In 1996, Café Coffee Day opened its first outlet in Bangalore and transformed urban Indian life forever. For the middle- and upper-middle classes, coffee shop lounging soon became the new way to socialise, and the new spaces came to be celebrated in films and pop songs.
But there was another cultural shift underway, captured in this popular tune by pop band Aryans in 2001. In the music video, a humble, albeit dapper-looking coffee shop waiter wins the love of a female customer over the mugs of coffee that he serves her. Cafés, evidently, were not just a cool place to hang out in, but also a cool place to work in.
For young men and women from lower socio-economic backgrounds, a job at a coffee shop became one of the many new opportunities for social mobility in post-liberalisation India. In the 2000s, these opportunities exploded across Indian cities, with new malls, telecom companies and fast food joints constantly in need of attendants, salesmen and servers.
The men who work at these new jobs are the focus of a study by Dutch anthropologist Michiel Baas. “Most youth who take up jobs as coffee baristas or fitness trainers come from the lower-middle classes," he said. "These jobs provide alternate career options where you don’t necessarily need a degree but still make the kind of money that was once reserved for those with degrees.”
Baas's research focuses on how these new professional categories are changing patterns of upward mobility and the experiences of young professionals working for global brands such as Starbucks and Gold’s Gym. To Baas, the most intriguing of these new urban Indian professions is undoubtedly that of the fitness trainers – the lean, muscular men ubiquitous in the many gyms and fitness centres mushrooming across our cities. He's studying how the fitness training industry is shaping notions of masculinity.
A good gym trainer, he says, makes between Rs 8,000 to Rs 12,000 a month if employed by an established fitness brand. If he also works as a personal trainer on the side, he could earn up to Rs 1 lakh a month. But the move to the upper rungs of middle-class life is not just economic, says Baas.
Recruitment to these jobs – particularly ones with international brands – is largely based on merit, so it is empowering and liberating for most applicants when they are not judged for their caste, region or religious status.
“Moreover, a job at a gym is seen as glamorous – you get to hang out and connect with clients who are all from the upper middle classes, people who make more money than you," Baas said. "I’ve met trainers who have picked up different dressing styles from their clients, who are exposed to a larger world and who talk of travelling abroad.”
Woven intricately into such aspirational living is the glamorisation of the ideal body. Most gyms, Baas explains, recruit trainers on a commission basis. The more personal clients each trainer is able to bring in, the more commission he gets. So what makes a trainer more successful than others? “In most cases, the one with the better body, the larger, more toned muscles, will end up getting more clients,” he said.
Baas believes that in the recent past, Bollywood has provided a ready reckoner for the ideal, glamorous male body, by going “out of its way to create scenes where the muscular actor can go bare chested”.
“For years, women have been struggling because a certain kind of female body type has been glorified," Baas said. "Now, this is affecting men too, and because of the influence of Bollywood, the body that is considered desirable is a physique almost impossible to achieve.”
In a fitness industry driven by Bollywood, trainers seem to take this as a challenge – they want their clients to ask them how they managed to get their perfect biceps or six-pack abs.
“The lean, muscular body, then, comes to stand for a particular kind of masculine ideal – not just attractive, but also a symbol of accomplishment, because everyone knows it takes immense amount of dedication to build that kind of a body,” said Baas. “Ultimately, the goal of most gym trainers is to work as trainers within Bollywood.”