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