Cyborg Hyper-masculinity: Reading the Super-Male in Robot (2010) and Ra.One (2011)
This scholarly paper appeared in a special feature on Indian Science Fiction in the literary journal Muse India, Issue 61 May-June 2015.
In one awkwardly crass, albeit puerilely humorous moment, in the film Ra.One an almost defeated G-One (Shahrukh Khan), in the final showdown with Ra.One (Arjun Rampal), is instructed by Ra.One’s real-life child-nemesis Lucifer to lunge out at Ra.One’s “main part”. G.One, in his short, but colourful romp around the real world after his ejection from the virtual, having earlier responded to similar instructions to fulfilling effect in scuffles with petty criminals, is quite surprised when the same death blow falls flat in this occasion. After a long, uncomfortable pause, Ra.One stares at G.One’s face and enquires in a tight voice, “What are you doing G.One?” G.One, spluttering and abashed, replies, “I… don’t know.” The root of the matter –although quickly elided in the scene – is the fact that, unlike the real-life people that G-One was encountering outside of his game world, Ra.One does not possess a penis – a fail-safe last resort target in a physical brawl, his “main part”. This “main part” (or lack thereof) seems to form an inadvertently emphatic, although not explicitly stated, and certainly not highly unlikely, raison d’être of two Indian science-fiction films, S. Shankar’s Enthiran (Robot)i and Anubhav Sinha’s Ra.One – the former released in 2010 and the latter, 2011. In this paper I will be attempting to delineate the hyper-masculine contour of the cyborg body represented in the two films, and will examine how the socio-cultural milieu within which they have been pitched impacts and configures their morphological as well as psychosocial structure.
Shankar’s Enthiran has the brilliant scientist Vaseegaran working late hours strenuously to produce the multi-tasking, multi-powered cutting-edge technological innovation, an android robot, named Chitti. This robot, originally conceived as a mass-produced soldier-in-arms to be deployed at large in the Indian Army after sufficient testing and approval, is to be signalled ahead by the Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Institute. At the helm of the institute is Vaseegaran’s erstwhile mentor and arch-rival, Bohra, who envies Vaseegaran’s success in manufacturing a fully functional advanced android robot, highly proficient in a vast range of human/computational activities, accomplishing each task with flair and perfection, while his own attempt at the same has produced a rickety machine man with a stuttering gait which persists, to his great frustration, in failing miserably at assigned tasks. Chitti also forms the bone of contention between Vaseegaran (Rajnikanth) and his beloved Sana (Aishwarya Rai) who harps on about Vasee’s neglect of their relationship owing to his preoccupation with his work. Fully formed, Chitti, created in the image of Vasee then starts to appeal to Sana as he fills the spaces left absent by Vaseegaran, to the extent that, to his horror – the latter starts quickly realising – he slowly starts altogether displacing Vasee.
Anubhav Sinha’s Ra.One, on the other hand, is set in London. Although, as opposed to Enthiran set in Chennai – either as homage to the preceding sci-fi blockbuster, or rather, as a caricature of the same – it portrays a Tamil diaspora, with Shahrukh in the role of Shekhar Subramanium, a game designer in the process of creating a new game in a last bid attempt to save his company from its dying throes, as well as to impress his son who seems to detest his every move. He ends up conceptualising a game in which the antagonist is by far more powerful and alluring than the protagonist, as per Prateek’s preference. But this tryst with the cult of the anti-hero proves far more treacherous than anticipated.
Somehow, the program he has used to design Ra.One starts exhibiting strange signs of animation, begins to improvise without external programmers inserting new codes and instructions, and, finally, by exploiting a new technology that’s being developed in the laboratory simultaneously, he coalesces into an actual entity in the human world, in pursuit of Lucifer (Prateek’s gameworld alter-ego) who abandoned the game mid-way. What follows is a large-scale massacre in the wake of Ra.One chasing Prateek, leaving Akashi – Shekhar’s Chinese colleague, who first noticed Ra.One’s unusual behaviour – as well as Shekhar dead. Devastated, Shekhar’s wife Sonia (Kareena Kapoor) decides to move back to Bombay with Prateek. Now repentant at having contemptuously rejected Shekhar’s gestures of affection before his death, Prateek refuses to be unfaithful to his father’s memory, and trusting that Shekhar would have built in a defence mechanism to counter such a scenario, succeeds in summoning G.One, the protagonist of the game (made in the image of Shekhar) to life à la Ra.One.
