Changing codes of masculinity in India

May 24, 2022 | Publications

Neeraj Chopra

Golden boy Neeraj Chopra’s Olympic jubilation led to a rare and valuable feature – a Vogue India cover. For the first time, the epitome of fashion, beauty & lifestyle met an Indian male athlete. Remarkably, his picture wasn’t brawny with an aggressive war cry, muscular arms or pumping fists. The most celebrated man of the moment was brooding eyes, sharp features, and had fashionably unkempt hair.

This steers us towards an interesting shift in men’s beauty and grooming, a promising industry today, and tells us a lot about the subtle morphing of masculinity in India.

Through our colonisation history, society moulded men to not focus on beauty. Being rugged, raw and functional (as opposed to form) was appreciated. The general code was that of outward performance and service, mostly in the way of brawn.

For decades leading multinational brands toed the line with basic products for men’s grooming. Cinthol’s pensive and macho Vinod Khanna stood without a smile. Savage aftershave was again an intense picture of Jacky Shroff which could have been the same for his Charminar cigarette ad. For the old-weight mass brands, it continues now in the form of Salman Khan’s “ladkiyon wali cream nahi, bhai ki cream” Fair & Handsome.

Vintage posters of Cinthol bathing soap featuring superstar Vinod Khanna & Savage aftershave featuring Jacky Shroff
A grab from the TVC of Fair & Handsome

However, one may now feel an undercurrent of shift. Men’s covert grooming has started to acknowledge itself. “You have to look good when you go to any function… Or when you go to meet clients. If I’m dressing well but my hair is greying it doesn’t look good, so I colour frequently,” said a 34-year-old man from Gorakhpur. Work is redefining the expectations of grooming. Traveling by the Mumbai local train, men carry toilet kits to their work – facewashes, moisturisers, fragrances, and combs at the least. 

Accentuated by social media, the selfie is a constant lens focusing on one’s face. There’s little to divert attention, and therefore, the face becomes the vehicle of expression, making Gen Z men more candid about grooming and beauty.

Think of product ranges, packaging, and communication.

Big players have only tentatively forayed beyond bath and shaving. Seen as indulgent, grooming for men has traditionally been consolidated in all-in-one products – for those who do not spend time on vanity.

New-age brands have started mushrooming extensive portfolios. Beard grooming products, peel off masks, specific ingredients like Vitamin C, E, caffeine or specific oils, product action beyond acne, skin lightening and freshness like focussed de-tanning, and exfoliation – they are only beginning to share a common language of grooming irrespective of gender.

Exploring this wide range, men are now discerning which ingredient and what specific functional benefit they seek. It is no more all-in-one. Men are opening to the idea of personal needs, which until now was not a priority. 

However, visual language and packaging semiotically cue ruggedness and power. Driven by metallic blues, greys, browns, and blacks, with bold straight typefaces and minimalistic graphics of sharp lines and slants signal energy, dynamism, and force.

Even if new age brands speak about Vitamin C as an active ingredient they cling on to the old codes of masculinity. Brands are unsure of how much muscle they could flex without a tear.

Traditional communication is encapsulated by “mardo wali cream”. If that is Salman Khan’s Fair & Handsome, John Abraham is wheelieing around a sports bike applying Garnier on his face as if it were war paint. In the same vein Tiger Shroff jumps off buildings and cafeteria tables, running from killer metallic blades that are acne causing germs. The choice of celebrities amplifies the alpha codes along with the creative visualisation and upbeat music. A tightrope between the temptation of the market and the fear of being rebuked.

A grab from the TVC of Garnier Men PowerWhite Moisturiser
A grab from the TVC of Garnier Men Acno-Fight Anti Pimple Facewash

However, change is closer to home. Ranveer Singh in Nivea Men’s Acne Facewash talks about time spent on doing one’s hair and ‘an hour for choosing an outfit’. While many men would have spent time on contemplating what to wear, the shift is an acknowledgment without shame. It is breaking the code to value the time spent for the self. Virat Kohli’s Himalaya facewash is close enough – ‘Looking good and Loving it’. These are new age men – Ranveer popular with his experimental (and sometimes androgynous) fashion, while Virat stood out perhaps as the first athlete to be on a hyped paternity leave, skipping ‘duty’ in Australia.

