The trailer of Salman Khan’s upcoming Sultan features the hunk as a grown-up version of Raju from the Chhota Bheem animated series. Dressed in black briefs and looking extraordinarily fit for a 51-year-old, Khan kicks up a dust storm as he easily vanquishes his opponent in the wrestling ring. Directed by Ali Abbas Zafar and featuring Khan as a wrestler from Haryana, Sultan will be released on July 6.
Khan has appeared bare-chested in countless films as well as in long swimming trunks (the song ‘Mujhse Judaa Hokar’ from Hum Aapke Hain Koun…!) and even a bikini (the college ragging sequence from Baaghi). But he hasn’t exposed his legs to the world in this manner. Will Aamir Khan be forced to follow suit in the under-production Dangal, which is also about wrestling?
Wrestling has actually given men an excuse to appear in briefs, whether it’s Anil Kapoor in Chameli Ki Shaadi or Randeep Hooda in Sarabjit. However, the general rule is that the full legs that will be seen on the screen will belong to women. Actresses have been slipping in and out of swim wear for as long as we can remember, but the actors have generally been more circumspect. They have been content with revealing their bare chests and thunder thighs, sometimes in the same place. Raj Kapoor and Nargis cavorted on a beach as early as Awara (1951). Kapoor wore baggy shorts and an open shirt while Nargis pranced about in a fetching one-piece suit.
Dara Singh, the real-life wrestler who was the king of B-movies, put his male co-stars to shame with his rippling musculature in film after film. In Tarzan Comes to Delhi (1965), Singh has a reason to be wearing little more than the bare minimum needed to cover male modesty – he plays an Indian version of the feral child who grew up in the forest.
Dharmendra, one of the original chest specialists of A-list productions, has also taken off his shirt on numerous occasions. In the Ruritarian action comedy Dharam Veer (1977), he carries off a perilously short skirt with aplomb.
Amitabh Bachchan appeared in striped swimming trunks at the peak of his stardom in Don (1978). Bachchan had previously showed off his unwaxed chest in a sauna scene in the same movie and a post-coital sequence with Parveen Babi in Deewar (1975), but Don gave a measure of long his legs really are.
In Silsila, Bachchan even shared a bath with Shashi Kapoor in a by-now notorious scene. “In a strange display of sibling bonding, brothers Amitabh and Shashi bathed together — displaying their muscular shoulders and hairy chests (much to the delight of the female audience),” writes Diptakirti Chaudhuri in Bollybook: The Big Book of Hindi Movie Trivia. “And they also had a private joke: they never bent down to pick up a dropped soap. Why? Let your imagination run wild.”
Apart from Chameli Ki Shaadi, Anil Kapoor showed off his hirsute legs as a swimming instructor in Tezaab (1988), but his close rival in the 1980s showed how swimming trunks were to be worn. The song “Tanha Tanha” from Rangeela (1995) pays ample tribute to the curves of heroine Urmila Matondkar, and opens with her running down a beach in a sleeveless white T-shirt in Baywatch style. But the females in the audiences have another indelible memory of the catchy song – a tanned Jackie Shroff in black briefs
Another leading man made a very brief appearance in swimming trunks in the monster hit released the same year. Shah Rukh Khan has been generous with gestures of love as long as they don’t involve kissing or lovemaking (Maya Membsaab from 1993 is a notable exception). But in the song “Mere Khwabon Mein” from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, he makes an exception when leaping into a swimming pool.
Arthouse film actor Rahul Bose has had no such inhibitions. He pleasured himself in English, August (1994) and stripped down to his underwear in Split Wide Open (1999) as the roles required. In Thakshak (1999), Bose plays a psychotic businessman who is obsessed with his body. The movie opens with Bose showing off his admirable abs in a gym, and he later on revels in his general awesomeness in those by-now-ubiquitous black trunks.
Akshay Kumar, one of the fittest actors in the movie business, has also been most comfortable with his physical self. His slithering duet with Rekha in the aptly named “In The Night No Control” from Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi (1996) is easily one of the most daring seduction songs in Hindi film history. Kumar also performs acrobatics in a bathtub in Keemat (1998), helpfully called “Akshay Kumar in Underwear” by one Raj Honey on YouTube.
Kumar and his Keemat co-star Saif Ali Khan get up to naughty business in the song “O Mere Chhalia”. Their bonhomie had been previously established in Main Khiladi Tu Anari (1994), which has led to queer interpretations of the movie.
Despite these bold gestures, Hindi movie actors, like the filmmakers and sections of the audience, are not comfortable with baring their bodies. Few actors have been as comfortable as Dara Singh, Dharmendra and Rahul Bose with their bodies. Such moments are often presented in a parodic manner, as though the very idea of men shedding their clothes like women is idiotic. Example: Govinda’s attempts to learn swimming in floral-patterned trunks and a T-shirt in Deewana Mastana (1997). When Manoj Bajpayee wanders about in rustic underdress in Gangs of Wasseypur in the song ‘O Womaniya’, the moment is supposed to be funny rather than arousing.
John Abraham’s slow-motion walk in the gay-themed comedy Dostana (2008) was parodied by, of all people, Tusshar Kapoor, in Kya Superkool Hain Hum (2012). Women who wear swimsuits in the movies still make news, as recent as Alia Bhatt’s two-piece in Vikas Bahl’s Shandaar (2015), but when men strip down, the impact is as keenly felt as an earthquake.
Most heroes would actually look terrible in briefs, since their bodies are disproportionately bulked up at the upper levels. Most of our leading men are either built like Hasbro toys or have skinny legs. They can easily carry off the bared torso look, but it takes bravery, or a new diet plan, to be appropriately dressed for the beach or the pool. Perhaps these actors need to take lessons from Kabir Bedi. The strapping actor with the panther eyes and rumbling voice has been a sex symbol right since he started appearing in Hindi films in the 1970s. Bedi’s role as a swashbuckling bandit in the Italian television series Sandokan (1976) sealed his smouldering image. It took Rakesh Roshan to remind Indian audiences of Bedi’s prowess in Khoon Bhari Maang (1988). The vendetta drama stars Bedi as a charlatan who marries Rekha’s character for her wealth and then throws her to the crocodiles during a vacation. Rekha survives and returns just in time to watch Bedi burn up the pool with his girlfriend, played by Sonu Walia, in the song “Main Teri Hoon Jaanam”. Rajesh Roshan’s song is a copy of Vangelis’s opening theme for the British sports drama Chariots of Fire (1981), just as Khoon Bhari Maang is lifted from the 1983 Australian mini-series Return to Eden. But Kabir Bedi’s comfort with his body is wholly original.