Ved is a young man from a poor, violent home in the slums of Mumbai. He joins a local project called Men Against Violence and Abuse (MAVA) and, with their support, learns to shake off the toxic masculinity displayed by his drunken father and pursues his love for dance as he nears adulthood.

The issues Boys Who Like Girls tackle may seem obvious (masculinity, misogyny and sexual abuse) but it’s the angle from which this documentary looks that creates a fresh take on incredibly prevalent matters.

Shifting from the focus of female suffering and the steps women take to get closer to equality, director Inka Achté takes a different approach by tackling the role of men or, more specifically, boys in India. Because (quite rightly) Achté makes clear that in order to tackle sexism and achieve equality, men need to play their part too.

The early scenes are a disturbing watch as Aspar, a MAVA teacher, asks a group of boys ranging from 13 to 17 to name every part of the female body. Each body part is given just the one name, except for the breasts and the vagina, which are given a whole host of nicknames ranging from ‘milk factory’ and ‘jugs’ to ‘bush’ and ‘twat’. Another moment sees Aspar ask the group why they think a girl was recently raped in Delhi. The response from one child: “Because she is a girl.”

It is these signals of the normality with which misogyny and sexual assault occurs that really shock early on. And although this case is specific to Mumbai and the context these children have been brought up in, there are certainly moments which reflect the common natures of patriarchies.

The real hero of the piece is without a doubt Harish. A man in his 50s, he found MAVA over 20 years ago and has since seen over 600 boys go through the programme, despite very little support and next to no funding whatsoever.

One of the most heartbreaking moments of the film occurs when Harish travels to a conference in Copenhagen in search of funding. All the organisations attending the event only fund programmes supporting women and/or transgender people. If anything, this is proof that Harish’s approach of educating men, and deconstructing male stereotypes as well as female, is currently wildly under-looked.

The film is set in the shadow of a notoriously horrific gang rape on a bus in Delhi two years prior to filming. And of course the subject matter feels even more relevant considering the recent #MeToo movement and how it has affected the film industry.

The scale of the film, much like MAVA, prevents itself from elevating to something spectacular. While it serves as a fascinating microcosm of gendered violence and misogyny in India, it fails to hit hard in the final 20 minutes as there are no real developments, no shocking revelations or huge signs of hope. In fact, very little has changed from start to finish.

Ved is interesting enough but the focus should have pulled more towards Harish and the work he has done and continues to do. He is the beacon of hope in the film and if more men learn to think the way he does then the world would be a better place.

Thought-provoking rather than life-changing, Boys Who Like Girls may not blow minds but definitely needs to be seen. It has its world premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest on Saturday 9 June (Showroom Cinema) and Tuesday 12 June (Light Cinema).

3 stars

Image: Sheffield Doc/Fest

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