Once upon a time, the hot male body wasn’t common. Don’t get us wrong. There have always been hot men. But the idea of the hot male body wasn’t one that mattered much in Indian media. Only women’s bodies seemed to be everywhere. When people thought, wrote poems and sang songs about or took photographs of a woman’s body, it was almost always in terms of sex appeal. But the idea of the male body as sexy, as something to look at, as a subject of desire was infrequent and is a relatively new development. So how did we reach this place of six-pack sexy symbol men?
Yeh andar ki baat hai.
Follow us on an expedition as we investigate a very special historical object that tells us something about how men’s bodies were and are seen– the Indian men’s underwear ad.
They say the brain is the largest sexual organ. Because without your sexual imagination where would you be? In the 1970s and 80s, imagination was key because chaddi ads were mostly on the radio. A brand called Young India ran radio ads for their baniyan and underwear. The ads would cover up any awkwardness with over the top comical uncle-type voiceovers. Sexy-vexy chhodh do. Nobody was associating male sex appeal with underwear – yet.
As Santosh Desai, one of India’s sharpest observers of popular culture and CEO of Future Brands, says, “Underwear used to have nothing to do with sexuality for men in the 70s and 80s. Think about it – men of all ages used to walk around bare bodied in our homes and neighbourhoods. There was no eroticism attached to it. The eroticism was always attached to the female body. Not the male body so much. It was reflective of how men looked at themselves.”
Obviously, this is not to say that no one was having sex back then. Desai says, “Men took sex seriously, sure, but not their own sexuality.”
Even the actors in the 70s and early 80s didn’t set an aspirational value that had much to do with sex. Sanjeev Kumar and Rajesh Khanna were role models for men, but their masculinity did not lie particularly in their bodies. It lay in their manner and their conduct on screen and off. Most of the actors had soft, rounded figures. Of course, there were the overtly macho men like Dara Singh and Dharmendra but they were exceptions.
First, a note about the scene back then. Anurag Agnihotri, Executive Creative Director, Ogilvy & Mather says, “Brands like Amul and Rivolta had chaddi ads back then but they were generally about boxer briefs. Print ads didn’t have any models, just three superimposed pictures of white boxers. Some ads would be pasted on walls like film posters. But none of them spoke explicitly of male sexuality.”
A now-legendary VIP Frenchie newspaper ad in the late 1980s changed everything.
Source: India Forums
In the ad, Dalip Tahil gave off the air of an international man of mystery, holding the woman in the red dress in one arm, sending the bad guy flying with the other arm as his robe flew open to reveal his high cut VIP Frenchie briefs. It was a bright moment in the sexual imagination of a certain generation.
Desai says, “Suddenly, there’s a dude standing in the middle of a road in a tighty whitey, saving women and looking all macho. A garment that men never associated with sexuality or body image suddenly started becoming linked. The ad made men think: ‘Am I macho enough in my chaddi?’”
During this period, the macho body was slowly becoming part of bhadralok middle class masculinity too. Actors like Vinod Khanna were big screen heart throbs, and cricketer Imran Khan’s handsome frame made quite an impact on cricket-loving Indian men. The VIP Frenchie ad was either perfectly timed or destiny in a flyaway robe. Suddenly, chaddis ceased to be wholly comical. The ad suddenly brought female attention to men in a way they’d never considered possible. Who would’ve thought that of all things in the world, women would notice men for their chaddis? But they did. Lalitha Vaidyanathan, an advertising consultant who has spent 30 years in the industry, remembers that moment when it dawned on the male population that their bodies mattered. “When the VIP Frenchie ad released in the 80s, I was in college. There was a half-page print ad of it in The Times of India. I remember boys in college used to have cut-outs of it and us women would giggle and talk about it a lot. The fact that women took notice of this ad made men realise that underwear could also be a tool for sexual attraction.”
And that women could have the look of lust in their eyes too, macha.
The VIP Frenchie ad was followed by a decade in which men became more open to exploring their own sexualities through their body image. Desai says, “I remember seeing Jackie Shroff on the cover of Stardust magazine in the 90s. He was standing boldly in a Y-front chaddi. Something, you’d never see in the 70s or 80s.” And where the stars led, aam janta followed.
Manish Bhatt, co-founder of Scarecrow Communications says, “When the market flooded with ads in the 90s where women were either rescued or impressed with men in Y-fronts or tight boxers, men believed this is how women perceive their sex appeal to be. How heterosexual men perceived their own sexuality was related to how they believed women perceived them, thanks to ads.”
Neville Shah, stand-up comedian and executive creative director at Ogilvy and Mather, argues, “To sexualise the male form, chaddi ads always used women in them. This was never the case with ads for female products. The famous Liril soap girl in the 90s ad bathed under a waterfall all by herself, with no man to sexualise her or make her feel sexy. She felt sexy on her own. But ads for men’s products… they weren’t about feeling sexy themselves, but feeling sexy for the opposite sex.”
So the ads were in a heteronormative world – boys like girls like boys. Of course the consumers were not – whoever liked looking at boys in chaddis, straight or gay, was looking at them happily.
The 2000s to now
Over the last two decades, men in underwear ads have gone from being depicted as sexual beings to being sexual objects. Maane? Remember the controversial Amul Macho ad (2007) showing Sana Khan symbolically communicating her husband’s skills in bed by provocatively scrubbing his very large boxer briefs and showing off to jealous women in the village? “Yeh toh bada toing hai,” became a catchy slogan to sexualise underwear models. Despite not showing a male model in the ad, it clearly communicated that the toing man was the object of the woman’s desire.