The cyborg figure in both films, Chitti in Enthiran and, at least G.One in Ra.One are structurally similar in that, both are created and offered as potential remedies, Chitti as a warrior who can be entrusted with safeguarding the nation, while G.One as a defence against Ra.One, as a palliative to the destruction wreaked by Ra.One. The cyborg figure, as demonstrated by both G.One and Chitti, are manufactured as amalgamations of the partially human and the mechanical. As Donna Haraway succinctly observes in ‘The Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,’
A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction… The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centres structuring any possibility of historical transformation (Haraway 1991: Web).
Although Haraway, here, is speaking in another context – her use of the cyborg body engenders an emancipatory model from the gender binary that generates deep-rooted forms of entrenched gender prejudices, the cyborg as formulated by the two films here, isn’t tremendously removed from a context of material social relations, in fact it is firmly situated within the cultural milieu which exemplifies the social relationships extant within the same context and precipitates a solution to an inadequacy sensed in the same set of social relations as represented by the central characters. While Haraway’s cyborg is unmarked by the virulent processes of identity politics – and this lack of legible recognition and assimilation into the grid of a gender matrix is what produces its subversive potency – the cyborgs presented within the two films are anything but approximating the same politics combative of the status quo. Haraway’s cyborg
is a creature in a post-gender world; it has no truck with bisexuality, pre-Oedipal symbioses, unalienated labour, or seductions to organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity. […] the cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence (Haraway 1991: Web).
The utopian cyborg, which forms a liberating telos to a historical continuity marked by violence and oppression, can be then construed to be concretely presented within the present as thus a hybrid of “both [a utopian]ii imagination and material reality” (Haraway 1991: Web). But, here, when set up within a temporal gradient of the past, present and the future, while on one hand, the cyborg is a manifestation into the present of a postulated future, the cyborg is also simultaneously a crystallisation of the receded past in the present, manifested as a compensatory prosthetic to a sensed inadequacy in the past channelled into the present and remedied. But, the cyborg here, does not exist as a diffuse remedy to a macrocosmic social reality which is contained within the past generally, but the cyborg is, instead, a tangible, structured response. In the two films, both Chitti and G.One are therapeutic extensions to their counterparts, therapeutic extensions to their own creators. And in both cases, they are highly gendered alter-egos, antidotes, in fact, to less than desirable quotidian masculinities. Chitti fills the vacuum in Sana’s life which was supposed to be rightfully occupied by Vaseegaran, and G.One, in turn fills the vacuum left by Shekhar after his death. Both Chitti and G.One are masculine prosthetics, extreme versions of masculinity that aim to counteract the diminished tenor of the same in Vaseegaran and Shekhar. Vaseegaran and Shekhar, although fulfilling one possibly desirable convention of masculinity, that of the thinker (an epitome of intellect which configures the gender binary with the male as a claimant to the intellect and the woman as indebted to the body owing to her ideologically naturalised function as an innate nurturer on account of being the childbearer), are still incomplete men. Furthermore, both are again versions of yet another male stereotype of excellence in mathematical, technical skills – that thick-glassed, pimply-faced geek always glued to his computer ideating, this time graduated from the ignored adolescent to a desired adult male by dint of the direct connections of his erstwhile indulged “obsession” to a full-fledged career siphoning in great amounts of capital to the home, in turn “scoring” the most beautiful, desirable women, and firmly sealing the family unit. But, some of the earlier stigma remains, as it so appears, neither Vaseegaran nor Shekhar can declare himself to be “a Man” with a capital M and swagger, until they prove their mettle as guardians of their women.
