SOMETIME IN 1998, the documentary filmmaker Rahul Roy started to spend time in the company of four young men called Bunty, Kamal, Sanju and Sanjay in the rough Delhi neighbourhood of Jahangirpuri. When Four Friends Meet (WFFM), the film that emerged two years later, in 2000, was a remarkably frank portrait of working-class masculinity. These were young men who had dropped out of school and, in many cases, had been working since they were very young, though they continued to live with parents. Roy’s quiet presence was able to elicit still-fresh memories of childhood and anxieties about an unstable financial future. In one haunting sequence, the camera circles the boys as they pose in a classroom of the sort they should still have been studying in, while the soundtrack lets their memories of childhood bounce off the walls: “None of us have ever shirked hard work. Even as children we would lift heavy weights ... We didn’t know what the real wage should have been. We’d be thrilled with 10 paise, enough to buy sweets from the halwai. Or gamble with friends.”
Girls were a hot topic, but none of the four friends seemed to have actually had a relationship with one. Their laughing confessions—about deliberately standing too close to “smart” girls in the bus, or verbally harassing ones who walked past them in the neighbourhood—displayed an unexamined sexism, pinned into place by a thoroughly disturbing circular logic. “Bolti woh ladki hai jo thheek nahi hoti. Agar woh bolegi toh uski beizzati hai ismein” (The girls who speak up are the ones who aren’t good. The good girls know that by speaking up they will bring shame upon themselves).
Despite these views, Roy’s protagonists were unsure enough to seem vulnerable. The swagger was laced with insecurity. The closest any of them had come to a real girl was the floppy-haired, boyish Bunty, who appeared to have a rather bold admirer. “She said ‘I love you’ to him thrice. He couldn’t even say it once,” his friend Kamal mocked him affectionately. “Her friend even left them alone together but this Bunty did nothing. I would have flung her down and taken a kiss at least.” The banter around sex remained at the level of adolescent peer pressure: competing with the other boys, rather than providing the space for anything like a real relationship to blossom. Even when speaking of romance, love could appear only within filmi scare quotes—“Mohabbat ke dushmanon ne gate lagwa diye” (The enemies of love put up gates outside), said Bunty with a laugh as they walked into the monument that served as the area’s romantic rendezvous spot.