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Ayushmann Khurana for The Man Company dons the characters of an online investment expert, a fitness influencer, and a food influencer for three different TVCs. These humour led ads are distinctly urbane in setting with plush indoors. They speak to today’s digital first audience and are a contrast to the bike riding, fist thumping, cold-coloured visuals. Ayushmann is also starkly removed from the burly Salman, John and Tiger. Besides his next-door personality, his on-screen characters explore men’s insecurities with baldness, weight, limited professional success, sexual orientation, and virility.

This shift makes grooming more acceptable and desirable. It allows men to shed the shyness attached with the pursuit of looking good. Ayushmann, Ranveer and Virat selling facewashes makes men ready to engage with beauty.

A clutch of other films from The Man’s Company, Men XP, Bombay Shaving Company, and Man Matters tries hammering down the wall of toxic masculinity. They talk about men being vulnerable, being burdened by patriarchy, not being able to express freely. Beyond the emotional weight of gendered expectations, the films talk about moments men steal to look at themselves in mirrors, or to tuck in their shirts, or to set their hair again – small symbols of preening. TMC’s spot ponders why one hasn’t written poetry on men’s eyes or a song on their ‘zulfein’.

Beyond muscle and mind, masculinity could be a lot of heart as well. Bombay Shaving Company with R Ashwin puts the man in pastels – green, pink, yellow and blue – a carousel of fresh, urbane visuals. It captures romance, work, wit, success and a burst of joy with kids as ‘playing with the best’. It’s a sharp ad for the new age man – who need not be defined by a power punched performance alone but are romantic and invested in, and enjoy, childcare.

The phenomenon is moving beyond metro cities. WOW Skin Science’s gender-neutral products (packed in vibrant colours with gold foiling) were promoted by Punjabi musician Parmish Verma (who has 6.9 million Instagram followers). Using an exfoliating brush, a toner and a serum he explains about controlling excess sebum. It is no more a hygiene skincare ad, but elaborates on ingredients, regimen and the final outcome of ‘hydrated, supple and glowing skin’.

Gym-built Parmish speaks in Punjabi, English and Hindi – making it relatable and aspirational, to the Punjabi youth – sharing minute details of skin care with an archetypal alpha male community.

Masculinity is slowly breaking away from futile self-imposed expectations. It is moving towards being more vulnerable, acknowledging emotions, or exploring one’s expression. What’s emerging is that the often-preserved idea of masculinity which could be dented by any form of expression is being shed.

We’re moving beyond the code of outbound duty – the burden of the world. A man could now also nurture the self. It’s a softer, more humane, more emotional version of the masculine. The emerging code is that of care. And with care comes awareness, empathy, and gentleness.

A step forward, we see this blossoming into active exploration of self-expression. Nivea men is now correcting flaws and removing blemishes. TMC’s men enjoy fresh pink lips. FAE – Free And Equal Beauty is Make-up for all.

FAE – beauty for everyone
Products and regimen beyond basic grooming – TMC’s Lightening Lip Balm, FAE’s Brash beard aesthetics and salon services at home by Urban Company

The Insta filter frenzy is only reflective of how men are flirting with transient expressions of beauty. Gen Z’s reels and ‘always-on-cam’ life makes one’s face a canvas of self-expression. The likes of Ankush Bahuguna and Siddharth Batra are making the skill, art and flamboyance of men & make-up reach millions online. Driven by a desire to be, it explores possibilities in a more open and wider world of many truths.

Men’s grooming is fast freeing itself of the fragility of needing a war-paint application of a face cream.

Ankush Bahuguna –

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