‘A real man takes no for an answer’

Photo: Getty Images

Edited Excerpts from an Interview

How did Men Against Rape and Discrimination (MARD) come about?
The harassment and oppression of women in our country has bothered me for years. After the young woman was molested in Guwahati while a crowd of mute spectators stood by, after the ‘Baby Falak’ case, after the horrific Delhi gangrape, I was so angry that I would have had a nervous breakdown if I didn’t channel my rage. To add to the sick crimes, the police, politicians and other public figures made statements that seemed to blame the victims, giving outdated ideas and twisted values a kind of legitimacy. I felt the need to confront people, especially those in their formative years, with some truths about fundamental axioms of dignity, decency and proper behaviour. I spoke to my friend [the photographer] Atul Kasbekar about this, and we decided to launch a campaign targeting young minds.

How do you plan to reach your targeted groups?
MARD is an attempt to ask men to rethink what their notions of being a man is. Our idea of ‘manliness’ is informed by various things: family, teachers, peers, pop culture, films, music, careers, expectations, etc. We’re trying to establish alternatives to what we are conditioned to believe is ‘manly’. To show that sensitivity is manly. That it is more courageous to show restraint, than to be an aggressor. That it is courageous to be able to take ‘no’ for an answer. There are many activities planned around this. There’s a poem that my dad [Javed Akhtar] wrote, and we’re getting it translated and transcribed into as many regional languages as we can. I understand that it’s a hugely ambitious plan, which is why we are taking help from people around the country, looking for people to help us add local nuances and put our message in context so that nothing is misconstrued. I’m open to a whole range of ideas to take this forward, including conversations like this one. I interact with students whenever I perform at college festivals. And there’s social media, where we’re getting a lot of traction.

Is your campaign only aimed at young people? What about their parents?
I think parents are culpable for maintaining the status quo, for perpetuating these absurd notions about what it means to be a boy or a girl. Whenever someone’s had a boy, and they pass the baby around, one of the things relatives will say in a mischievous tone is, “Abhi se flirt kar raha hai (Look, he’s already flirting)”. They say it with pride. Now I have absolutely no problems with this, but would they ever say that if the baby was a girl? From childhood, men have been impacted by flawed expectations. But I know my priorities. I’m contributing to finding a way out of this morass. There are still others who will address different issues.

So is your concern the lack of role models in society?
No, a role model is too idealistic, too perfect and certainly too great a burden to be carried by one person. I have nothing against role models, but people have to change from within. This is an initiative for everyone, let’s not leave it to the ‘role models’.

Before MARD, you appeared in a Delhi Police ad campaign asking if we were “man enough” to join you in “protecting women”. Do women need male protection?
I think that’s reading too deeply into it. One very disturbing aspect in the past five years has been the rise in gangrapes. Unfortunately, we live in a country entrenched in patriarchal norms. Now, if you were to see a woman being harassed on the streets, would you close your eyes because it might be condescending to her if you, as a man, were to try and help? In an ideal world, men wouldn’t have to be ‘the protectors’. And many women too have equally donned that mantle. I would extend the analogy to a man helping another man too. The best we can do today is to change whatever enables violence against women. Having said that, I did have other problems with the Delhi Police ad.

What kind of problems?
When Delhi Police approached me for this ad, I felt it was a worthy cause. But soon after this ad came out, there was that sting that TEHELKA did, where police officers across Delhi were caught giving all sorts of barbaric reasons why rapes happen. I felt really shattered. Maybe it was the opinion of a few policemen, but it was just so wrong. It hit me really hard that if the police were going to ask people to reevaluate their mindsets, the police should have set their house in order first.

Deconstructing machismo Akhtar performs at a concert as part of his MARD campaign
Deconstructing machismo Akhtar performs at a concert as part of his MARD campaign

About MARD, the logo features a moustache and the name leaves out women…
Well, about the name of the campaign, I don’t see what the problem is. I mean if the problem stems from men acting like jerks, it’s only appropriate to take the issue up with them first. Women are a big part of the initiative — whether in the conversations, or in spreading the word — but it’s the behaviour of men that we’re trying to change. The moustache is symbolic. People usually associate moustaches with men.

But when you say men should behave with honour, it sends out a mixed signal. Honour in some parts of the country means killing your sister if she marries against the family’s wishes.
No, by honour I mean a fundamental regard and respect for fellow human beings. It is something that you earn, and cannot be obtained by force. It’s the honour you earn by respecting the rights of the other person. I know it can be taken in a different context, and we’re very wary of that. When we go to the smaller towns, and to the rest of the country, we will make sure that people don’t misinterpret what we’re trying to convey.

Since you’re in the thick of the cinema industry, how do you see Bollywood playing a role in changing how we view women?
It is a problem as of now, and I think we should all introspect and see how we can make movies without objectifying women. It’s not that we haven’t made those films. There are many who don’t follow the norm and have made films that portray women in an unconventional light. The point is those movies have also been successful. It’s not the market, the problem is us. We definitely need to invest more in that thought.