The patriarchal, hetero-normative nature of the society that they belong to, and microcosmically illustrate in their personal lives, is patently evident in the roles performed by Chitti and G.One. Chitti is the more powerful, more dedicated alternative to Vaseegaran for Sana, who saves her from several confrontations from the local gangs, too many of them sexual assaults bordering on rape. G.One on the other hand, while he mostly saves Sonia and Prateek from the threatening clutches of Ra.One, other minor fracas ensue with local rowdies again, where Sonia is rescued and not so subtly informed of, firstly, his indispensability as a male partner and saviour, as well as, consequently, her fragility as a woman if bereft of his reassuring presence. Needless to say, the masculinities expressed by both Chitti and G.One are extreme, and repellently regressive versions which find manifestation as oppositional to and because of the relegation of their female counterparts to passive roles who are rendered into custodians of culture and chastity which behoves Chitti and G.One to safeguard at all costs. The masculinity performed here, needs to be firmly contextualised and juxtaposed each with respect to their alter-egos. If Chitti and G.One perform hypermasculinities of the order delineated, the excess in masculinity can be construed a technologically bolstered prosthetic, but the masculinity performed by Vaseegaran and Shekhar are masculinity as prosthetic nonetheless, since masculinity itself needs to be deconstructed as a “prosthetic reality – a ‘prefixing’ of the rules of gender and sexuality; an appendix or addition, that willy-nilly, supplements and suspends a “lack-in-being,” (Bhabha 1995: 57) as Homi Bhabha puts it in his piece, ‘Are you a man or a mouse?’ The construction of masculinity in the two films is uncomplicatedly binaristic and polarised, and unfolds in as a straightforward process of social conditioning, the construction of masculinity here that can be parsed into – if examining the social processes undergirding its form – a set of recognisable, dominant traits. Anne Fausto-Sterling, writing in ‘How to Build a Man,’ notes that to bring a performance of masculinity to fruition,
To begin with, normally developing little boys must be active and willing to push one another around: maleness and aggression go together. Eventually, little boys become socialised into appropriate adult behaviour, which includes heterosexual fantasy and activity. Adolescent boys do not dream of marriage, but of careers and a professional future. A healthy adolescent girl, in contrast, must fantasise about falling in love, marrying, and raising children (Fausto-Sterling 1995: 132).
Moreover, Fausto-Sterling writes, “Of course, we know already that for men the true mark of heterosexuality involves vaginal penetration with the penis. Other activities, even if they are with a woman, do not really count” (Fausto-Sterling 1995: 132). Masculinity as a prosthetic reality that is fabricated in order to mask, through excess, an underlying lack, can be interpreted in broadly two ways in Ra.One and Robot. Chitti and G.One as an enunciation of a desired version of alternate to Vaseegaran and Shekhar, to balance out the former’s lack of attention to Sana and lack of sheer physical prowess that fortifies the woman who will go on to lay the foundation for the family subsequently, while in the latter, Shekhar’s less than enchanting performance of a father figure who fails to be Prateek’s hero and role model. The locus of power, the phallus, here, is absent in both Vaseegaran and Shekhar, men who can’t swoop to the rescue of the family structure at the moment of need – here, the family structure is metonymically represented by Sana, Sonia and Prateek – but is relocated into the figures of Chitti and G.One, who exude raw power and are invincible, almost.
The caveat to their invincibility significantly conditions the limits to the masculinity embodied by the two cyborgs. The phallus, the signifier of power here seems to shift restlessly between the bodies of the different men; although Chitti and G.One are created to be reserves of physical and social power the predominance of which gets firmly reinforced and amplified when they are in the vicinity of the female leads doubly reiterating their prowess as little more than aggressive accounts of one particular type of masculinity, their masculinity is definitively undercut by the absence of the anatomical locus construed to be the original marker of the phallus in the male body – the penis. Far more significant than the diffusion of excess masculinity all over the male body constructed in the form of the cyborg, the inexorable and mandatorily masculine stipulation in order to validate masculinity is the presence of the penis which forms the bone of contention with Chitti and G.One. Chitti’s perpetual grouse is his lurking suspicion that Sana’s refusal to accept him as his lover hinges on this lack, while the same lack forms the butt of several homoerotic-verging-on-homophobic jokes in Ra.One. Thus, the instances of excessive masculinity, taking both the cases into account, is firstly assembled as a fragmentary ensemble of machine, body and personality corresponding to the male protagonist in each film – a lack identified in Vaseegaran and Shekhar; secondly, the excessive masculine prosthetic of the cyborgs in both film can be read as an explosive disguising of the central lack of the masculine anatomical phallic signifier, the penis. In fact, the elaborate ensemble that forms the morphology of the cyborg can, furthering the hermeneutic stride, be interpreted as a sophisticated, highly intricate fashioning of a fetishised masculinity. Freud’s definition of the fetish is relevant in this context.
