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I Studied the Lives of Gym Trainers and Bodybuilders for 12 Years. This Is What I Learned.

When Om Shanti Om – a Bollywood movie starring the biggest superstar in the world – hit the theatres back in 2007, it set the cash registers ringing across South Asia. But along with it, for the first time, Indian audiences were introduced to the visual of an Indian superstar sporting bulging biceps replete with a freshly-baked six-pack against a singsong routine involving artificial rain and women.

This was mindblowingly different from the reality on the street in South Asia, where most men are predestined to have dad bods – and science is to blame for all those paunches and potbellies. 

Only a year later, another Bollywood star’s dramatic transformation into a highly chiselled man on the warpath to avenge his murdered lover in Ghajini further cemented this new muscular ideal. 

For Michiel Baas, armed with a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Amsterdam, these years were telling of a larger aspirational shift in India, something he captures in his book Muscular India: Masculinity, Mobility & the New Middle Class, released last year by publishing house Context. 

“After these movies were released, the male body became imbued with both professionalism and a certain sense of heightened cosmopolitanism,” Baas told VICE. “It was no coincidence that the Indian edition of Men’s Health with its glossy covers featuring such male bodies was launched around the same time as Om Shanti Om.”

Jamal Shaikh, the founding editor of Men’s Health India, told VICE that the process of putting muscular bodies on the cover went through many iterations. “The marketing team told us that Indian bodies are not genetically suited for muscles. They wanted us to put Bollywood stars on the cover because other men’s magazines such as Debonair would only put women until then. But we wanted non-actors, so we could show that a certain physique was achievable.” 

Shaikh explained that the non-actors on his magazine covers conveyed the aesthetic of a man who knew how to take care of himself, and thus, of others, too. “He’ll get the job done, would know how to pleasure women, and also have a strong work ethic.” 

Baas, for his part, was introduced to the broad sweep of India’s aspirational middle class through its urban gyms, dingy basements hosting intense CrossFit workout sessions, shady gym owners, and vulnerable trainers.

For his research, Baas focused on the urban gyms of India, since this was where men from small towns across the country often arrived, bringing with them their chiselled bodies and starry eyes. The common denominator: All of them had the right bodies for the job but lacked English proficiency, something many believe you need to climb social ranks in India. 

“It isn’t enough to have the ideal body,” explained Baas. “In the modern gyms of India, these trainers are catering to clients who are from a completely different social class. So, bridging that gap becomes important.” 

Baas spoke to more than 30 gym trainers, customers, and gym owners for research for the book. He has referred to all the people in the book with anonymous names to protect their identity so they could talk freely about sex, desire and other topics people don’t discuss openly in this region.

Baas spoke to more than 30 gym trainers, customers, and gym owners for research for the book

Baas spoke to more than 30 gym trainers, customers, and gym owners for research for this book.

One of the gym trainers, having nearly mastered English and the etiquette of the rich, told him how he managed to have “private yoga sessions” at his married woman client’s home. Within the same gym, another trainer who had not yet perfected the requisite skill set to hobnob with his clients had misinterpreted a casual one-night-stand with a female client for love. According to another trainer at the gym, he kept texting and harassing her, and the whole affair culminated in him getting fired. 

“She simply saw him as a man with an attractive body,” said Baas. “So he ticked a box which her husband didn’t, but the gym trainer failed to realise this. Most of them come from insular middle-class backgrounds where the idea of casual sex with a wealthy woman is strikingly new; it’s almost straight from a Bollywood movie for them.” 

This confusion about where they stand with regard to their clients can also come up in friendships. “I spoke to the trainer of this very popular Bollywood actor and he told me how they hang out on a daily basis, but he always feels he is still not in his circle.”

Supriya, a wealthy woman who worked out in a gym, told him how these trainers are “very good at mimicking middle-class behaviour.”

Baas notes how many of the middle-class gym trainers wear branded clothes and enrol themselves in English language tutorials, while fitness models insist on shooting in luxury hotels so that they can demonstrate to their clients that they are one of them, too. 

Baas would soon discover that this “mimicking” took many forms, particularly in the way the adult entertainment industry was inextricably linked to the fitness scene. “The OnlyFans boom in India is huge,” he said, “and many fitness models capitalise on this. In the pandemic, this demand only doubled.” 

Baas shared an anecdote from the life of Selvam, a fitness model-turned-gay porn actor. When Baas probed Selvam on why he preferred to star in gay porn for his OnlyFans channel, he broke down. 

“He told me that he actually had a wife and kids and that he would truly want nothing more than to wake up every morning with his wife beside him. For the longest time, he believed that his family who lived on the outskirts of the city of Chennai wouldn’t find out.” 

But they did find out eventually. Few, after all, are spared the all-pervasive reach of the internet. Some of Selvam’s younger cousins wanted to spread the word, too.  

“But they couldn’t do anything to him because he was the sole breadwinner,” said Baas. “It was a question of sustenance over reputation, and they chose the former.” 

Then there is the case of Bikram, a Delhi-based gym trainer. Baas came across his steamy videos on YouTube and social media, where he popularised “clean fitness,” which was a steroid-free approach to bodybuilding.

“He told me how he got offers for gay porn shoots. A popular American woman porn star had contacted him for a live shoot, too, but he had always declined, fearing getting swindled by them.” But family tragedies compounded by the pandemic mean he might be rethinking the options in front of him.  

The muscular ideal takes many forms even beyond the middle-class milieu, as Baas highlights through yet another story, that of Anoop. A classic example of a man who has “made it,” we find in the book that he still yearns for a way to feel better about himself, and not necessarily prove his masculinity. 

“He is employed in one of those huge corporations in Gurugram,” Baas said. “On the surface, he has everything: a six-figure salary, access to the best clubs, the most scenic travel destinations. But for him, it’s a repetitive job, he has to navigate horrible traffic and sit in a chair for hours in a boring office set-up.” 

To offset the mundaneness of his work life, Anoop signed up for grueling, high-intensity CrossFit sessions organised in the basement of a gym building. Working out for hours – to the point of risking cardiovascular problems and callusing his hands – was a major source of pride for him. 

“He didn’t want to feel like he was simply ‘one of the many’ despite having one of the best jobs,” said Baas. “This is something so many in India struggle with. He would proudly show his calloused hands to his colleagues in the office. That CrossFit box in the basement was the polar opposite to his sanitised office space: non-air conditioned, chaotic, peeling walls, and at the outskirts of the city. They are all fighting and grunting and working out together there. It becomes a religion for them.” 

The way Baas sees it, the many men’s magazines in India sporting highly chiselled bodies have also been instrumental in shaking up Indian men’s aspirations about their own bodies. 

“For the longest time, muscular bodies were seen as emblematic of goons and anti-social elements. But now, a muscular body is not equated with a dumb person. It evokes the notion of someone who is smart, knows his way, knows his diet. And men’s magazines add notions of a muscular man having a corporate job, too, which makes him so desirable. It’s all about control and power, too, and the dangerous quest towards individuality.”

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