Sex and Sexability in Hindi Cinema

“Every where and in every thing. In the sky, in the rivers, in the plants and trees and even in a particle of dust. An enigma. In many things at a time and is many things at a time. Visible as well as invisible. Is here and is there. Above and below. With form and also without form. Speaks and speaks not. The self and also the not’ self.”

- Hindu description of God

The oddest thing happened. I began this essay with certain notions about the treatment of sex in Hindi cinema as compared to European cinema. (I should have stopped short right here for the former is a language and the latter is a continent, but the mind scuttled on.) European cinema was far more edgy, honest, and realistic. Hindi cinema relied on fountains, doves and song & dance in lieu of Eros. Sex and sensuality in Hindi cinema, I wondered. Is there even such a thing? For when I thought about great sex scenes the first to come to mind were not scenes from Hindi films, but rather Juliet Binoche and Daniel Day Lewis in Unbearable Lightness of Being. John Malkowich in Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Skies. And so on.

Then began the research. Pillows were plumped, tea was brewed (oh the travails of work) and stacks of films were watched. Everything from Basu Bhattacharya to Vikram Bhatt, Fellini to Bruno Dumont. Some were lust-inducing, some vaguely erotic. But strangely, I soon tired of the bonking in European films and began to long for something else – call it romance or the possibility of more. But by the time I had reached Pakeezah (my viewing was not chronological); nothing seemed more erotic than Meena’s Kumari’s bejeweled foot. And I wasn’t, apparently, alone in feeling this way! One friend told me that he thought the scene where the three protagonist’s race through the Louvre in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers was far more erotic than all the graphic sex it contained.

How then does one write about as explosive a combination as sex and cinema? Some would say that cinema is sex, in a manner of speaking. Seductive and reductive. And that film is ultimately a visual medium and sex and sensuality are mediated by the way a film is conceived. And films are conceived by writers and directors, performed by actors and the dots are joined by editors. All human beings, yes? With unique and often divergent ideas about depictions of sex.

To begin with, one can’t take Bombay out of the Hindi film industry. So much in the news for the recent terrorist attacks, Bombay is our beloved dreamscape, our multiple city, our notion of modern India. Syncretic traditions, a polyglot culture, reckless, romantic and yet holding together one way or the other. The film industry is a microcosm of Bombay and into this, many years ago, was born a girl called Mahjabeen Bano who was later re-named Meena Kumari and fell desperately in love with one Kamal Amrohi. But more on this later…

Back to the huge difference between a sex scene in say, Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay. Both are films of the 70’s, so how do you explain the gap? Perhaps the answer lies in the two great treatises that impact our cultural and critical traditions. While the Western performance tradition has been influenced by Aristotle’s Poetics, we in India are guided by Bharatha’s Natya Shastra. Interestingly, the essence of Poetics has to do with the content and the Idea. Unity of Action, Time and Space are emphasized, thus paving the way for a practical, logical approach to performance. On the other hand, the Natya Shastra’s theory of Rasa and Bhava is all about emotion. If the performer displays Sringara rasa, the bhava of Rati must be evoked in the audience. So there is a strong focus on the intention of performance built into our aesthetic decisions. Performance can’t ever stand alone; it always seeks to evoke a feeling in the viewer.

The other influence is Polytheism. Bombay revels in its public celebrations of religious events. From Id-ul-Fitr on Mohammed Ali Road to Navroze in the Dadar Parsi Colony, to Ganesh Chathurthi and Christmas all over, the city has seen it all. And Polytheism in turn, breeds a glorious circuitousness. Neither this, nor that… and yet, everything - goes the Indian axiom. They could well be talking about sex! Ask an Indian why they are late to work and no doubt you’ll hear about their father-in-law’s gout, thus explaining the oblique approach to sex in cinema. My argument is that this round about approach has a grace to it and further, lends itself to hope. And what can be grander than Hope, sweet challenger and opponent of nihilism?

Therefore the first thing to be cast aside will be comparisons between Hindi films and Cinematheque favourites. It’s as chalk to cheese. We could not have made a Last Tango in Paris in 1972, just a decade and a half after Independence. Nicholas Roeg was British and heir to the Kitchen Sink theatre tradition. Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, who played what has been called one of the greatest sex scenes in cinema, were the products of the Western 60’s and an all together different, realist sensibility. It is therefore not meaningful to compare the genres.

