Stylist Ojas Kolvankar and fashion photographer Debarati Sanyal’s need for a break from mainstream fashion shoots and desire to spur discussions about gendered clothing gave birth to ‘The Male Gaze’. ‘The Male Gaze’ is a photo series aimed at tearing through the multiple layers of patriarchy and subsequently challenge the Indian society’s definition of masculinity. The photographs included in the series show model Himanshu Singh aka Humhu — clad in what would not be termed as “quintessentially masculine” attire — posing in public places across Mumbai. The collaboration focuses on men’s reactions to Singh’s various looks or as the title suggests, it is a documentation of ‘the male gaze’.
“I really wanted to do a docu-style series. It also stemmed from the way I was. I don’t wear extremely flamboyant clothes, but given a choice, I would like to. It would be nice just to have that liberty, I thought that was missing. That’s when Male Gaze came into the picture. Both Deb and I do a lot of fashion shoots and editorials. We would do a lot of androgynous shoots, but what we wanted to do wasn’t just that. So, we thought let’s go outside, let’s capture the gaze. Let’s get people involved. The idea was to just go and see how they respond,” said Kolvankar about the conceptualisation of the series.
“During my postgraduate course in London, I explored a lot in terms of shooting different kinds of male models and that spurred my interest further in menswear. But after coming back to India I was underwhelmed by the fact there wasn’t too much innovation when it came to menswear. My options for exploring and shooting different kinds of menswear were getting limited. I started seeing stylists across the city starting to use womenswear on men, to create an interesting form on men and that kind of pushed me towards thinking in this direction,” said Sanyal.
However, what cemented Sanyal’s decision to go ahead with the project was a conversation she had with a close friend, who is also a male model. “Why can’t I wear a dark pink lace shirt and go out? Why don’t I have that colour or textile option for me in the store? Why should I be perceived in a certain way if I wear something flamboyant?” These were some questions Sanyal’s friend posed, and she didn’t know how to respond, but was determined to find answers.
Kolvankar and Sanyal had a clear vision in mind and were certain they wanted to take this dialogue into the public space, which would allow them to capture the reactions of men from various strata. Another aspect that was pivotal to the kind of outcome was choosing of model and according to Kolvankar, Singh was on their priority list from the get-go. “A lot of the styling was contingent on who the model would be. I didn’t have references. Usually, we have a mood board, this time around we didn’t. I kept telling Deb how I was going to narrow down on styling once the subject was on board. It was important that everything evolved with (the model’s) personality because the idea was to document the personality and not take away from it. After Himanshu agreed, the clothes were worked out according to him. I had gotten a bunch of clothes and was basically checking what would be his response to them. Some of the pieces we used were from his wardrobe. It helped mix it up a little bit. I didn’t want to take away from his personality because the next day, he was the one who was going to wear them and be on the streets,” said Kolvankar, explaining the styling process.
“I’ve always steered against popular dressing codes as a tendency more than a conscious choice since my early teens. My family and friends low key ridiculed me for it and that just went on to make me rebel more and make my clothes more whack. Around the time, I was also curiously researching on rock stars like Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Kurt Cobain playing around cross-dressing. I was interested in exploring the space of masculinity wrapped in a feminine robe from a performance art perspective. That happened to fall very much in line with their own exploration of their practice at that time. So it seemed like the perfect collaboration,” said Singh as he told us about his thought process while taking up the project.
But what goes into being part of a project that isn’t within the confines of a studio, in a setting where you are in a position that is vulnerable? “I aim at blending theatre and performance with fashion in my works. While preparing, I thought about building and performing this character who didn’t acquire effeminate traits after dressing up in women’s clothing. This character owns his vibe. He’s so comfortable in his own skin that it evokes acceptance from common folks on the streets. I’ve noticed many cis straight men sporting women’s clothes for great causes such as gender equality, feminist values etc. and while that is commendable, many a time they put on effeminate behaviour just for fun. I have a problem with that. While they might be doing it with the best of intentions, it seems more like a ridiculed caricature of the femme behaviour in a world where it is already ostracised and looked down upon. If a cis straight non-effeminate man wears female clothing, that shouldn’t change his original demeanour or behaviour. There is no need to appropriate and make fun of being femme. I was very keen on addressing that,” said Singh as he spoke about the kind of prep that went into getting geared up for this unconventional “guerilla style” photo series.
Shooting in locations like Gateway of India, Kala Ghoda and local train stations wasn’t easy, however, they made for perfect places to shoot at, keeping in mind the subject matter. “What we did not expect was the level of palpable patriarchy. I felt threatened even though I wasn’t the one wearing the clothes. I felt very uncomfortable. It wasn’t a typical fashion magazine shoot that might objectify people, it wasn’t an elaborate set-up. We were just there shooting in the natural setting. But we could hear them discussing amongst themselves and talking about what was happening. What took me by surprise was how they weren’t scared to express their apprehension and stared right at the camera almost confrontationally, which can be seen in a few shots,” said Kolvankar.
“Throughout the shoot, there were people who kept crossing/walking by the area we were shooting just so they could figure out what was going on. The photograph with Himanshu and a bunch of cab drivers looking into the frame is an interesting example of the kind of reactions we got. All the men were intrigued with what we were shooting and were very open to posing in front of the camera, rather than acting shocked or uninterested when Himanshu started speaking to them and it turned out to be a very interesting frame and definitely one of my favourites from the series,” added Sanyal.
Even though the subject matter of the shoot was sensitive, there were some light and humorous moments that kept everyone’s spirits up through the course of the shoot. Himanshu recalls one such instance — “This one time when I was wearing this see-through mesh top, a seemingly enthused random dude comes up to me and exclaims “Ismein se toh sab dikh raha hai!” I responded saying “Hai na!”, and we both shared a chuckle and he left. We all had quite a laugh about it.”
A shoot that was backed by a need to change narrow mindsets and the tedious and time-consuming process would not mean anything if not met with the desired result. When asked about the outcome Sanyal said “I don’t think any of us were working having an impact on our minds. The story was shot keeping our personal ideas and experiences in mind, so the impact was something that I, personally, did not ponder over a lot. However, Working in fashion, I’ve seen a couple of brands step it up and work towards genderless collections and while the wheels have just started turning and a lot of people are warming up to the fact that gender roles don’t need to be so strict, there still needs to be a lot more involvement from people who are not really related to this industry.”
But what about the future and what lies in store for fashion with respect to gender? “The people who are creating imagery are important parts of this discussion. A Ranveer Singh wearing a skirt on a red carpet helps. It has to work both ways for it (change) to trickle down from top to bottom. So, there is a shift and times are changing and hopefully there will be a time when genderless clothing will become a norm,” signs off Kolvankar on an optimistic note.
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