Freud, in the 1927 piece ‘Fetishism’ delineates the process by which fetish formation occurs. Defined as a “a substitute for the penis” (Freud 1956: 152) the fetish is the casting into (often, erotic) privilege of an object as a substitute for not just any penis but a special kind of penis, which is the mother’s penis which the child originally assumed existed, but the subsequent discovery of its absence creates the source of the fear of castration. The child, according to Freud “‘scotomizes’ his perception of the lack of the penis” (Freud 1956: 153), and this disavowal of the lack of the penis manifests as the erasure of the repudiation by substitution of another object on/part of the female body – usually inanimate, but in instances fragmented body parts transformed into the fetish as well – in place of the penis, and imbued with the phallic signifier, thus fetishised. Although a feminist critique of the notion of fetishism could take issue with Freud’s contention that the boy naturally assumes that the mother was originally picturised by the boy in the sense of the same male “completion” denoted by the presence of the penis and rendered lacking in contrast, the process of substitution of power loci in the formation of the fetish provided by the framework is nevertheless interesting and productive.
The cyborg body’s excessively masculine prosthesis can then be reinterpreted as a surfeit generated by the trauma of the lack that gets sublimated into the masculinised body of the fetishised cyborg. Amanda Fernbach writes in her piece, ‘The Fetishisation of Masculinity in Science Fiction: The Cyborg and the Console Cowboy,’ that, such a cyborg body can be read as a technofetish in the vein of one of the earliest cyborg warriors in science-fiction cinema, the Terminator, the features of which can be extrapolated to both Chitti and G.One. “Ordinary masculinity lacks and the technological Terminator represents a fetishised, idealised masculinity that is a desirable alternative” (Fernbach 2000: 237). The configuration of the cyborg as a composite of technoparts is also revealing, in that,
the very excess of the filmic cyborg’s masculinity also suggests a fetishistic fantasy in which the technoparts acknowledge the very lack they also mask. More suggests less, the piling up of phallic technofetishes implies that a male anxiety is being masked. This anxiety arises from the partial nature of real bodies, the incomplete, arbitrary nature of the flesh […] The male cyborg is himself the site of fetishisation, where male lack is disavowed through the magic of the technopart (Fernbach 2000: 239).
Both Robot and Ra.One derive hugely from the Terminator films; regions of contact are wide, starting from the similarity of the cyborg figures Chitti, G.One and Ra.One in especially the first two Terminator films, to their remarkably similar mission to save one particular chosen woman/family in question. Chitti’s development into an antagonistic cyborg after Bohra rewrites his neural schema, coding in the same proportion of destructive tendencies compared to his earlier creative avatar, makes him remarkably akin to the destructive Terminator in the first film, T-800, who is sent back from the future to destroy Sarah Connor before she gives birth to John Connor. Visually as well, the composition of Chitti, with his fleshy exterior tearing off to reveal a metallic skeleton, red pinpricks for eyes, and especially, his revival after Vaseegaran dismembers him and he’s left abandoned in a garbage dump on the outskirts of the city – his sinister metallic arm shooting out of the debris – is again, a quote straight out of theTerminator films. G.One on the other hand is a rehash of the T-800 Terminator deployed by the future John Connor to save his younger self from the advanced T-1000: Prateek is a poor imitation of this younger John who G.One escapes the peripheries of the virtual world to save.
While Chitti and G.One are reiterations of desired masculinity compared to Vaseegaran and Shekhar, they are, in spite of everything still redundant vis-á-vis the social matrix into which they are introduced precisely because their mechanical character is irreconcilably at odds with the familial, reproductive impetus behind the structure, but also because the society is ineluctably anthropocentric. Sana, when wooed by Chitti, refuses it not on the count that he may be unable to satisfy her sexually or due his impotence, but, because, as she insists, the coming together of a human and machine is against nature. G.One’s is a more humble counterpoint, where he is already aware that he doesn’t belong to the human world and the onus placed on him to carry back the last remnants of Ra.One to his own universe is but a flimsy ruse to protect the anthropocentric condition. Ra.One and antagonist Chitti, thus become warnings against this mechanical liberator ushering in the future, as idealised masculinities gone wrong – the message implicit appears to be that idealised masculinity is only desirable insofar as it can be tempered by “feelings” and “emotions” and acculturation (as demonstrated by the long periods of subjecting both Chitti and G.One to the practise and acquisition of socio-cultural values), but must be, finally resisted because of the ever immanent threat of the same turning monstrous.
