Bollywood and female desire has historically struggled to co-exist. Sex on screen, improbable in itself, has been restricted to echoing male fantasies with women being featured through the man’s lens regardless of the filmmaker’s gender. For years and to this date, female orgasms and sexuality have been reduced to either myths or punchlines by men who were frightened by the prospect of being unable to understand them or dictate their terms.
This manifestation of the male gaze present in parts even today seems to represent a common attitude towards the role of desire in cultural content and the fear of acknowledging its existence publicly. But why hide desire? What’s so shameful about it? Why does this need to be comfortably sealed inside a unit turned away from the world at large?
Celebrated liberally in Indian mythology, Kamasutra, talks about the duties of the wife, how to seduce another man’s wife and the duties of a sex worker. Several chapters of Kamasutra are not about pleasuring women but oppressing them. A few renditions of the Ramayana (typically in the South-Indian translations that weren’t Valmiki’s), sexuality went from being a hallmark of Indian divinity to being the gentry’s fatal flaw. The realm became increasingly restrictive and became confined to men, marriage, monogamy leaving women with little or no agency.
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Films saw the existence of the submissive female trope as a corollary to the masculine, muscular and broad-chested ‘counter’-parts on the screen. These men existed as heroes only in contrast to the women who loved them, not through a lovers’ lens, but instead like a slave who must obey their masters-modestly and without expectation of reciprocity. However, slowly the industry has seen sexual reclamation make a long-awaited entrance into the realm of film production and theory.
Deepa Mehta’s Fire, a rare Bollywood film, started conversations on sexuality, desire and love. It not only started much-needed conversations about the LGBTQI+ community, but it also started conversations on desire. Other films like Mahesh Manjrekar’s Astitva (2000), an award-winning bilingual film was a pioneer in this emerging brand of cinema featuring brave and complex female protagonists. With Tabu as Aditi, a homemaker sexually unsatisfied in her marriage, the film challenges existing patterns of content by exploring her character through the lens of female agency. Aditi establishes a purely physical relationship with a man outside of her expected ‘devotion’ to her husband and marital responsibilities.
Groundbreaking in more ways than one, Manjrekar challenges not only the role of a wife and a mother but also the untapped and previously disconcerting niche of exploring the hidden desires of older women. In a country where sex was still a taboo, Astitva paved the way for the Indian audience’s reception of unconventional feminist stories.
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Lipstick Under My Burkha clears a path for women to assert their discrepancies, desires and downfalls in a manner that upholds their integrity and makes the relatable a symbol of power and not weakness. The concept of the film gives women power over their desires and body.
It also talks about desires of an ageing woman Usha Buaji played by Ratna Pathak Shah. The 55-year-old widow is seen rediscovering her sexuality after being introduced to a fictional character ‘Rosie’ (an unbridled converse) in the erotica ‘Lipstick Waale Sapne’. She lives out the desires she is deemed unfit to call her own at night when it is dark and her voice is muffled by the running tap water while she expresses her lust to a young man who has taken her fancy over the phone. He later discovers that the ‘Rosie’ he had been talking to, was the 55-year-old woman who couldn’t swim and is repulsed by the idea. However, this does not affect the tenderness of it all. This detail confirms the idea that the story had nothing to do with him anyway.
Neeraj Ghajwani’s Masaan begins with society’s repercussions for a woman when local police turns moral police, barges into a hotel room and brand her as a sex worker but never once is she shown as a helpless victim. Pink talks about women’s right to say no to sexual advances and Thappad speaks about the ownership men feel over women to the point that they think it is alright to abuse them not verbally and physically.
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Rihae, made in 1988, shows three women from a village that end up having affairs with the same man, a Dubai returned worker. The film talks about the loneliness the women feel, the sexual fulfilment when they seek out desirable men and the inherent hypocrisy and discrimination women face.
Unlike Draupadi and her five husbands, Mirabai’s erotic poetry and the strong-willed Sita, Indian cinema and female protagonists have failed for years by serving the male gaze through films like Arjun Reddy and Kabir Singh. Though now through over the top (OTT) media platforms, female protagonists have begun to challenge this notion. In TV series like Made in Heaven, the idea that women need to be docile is being challenged and that they have no authority over their bodies.
Certain bodies tend to carry the weight of expectation. They are culturally trained to become dormant or malleable concerning external projections of fear from comfortable stakeholders benefited by the existing system. Breaking this, the anti-revolt construct of viewing women as catalysts, directors like Majrekar, Shrivastava and Kashyap have, at least to a marginal extent, came to represent female desire outside of the virgin-whore dichotomy and celebrated its complexity in ways that not only liberate but empower women to speak up and reclaim what is and always has been, rightfully theirs.
We need to question the idea that has been constantly told to us by society: Why is desire bad? Why this concealment of desire and wanting, what is so shameful about it? Why does a woman’s desire or need to accommodate such a considerable amount of cruelty?
Featured Image Source: MyGoodTimes