Indian women in Hindi cinema are slowly changing to reveal what many of us already know: that sexual desire in women is only normal.
By Kiran Manral
A recent movie I watched, Kai Po Che, set me thinking. The sister of one of the male protagonists, initiates a romantic relationship with Govind, another of the three primary male protagonists, and then calls him up to the terrace of their home, after a night out dandiya dancing. Her stance is unabashed.
There is no trepidation, no hesitation, no needing to be convinced, no simpering coyness; she desires and she initiates sex. And contrary to most of what we’ve seen on celluloid in India, she sets the terms and conditions of the rest of the relationship as well.
Sexual desire: Taboo for good Indian women
Sexual desire in Indian women is something that one doesn’t see very often in Hindi cinema. The female protagonist is not someone who can openly admit to feeling desire — that came within the purview of the vamp, a legacy from the days when the heroine and the vamp were clearly demarcated territories and the twain rarely did meet. We had a Jaya Bachchan sing, “Bahon nein chaley aao”, to a bashful Sanjeev Kumar in the movie Anamika. In her defence, she was masquerading as his wife, a situation in which conjugal relations would be normal and not beyond the call of duty.
The female protagonist is not someone who can openly admit to feeling desire — that came within the purview of the vamp…
There was Nargis in Awaara, Tabu in Astitva and in more recent times, Chitrangda Singh in Hazaaron Khwaishey Aisi, Deepika Padukone in Cocktail, Mahie Gill in Sahib, Biwi Aur Gangster and Dev D, Nargis Fakhri in Rockstar, and of course, the portrayal that triggered off the premise of this article, that of the girl in Kai Po Che – a ‘good’ girl, a character who emerges as a wonderful metaphor of female desire, one who accepts without question her desire, has no conflicts with it, one who is not hesitant to reveal her interest to the man she wants, and will unhesitatingly initiate sex, regardless of the commonly bandied precept that this is not what good Indian girls are supposed to do.
In the bulk of Hindi cinema of yore, Indian women were uni-dimensional characters, to be wooed by the male protagonist, to be convinced to relinquish their ‘virginity’ to them; virginity being treated as sacrosanct, indicative of the virtue of the woman, and consequently her desirability as a romantic interest/wife. The wooing, ah well, that is another feature altogether, with most of it being centred around what we would now term street sexual harassment.
A woman who gave into her ‘carnal desires,’ as we saw in movies like Julie, was socially ostracized and labelled a scarlet woman. When Meena Kumari in Sahib, Biwi Aur Ghulam begged her husband to spend the night with her, (her aim being to have a child, and not so much sexual fulfilment) and not with a nautch girl, she has to agree to drink alcohol in order to lose her inhibitions, the implication being that unless she does so she will not be able to pleasure her husband in the manner he is accustomed to.
Winds of change in portraying sexual desire in women
The female protagonists of contemporary mainstream Hindi cinema are, thankfully, under no such compunctions to justify being normal, sexual beings. They desire, they are open about their sexual needs, and film makers are depicting this sensitively, like we saw in Kai Po Che and some other recent films.
In the bulk of Hindi cinema of yore, Indian women were uni-dimensional characters, to be wooed by the male protagonist, to be convinced to relinquish their ‘virginity’ to them…
In The Dirty Picture, the protagonist based on South movie star Silk Smitha, and played by Vidya Balan was completely unabashed about using sex as a way to get forward in her career. Not only did she use sex as a tool, but it was also very clear in the way the character was portrayed that she was never apologetic about it. In Band Baajaa Baraat, the female protagonist played by Anushka Sharma is completely matter of fact about moving on from a night of casual sex with the male protagonist.
The best moment perhaps, which embodies how the ‘good’ women are changing in Hindi cinema is from Dev D. To quote Veena Venugopal from a wonderful article on sexual desire in women, she wrote in Kafila.org, “To me, the most memorable scene in Dev D is the one where Paro takes a mattress from home and ties it to her cycle. When she reaches the edge of the field, she abandons the cycle, lifts the mattress on her shoulder and marches to the clearing where she lays it down and waits for her lover. There are no words spoken and the camera holds her face close. Her expression is one of intense seriousness. You can see her desire is a field force of intensity that fuels every step. She is determined to see it through, to let that desire take over herself completely; not surrender to it but to let it explode out of her. You know that when she meets Dev, the sex would be passionate and powerful.”
Acknowledging sexual desire in Indian women
What has caused this seismic shift in the way sexual desire in women is portrayed in Hindi cinema? Changing social norms, a generation of young, edgy directors who are willing to push the envelope, to take risks in terms of how their female protagonists are depicted, to show that yes, women can experience desire too, desire so overwhelming that they can disregard prescribed societal norms of mandating virginity as a given for a ‘good Indian girl’.
In no small measure, is the influence of change in society around us, virginity is no longer prized and considered an asset, not just in urban centres, but also in small towns and villages. The India Today Sex Survey 2012 states, “As far as small- town women are concerned, 21 per cent have had sex for the first time in their pre-teens, compared to 13 per cent in the metros.” Also interesting is the finding that, “Women from small towns are treating themselves equal to men, in the bed at least. Sixty per cent of them in small towns, compared to 49 per cent in metros, have an equal say in sexual matters. Keeping with the freedom of choice, wives avoid sex by sometimes faking a headache.”
…yes, women can experience desire too, desire so overwhelming that they can disregard prescribed societal norms of mandating virginity as a given for a ‘good Indian girl’.
It would be natural then, that onscreen, where films reflect reality, Indian women are less apologetic about expressing their sexual needs with as much authority as men do. In this new, burgeoning expression of female sexuality, there’s another vital shift in how women are being depicted in our movies. They’re no longer mere addendums to the scenery in which the male protagonists bash up the baddies and turn to for the occasional romantic interlude. They’re real women, living, breathing, desiring, willing to take on the consequences of their desire, willing to face censure and uncertainty for their desire.
And in that, in their acknowledgement and vicariously, in the audience acknowledging their desire, is where we are maturing as a society — with Indian women moving away from considering themselves as mere receptacles of sexual desire and emerging as willing, equal partners in the fulfilment of desire.
*Photo: A still from Kai Po Che. Source: IBNlive.in.com.