The techno-fetishised hypermasculine cyborg is liable to corrupt quickly, as witnessed in Chitti’s turning, and as demonstrated through the very nature of Ra.One. The promise of invincibility is rendered deceptive, and it is fragility and fallibility that decidedly govern the borders of being human. Both Chitti and G.One are products that try to imaginatively rocket out of their socio-cultural milieus on the engine of technological enhancement, but their limitations are shaped by the values disseminated by the same cultural confines. More importantly, the definitions of acculturation, alarmingly, but obviously for the patriarchal societies they both portray, are predicated upon the policing of the female body. Chitti commits an unforgivable cultural gaffe when he dares to save a naked woman from a fire and brings her out into the public gaze without bothering to cover her with clothes and thus irreversibly violates her modesty; G.One (in a supposedly hilarious moment) keeps placing his hands on Sonia’s breasts by accident and has to be taught that the woman’s body is out of bounds for anybody except a male sanctioned to cross the threshold after being legitimised by the institution of marriage.
By the end of both films, Chitti and G.One (as well as Ra.One) are neatly removed from the narratives to emphatically re-establish the sanctity of the anthropocentric Indian society. Both Chitti and G.One are perfect versions of Indian men; more parochially, Hindu men who have swallowed the scriptures whole – Chitti and G.One both recite excerpts from the Vedas/the Gita to validate their viewpoints, and, needless to say Ra.One and G.One are modelled on the Ram/Raavan rivalry from the Ramayana. The final elision of the cyborg might lead one to believe the implication to be one countering the hegemony of masculinity, but the elision of hypermasculinity performs the sly function, instead, of reinforcing normative cultural masculinities, and re-enshrines the supremacy of the heteronormative family unit that needs to be protected at all costs in order to continually rejuvenate, macrocosmically, a highly parochial, nationalisticiii, patriarchal society.
- Bhabha, Homi K. 1995. ‘Are You a Man or a Mouse?’ in Constructing Masculinity. Ed. Maurice Berger, Brian Wallis and Simon Watson. New York: Routledge.
- Fausto-Sterling, Anne. 1995. ‘How to Build a Man’ in Constructing Masculinity. Ed. Maurice Berger, Brian Wallis and Simon Watson. New York: Routledge.
- Fernbach, Amanda. 2015. ‘The Fetishization of Masculinity in Science Fiction: The Cyborg and the Console Cowboy’ in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 27, No.2. (Jul 2000). 234-255. JSTOR. Web. Date of Access – 28thMarch.
- Freud, Sigmund. 1956. ‘Fetishism’ (Trans. J. Strachey) in The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth Press. Web. Date of Access – 28th March.
- Haraway, Donna. ‘The Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.’ The European Graduate School. Web. Date of access – 31st March 2015.
- Ra.One. Dir. Anubhav Sinha. Perf. Shahrukh Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Arjun Rampal. Red Chillies Entertainment, 2011. Film.
- Robot (Enthiran). Dir. S. Shankar. Perf. Rajnikanth, Aishwarya Rai. Sun Pictures, 2010. Film.
- The Terminator (Franchise). Dir. James Cameron. Perf. Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Orion Pictures, Tri-Star Pictures, 1984–1991. Film.
i This paper will be referring to the Hindi dub of the film, Robot, released the same year, not the Tamil original.
ii Insertion mine.
iii Not merely, as elaborated the national project being fashioned as overtly masculine and Hindu, but the national project firmly defining itself against other nations, a case in point here – Ra.One’s first avatar as the demonized Chinese colleague Akashi, who is killed by the game Ra.One in order to be able to impersonate him in the real world. Secondly, the Ra.One-Akashi cyborg who goes on a killing spree in pursuit of Prateek, on returning to Akashi’s family home, kills Akashi’s mother crudely proclaiming, “I don’t like Chinese.”