Some answers are forthcoming from the second edition of Let’s Talk Men, comprising two documentaries and two features made by film-makers from the subcontinent and exploring various aspects of masculinity. Let’s Talk Men 2.0 will be shown at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai on 22 and 23 January.

A still from the documentary ‘With You, Without You’

The project revisits concerns explored in the first chapter of Let’s Talk Men, which was launched in 1998. Three of the film-makers from the first edition are back—Rahul Roy’s Till We Meet Again goes back to the men with whom he spent several months in When Four Friends Meet. Kesang Tseten, director of Men At Work, was also involved earlier, as was Farjad Nabi, who co-directed Zinda Bhaag with Meenu Gaur. Sri Lanka replaced Bangladesh this time round, with Prasanna Vithanage dramatizing the armed conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam through the marriage between a Sinhalese ex-soldier and a Tamil refugee.

Given the time gap between the two editions, there are several direct and subtle differences, says Roy. “The first series was more defined, in the sense that we were working towards a set of films that could be used with young people," adds Roy, whose organization, Aakar, has spearheaded both editions. “Much more work has happened in the last 10-12 years, it is a field that has opened up, with lot of new people making films from the position of explicitly exploring masculinity." That’s one reason for the equal emphasis on form and content in the new collection—the inclusion of feature films, for instance. “The project was supposed to be all about documentaries, but when we met, Prasanna and Farjad presented fiction along with other ideas," Roy says. “We felt they were exciting and worth following, and with fiction, we would also get new audiences." The films have been subtitled in Hindi, Urdu, Sinhalese and Tamil.

The documentaries and features collectively represent different facets of men, but the films by Roy and Vithanage are likely to get the most attention because of ongoing concerns with sexual violence against women. Roy says he has noticed an uptick in commentary about sexual violence against women, and not merely of the prescriptive kind. “Besides public attention, one significant thing was that even in the mainstream media, a lot of men were writing and expressing themselves from a gendered position," he says. “Men tend to be objective, comment on others’ lives, and talk about national importance, but I found a lot of writing from the personal position."

The films mix concerns and film-making styles. With You, Without You is a two-hander bolstered by spare storytelling and effective performances. Zinda Bhaag, which seems shoehorned into this project, is a serio-comic look at an unsanctioned industry that pushes young Pakistani men to take desperate measures. Tseten’s Men At Work throws together observational shorts about a young domestic helper who lives and works in an apartment next to the film-makers’, a garage mechanic, novice Hindu priests and recruits for the Gurkha battalion in the British army (Tseten has expanded the last segment into a full-length documentary, titled Who Will Be a Gurkha.

“I didn’t want to do interviews, but make something in the mould of observational documentaries by the Maysles brothers and Frederick Wiseman," Tseten says. “I wondered about the film—should it be instructive or prescriptive or informed by ideas about masculinity? I thought I would use the physical realities and situations that have to do with men and then leave it open-ended."

Till We Meet Again crystallizes the project’s aims most effectively. Roy meets the four residents of Jahangirpuri in Delhi whom he had captured in 1999 in When Four Friends Meet. The older film bristled with the energy, swagger and optimism of the men, but when Roy meets them again, a sense of defeat is inescapable. He hands them cameras to capture their surroundings, but they are unable, or unwilling, to venture beyond an invisible border that marks the end of their neighbourhood. “When they were younger, there was a certain objectivity with which they could look at the city—Jahangirpuri was their world and they had a sense of what it was and how it was linked to the city," Roy observes. “They seem to have lost that sense, and there is a loss of being able to look at themselves in a more objective sense with regard to the city." As a result, we see the men at their homes rather than on the streets, playing husband, father and breadwinner—and not always willingly.

There is a palpable sense of sadness, of limited professional success, and even of emasculation at having to replace their carefree ways with responsible behaviour. “It was a very sad film to make," Roy says. “Most of them have done very well, but at the same time, they are also beaten—that excitement about life has gone. The fear of marriage felt in the earlier film, that they would be under the control and spell of their wives, hasn’t played out but it is present in other ways, in the sense that they have ended up becoming much more controlled and settled." Each of the films, in their own ways, suggests emptiness, melancholy and unhappy endings—a pessimistic but apt collective statement on the state of men in severely anxious times.

Let’s Talk Men 2.0 will be shown at the National Centre for the Performing Arts on 22 and 23 January. For details, visit www.letstalkmen.org and www.ncpamumbai.com.

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