Let’s begin instead with a 1972 release in Bombay. This was the year that Meena Kumari died after a long battle with heartache and alcoholism and her love, Kamal Amrohi, finally released Pakeezah. It was incidentally the year that Bertolucci made Last Tango in Paris. When I think of Pakeezah two cinematic details are indelible. The first is the image of Raaj Kumar being seduced on a train by the sight of Meena Kumari’s foot. He walks into her compartment by error. She shifts in her sleep and her lihaaf moves, revealing a single foot wearing a heavy anklet. He looks down at it and eventually places a love letter between her toes. “Don’t place this lovely foot on the ground” it says “for it will be sullied.” Why her foot? Why would Kamal Amrohi select this unlikely body part to construct a scene that has to do with sexual attraction? Furtherest from her heart and yet, think about it, so…ticklish! Go no further than Freud’s Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex to learn that in fact the foot is a “primitive sexual symbol”. You do the math!

The second detail is in the lyrics of Inhin Logon Ne, written by Majrooh Sultanpuri.

In our first meeting with the adult Sahibjaan, she is dancing in the kothi. In the background are other verandahs, hallways and courtyards and we see other courtesans dancing as well, thus establishing the large and public nature of these performances. And Sahibjaan sings “Inhin logon ne le lina dupatta mera”. It is a scene about professed or felt shame, the disturbing of modesty. Inherent in the song is also a playful, or again, perhaps a professed reluctance. These people, not I, have removed my veil. Thus they have shamed me. My actions are involuntary.

“Hamrii na maano bajajva se pucho, hamrii na maano saiyya.
Jisne ashrafi gaz dina dupatta mera.”

If you don’t believe me, ask the merchant who sold me this cloth.
Or ask him who dyed it pink.
Or he who ripped it away in the bazaar.

Thus a series of men have contributed to Sahibjaan’s metaphoric unveiling. Knowingly or unwittingly there are two things at play in the construction of this scene. They are:

1. References to codified tradition – in order to keep things under control
2. Folk style sexual innuendo – in order to loosen them up

It is made clear to the audience through cultural codes such as the usage of a classical mukthai early in the song that the actions on screen have been given the green light by the authority of tradition. Having absorbed this subliminal information, the audience feels free to enjoy the folk aspect which follows, namely the sexual innuendo of the lyrics.

Control vs. the lack thereof. I let go, I hold back. I want to, I don’t. This is an oft used device in depictions of sex. Thus tradition, poetry and innuendo come together to create a scene suffused with playfulness that still foregrounds its sexual intention.

Oftentimes, while sex is the subject of the film, it need not necessarily be a sexy film. Basu Bhattacharya’s Aastha comes to mind. In a departure from allusion and innuendo, the film-maker uses a realistic approach. The film is about a wife and a mother (Rekha) who decides to prostitute herself to earn money to buy little luxuries for her family. The first time she sleeps with a client, the scene is quite graphic. We see how he touches her in close up and then her face as she is brought to orgasm by him. Here again feet play a part in a purportedly sexy but in actuality comic toe-sucking sequence. She then repeats all of this while making love to her husband and he enjoys it. He asks her where she learned to do this and she says she watched a film. (An irony that is worth noting!) The only actor in the film to appear comfortable with the sex is Rekha. The others appeared to want me, the viewer, to feel that sex is illicit, dirty and furtive. And this wasn’t just the case with the illicit, furtive bought sex; even the marital sex had that quality. I don’t enjoy Rekha’s cutesy acting style, but she is unfailingly authentic during the sex scenes. She just looks sensual, and happy to be so. Something that even Om Puri, who plays the husband, couldn’t manage. Just can’t seem to escape the combined impact of belief, custom and upbringing. Add patriarchy to this cocktail and it’s probably best to stick with poetry and allusion.

Much has been said, mostly disparagingly, about the great Indian habit of cutting to a gushing fountain as bodies approach each other on screen. Sure, it’s cloying and annoying. One wonders, why the hell we can’t we get past it and learn to snog with lusty abandon. Yet, after many hours of film viewing, I’m beginning to think it’s a fatal flaw that eventually works in our favour. How so, you may well ask? OK, look at a movie like Red where Aftab Shivdasani applies himself to Celina Jaitley’s mouth like a limpet. Why doesn’t it work? Is it the fault of the shoddy script or is it something deeper and more misogynistic? Jism is touted as being a landmark in the depiction of man-woman relations in Hindi cinema. It was better than Red, but not by far. The film was so much to do with the look – photogenic Pondicherry and the allure of white and turquoise costumes. But beyond that I was unaware of any real chemistry between the actors, not even in the imitation 9 ½ weeks scene, and eventually it became a film about proving that a sexual woman is perforce a murderous schemer. Given this scenario, that is of patriarchy and latent misogyny, elaborate song and dance routines are much more respectful and in some cases, more erotic.