While the old Frenchie ads made angrezi-type jokes about stretching things too much, the newer ads work in a more desi way.
But there was one more notable shift in these ads. It was from the male body in general to the penis.
Ever wondered how chaddis on hot-hot models displayed on huge billboards look, you know, ahem, so large? Every model can’t have that huge a toing, no? Prathik Panchamia, a Mumbai-based fashion photographer explained, “Well, there’s a lot of stuffing done for the model during the make-up processes to make the fit look uniform. Usually, cotton and athletic padding are used to even the underwear out during close-up shots.”
Then, in a 2008 VIP Frenchie X ad, a male model tries to have sex with his girlfriend who constantly rejects him till she sees him in a pair of Frenchie X underwear (and his six-pack). Suddenly, she slams the door behind her, presumably to do the naughty-naughty with her boyfriend. This shows a definition transition in underwear ads as we move from sexy to sex.
Even a EURO advertisement in 2014, showed a white dude taking a dip in a waterfall, only to find himself surrounded by white ‘jungle women’, feeling him up after he comes out of the water in his Y-fronts.
Setting aside the problems with the tagline of the EURO ad, “Prepare to get assaulted,” these ads reflect the shift from ‘I desire’ to ‘I want to be desired’. And beyond that, they reflect and encourage the possibility of more and more Indian women saying: I desire.
Today’s underwear ads have Sidharth Malhotra wearing Rupa undies on some James Bond-style missions while promising to #StartSomethingSexy. The dim memory of the kacchas that Govinda might have worn in the 90s in a Rupa ad (we’re guessing because they stayed andar ki baat) are eclipsed by American-style boxers.
As the underwear and its ad has changed, so has the body wearing it. Unlike Tahil in that old VIP Frenchie ad, today’s underwear model is perfectly sculpted and completely hairless.
The hot man in the underwear ad has gone from the boy-who-lives-next-door to the-boy-who-lives-in-the-gym. ‘Let no one have any doubt’, these sprawling men seem to say, ‘that this is the desirable male body.’ So while the ad conveys a sense of freedom and confidence in one way, it also enforces limitations in another way. What if you don’t conform to this body type?
Uska model mere model se safed kaise
Over the years, sexy machismo in chaddi ads has become all about white models. It’s not just the skin tone; it’s also the shape and size of obviously foreign models looming over Indian men. Is this a problem? How did this happen?
Ajesh N, group creative head at Dentsu India, explains that Indian brands like Amul, Rupa, VIP and Chromosome saw their market share threatened by the entry of international brands like Jockey, Calvin Klein, FCUK, Hanes and EURO. Ajesh says, “International brands wanted their ads to look the same worldwide, so there was no Indian model for an Indian audience, just a hot white dude for all their markets. This became a big hit. It tied male desirability closer to the idea of looking like a white model – sharp jawline, sharper haircut, sharp abs. Indian brands like Rupa and VIP started borrowing this idea slowly. Soon, we started seeing white dudes in Indian chaddi brands too. Out with the Sunny Deols and Salman Khans, and in with the machine-pressed white male model.”
What do men think of chaddi ads?
How do the bodies in today’s ads make men feel about themselves?
Sarvesh Talreja, a Mumbai-based writer says, “I know I’m never going to be that guy in the billboard with the abs and I don’t want to either. But for sexually active men, these ads do leave an impact. For example, I subconsciously find myself thinking about my fashion choices down there when I am in the company of a girl and we are undressing for sex.”
32-year-old Nataraj Kumar, a manager at a private bank in Chennai, says, “Some of these ads made me feel body conscious. I envied the sexual confidence they displayed. I know it’s all a gimmick and far from reality, but who doesn’t like to think of themselves as the hot dude who gets the women?”Parmesh Shahani, Head of Godrej India Culture Lab, doesn’t look at it that way. He says, “You see a lot of underwear model pictures being used on the dating app Grindr. It reflects how people, straight or queer, would like to others to see them.” Shahani says these ads feed quite well into the queer imagination. “They are very queer-flexible — less from a sexual perspective and more from an imaginative one. The covert tropes of sexy machismo is quite fun.”
Bhala usska model mere model se safed kaise is not a nice feeling for many men with reference to so many firangi male models. Mohan Panicker, a Kochi-based IT professional, says looking at white model chaddis only makes him body conscious. He says, “I come from an environment where I was always teased for my dark skin. It was bad enough to see hoardings of international clothing brands showing white models endorsing jeans and t-shirts, but now even something as basic and intimate as underwear is not being spared. I feel like my dark skin will constantly be unacceptable and undesirable.”
Through our short historical chaddi expedition, two things become clear: Underwear ads opened up an idea of sexiness through images of the male body and that’s great. But, at the same time, these ads began to prescribe norms for what kind of male body is sexy. And that’s a pity.
Those of us who desire men — men, women and transpeople — believe in size in only one matter. The size of our hearts to desire all kinds of men – the slender, the non-muscular, the hairy and of a range of colour. Sometimes, it makes our hearts flutter when movies and pop culture reflect the range of our lust. It’s too bad that in the ad world, men are still desirable only if they fit into the conventional brackets of desire.