Men at work: film review

This guest post by IPSITA SENGUPTA is the second of a four-part series reviewing the films that form LTM 2.0

The Manly Men- a take on Men at Work

“Men at Work” is a documentary by Kesang Tseten, set in Nepal. From four different angles, the film takes a glimpse at ways in which young men are trained to be in the world out there.  It explores how socialisation of various types tend to steer them toward performing primarily as men.

Sometimes the training is done officially, as in the last two cases captured. Sometimes one’s profession demands one to do things regarded “manly” since time immemorial. Like working with grease and paint (to the point of applying machine oil on itchy skin), and getting drenched in sweat and dirt, as the characters did in segment-2, Lamaji’s Garage.

Sometimes what one observes becomes an ideal. In The Boy from My Window (segment-1), we see through a frame a young boy. The frame encases little chubby legs and the boy’s back, as he carries out domestic chores- sweeping, washing, watering plants. A jump cut as the boy hangs a sari out to dry- probably the monotony of it.

Everyday he is also witness to an alternate reality. The neighbourhood boys wear trainers and do warm up and stretching exercises, in preparation for a karate session, a game of football, etc. Our protagonist watches awestruck, holding his broom loosely behind him. And slowly starts imitating the individuals he sees, a happy wonder in his eyes. He finds himself a cap and wields the broom around like a player. As he scrubs shoes for an older man, he slips his little feet into them and admires the sight. He dreams of himself in a world that’s difficult for him to belong to at that moment in his life.

One of the basic requirements of the ideal masculine being anywhere around the world, is strength. Strength to be in control. Control over circumstances begins with control over oneself. Therefore the mission of the young boys in Becoming Priests (segment-3) to achieve spiritual strength, a step toward becoming a more complete individual. Here the task is to trade appearances for an inner calling toward sacrifice and spiritual knowledge. Thus we see an apprentice using a pink Disney towel as loincloth without giving it a thought- something most boys would have been worried sick about, especially with modern ideas of colours corresponding with gender identities. Homesickness is the weakness to be countered- a matter of mind over body. There is also training in diction and voice-throw: their show of power lies in things they say, and ways they chant toward “higher powers”.

Physical strength re-appears in the last segment, Becoming Gurkha. This time as more than just fitness training. The applicants to the army need to be “brave”, “honest”, with a sense of “confidence” and “discipline”, as we glean from the various interviews. To be “relaxed” in posture and vague in spirit is dangerous, because split second decisions have to be made in life-threatening situations. Alertness and knowledge of one’s surroundings is essential. To miss the love of one’s parents is a supposedly a sign of weakness- emotional constraint is important.

The men under training are following in the footsteps of generations of (male) soldiers that their families have seen before them. Some have gone to the extent of changing their caste to enrol in the profession regarded as one of the most masculine of all- to fight for one’s land. From the interviews, the machismo expected out of everyone seems to be lacking in some. Maybe in their heart of hearts they wanted to do something else. Art, music, farming, embroidery. Maybe their aptitude lies in  carrying out household tasks. But they are here.

The instances brought up in the film bring to mind again and again the cultural context in which these men are placed. This context is determined to some extent by the geographic location, South Asia, where traditional value systems dictate that a woman’s place is inside the house. The stove is her responsibility. But to keep the stove lit, i.e. economic security is the man’s job. A man can’t afford to be emotional- that would be too “feminine”, or as many men are made fun of- “effeminate”.

The rough, competitive world outside should be handled by the male adult, and “softer” chores- duties within the domestic sphere, lie on a woman’s shoulders. Crossing over these boundaries is frowned upon, especially if a man wants to do things considered feminine. In Lamaji’s Garage, (within the work space) the only trace of female characters is of a sportswoman in the newspaper, assumed at first by one of the workers to be a model or movie actor. In that male dominated space, characterised by machine parts, card games, cigarettes, and a chess board, she is still just an image. Or she is sitting safe away from the rain, taking care of a child. For the boy in the first story, freedom and mobility is offered through the image of sportspersons performing live in front of him. True that such emancipation would attract any child. But then, not a single girl is seen playing with the neighbourhood lads. Maybe he takes the message thus, that outdoor games are a boy thing.

The need to control often translates into violence. To maintain order in the running of the household, economic power gives men a sense of power over women, children, and those men seen as incapable of dominating over others due to their nature or physical characteristics. There is a constant striving toward the perfect male. Outlets for physical aggression and grasp over external circumstances, translate into professions hailed as manly- like military service. For priests, though physical show of might is eschewed, their exercises toward completeness of being (and thus preachers of special knowledge) are never shared by women. The ideal being is ultimately male. As simple as it was to traditionally use the word “Man” for all human beings, since it was made clear socially that women were not allowed in the space of public discourse.

Modernity, left behind by a colonial history, as well as the economic conditions of being a Third World region reinforced such division of labour, and contributed to imbalanced power relations in such societies. Thus the struggle to challenge mindsets continues in 2013, with work such as Men At Work.


Ipsita Sengupta is pursuing her Master’s in Film Studies at Ambedkar University, Delhi.

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