For eventually what is it that is sexy or sensual in a film? Is it the fact of sex taking place or is it the possibility, the potential and the probability of sex? Is it coquettishness or freedom? Urmila Matondkar’s dancing in the opening credits of Rangeela is one of the sexiest scenes in Hindi cinema. Her utter abandonment and that fact that she is reveling in the dancing make it so. She harks back to women like Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi who were happy to be sexy sans coy glances and disclaimers. They were a hard act to follow. They radiated the spirit of the times (70’s Bombay, Cellars, Osho) with their long hair and unabashed bodies. Watching Zeenat Aman dance in the 1980’s Qurbani was some kind of wonderful. Similarly, I used to wonder why my mind retained the memory of Helen’s dancing to Mehbooba while unable to recall Basanthi dancing on glass. The one was sexy and the other was …well, some sort of martyr/hero sexy-baazi that I don’t get. Give me possibility and freedom any day.

Talking about landmark films, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara is one such. Besides being a stunning adaptation of Othello, it has terrific sex scenes. The scene where Kareena Kapoor (Dolly) has learned how to sing an English song, Stevie Wonder’s I just called to say I love you – from Viveik Oberoi (Kesu Firangi) and in turn sings it to Ajay Devgan (Omi) is gorgeous. Kareena Kapoor performance in that one scene marks one of the best seductions I have seen thus far. The awkwardness of her singing, Omi’s jealousy, their subsequent playful love-making that ends with her pinning him down on a haystack with a gun and asking, while sitting atop him, “Now tell me why I am a witch?” The song “O saathi re din dube na” is the cherry on top of an already lovely scene.

And when Omi and Dolly finally make love, it is believable and remarkably sensual. When I watched Omkara, I felt herein lies the future. We’ve found our own Natya Shastra-driven way to the realistic Indian sex scene. The woman is into it, the man isn’t behaving like a perv, it’s visually indigenous – who can forget Dolly’s hands on Omi’s back with his sacred thread visible – and we the audience are drawn in and not made to feel bereft.

Regarding nudity, it should be a non-issue. There is something lovely about watching a body on screen. Further, a nude body doesn’t always have to be a body engaged in a sexual transaction with another. Bathing, dancing, swimming, cooking…all perfectly viable naked. The boys jumping into a woodland pond in Ismail-Merchant’s Room with a View is an example of that faun-like playfulness that nudity can evoke. It’s all in the director’s head. He/she can make a cringe-worthy scene that has exploitation written all over it…or not. It’s all directly proportionate to the directors understanding of, and experience with sex, and substantially, how they look at a woman. Ditto for the actors performance of a sensual scene. It’s pretty black and white. Do they in their most honest self, think that sex is sly, devious and that women like sexual violence? Or not. As Tanya Krzywinska in Sex & the Cinema compellingly writes “Cinematic sex is intricately interwoven into a matrix of industrial, economic, social and cultural factors.”

Interestingly the male body has become much the focus in recent times. Hrithik Roshan and John Abraham were the harbingers of this trend. At least the female gaze has caught up with the male gaze. The way that John Abraham has been shot in Dostana can set hetero and homo pulse throbbing. However conventional and stereotypical, it is a nod towards change. For what it’s worth, that’s a step forward. At least the onus of eyecandy-hood is off the women.

In the final analysis, it’s not that Hindi films can’t handle sex scenes; it’s just that we have developed a native, non-western cinematic language with which to articulate sex and sexual arousal. Eros becomes even more finely tuned if one stretches the feeling. The intellectual power of this method is that it acknowledges the beauty of anticipation. Much like an aalap requires the musician to pulls on a single string allowing one to listen to all the possible microtones before arriving. Viraha or yearning in Indian aesthetics is considered more worthy than the actual capturing of or arriving at.

When the stakes are high, and the stakes are indeed high in this, our Post-terror world, one wants emotions that are capable of seeing one through. Through pain, loneliness, life, even. Take my heart somewhere, we plead. Don’t ravage it and leave it hanging. The sadness of most sex scenes is in the empty feeling they leave you with. The Guardian critic, Peter Bradshaw, on reviewing The Dreamers says it was “like drinking red wine on an empty stomach.” How ever seductive at the moment it is clearly going to leave you feeling nauseous.

That’s it then. It’s lovely to be writing an essay on sex in Hindi cinema when western critics are ruing the death of cinematic sex thanks to easily downloadable porn that has taken it into the private domain. So while we still have it, and haven’t entirely succumbed to numbing homogeneity, let’s enjoy the crazy, romantic masthi of sex in Hindi Cinema and join in saying “Viva la Bombay!”