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Who We Talk About When We Talk About Sex

Written by Shanaia Kapoor

October 4th, 2020

Bollywood and female desire have historically struggled to coexist. Sex on screen, improbable in itself, has been restricted to echoing male fantasies, with women featured only through a man’s lens, regardless of the filmmaker’s gender. For years, female orgasms and sexuality were reduced to either myths or punchlines, by men who were frightened at 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. Desire is ‘dirty’, something reserved for the unhinged. 

Celebrated liberally in Indian mythology, with texts like the Kama Sutra and even some renditions of the Ramayana (typically in the South– any translation that was not Valmiki’s), sexuality went from being a hallmark of Indian divinity to being the gentry’s fatal flaw. It was no longer noble to feel desire. The realm became confined to men, marriage and monogamy, leaving women little to no agency. Film saw the existence of a submissive female trope as a corollary to the masculine, muscular and broad-chested ‘counter’ parts on screen. Either this or a ‘loose’ woman by virtue of whom, the ‘poor’ man was left undone (only to recover in the very next scene or treat the rest of the women in his life like shit because of it). These men existed as heroes only in contrast to the women who loved them, not through a lover’s lens, but instead, as a student must love their guru– modestly and without the expectation of reciprocity. However, the past decade has seen sexual reclamation make a long-awaited entrance into the realm of film production and theory. 

Tabu as Aditi in a still from ‘Astita’ (2000)

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 housewife 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 maternal 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, Astitiva paved the way for the Indian audience’s reception of unconventional feminist stories. 

A similar narrative presents itself in Alankrita Shrivastava’s recent release, ‘Dolly, Kitty Aur Voh Chamakate Sitare’which follows the nuanced and complex take on the desires of two unsuspecting women thrust into the middle-class scramble of the redlight, rent and restitute. Set in Greater Noida, the film is busy but its central idea follows Dolly, a working wife and mother of two. Much like Astitiva’s Aditi, Dolly has an amorous affair with a younger man, discovering that sex with her husband leaves her far from satisfied. The two female protagonists are set apart by their circumstances (marital and otherwise) but reveal a common situatedness in the lust for something real. Dolly’s mother is featured as an older woman having abandoned her family with little to no trace of a guilty conscience, following the same thread that Manjrekar premiered. This is a film adorned with conversations between women about what they want, and how they want it, leaving no room for expected apologies. In this film, as well as in Netflix’s ‘Sacred Games’, female desire transcends hetero-normative boundaries. Like Dolly’s younger child, the gritty show set in Mumbai’s criminal underbelly with the cultural backdrop of corruption and communalism, ensures Kukkoo, Gaitonde’s (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) infatuate, the agency to express her own sexuality. 

Alankrita Srivastava clears a path for women to assert their discrepancies, desires and downfalls in a manner that upholds their integrity and makes the relatable a symptom of power and not weakness. The ageing female body, in most discourses prior to such films (feminist and otherwise), has been absent from cultural production. Older women have historically been made invisible within the realm of sex and desire. In Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva introduces the theory of abjection. She argues that a system threatened by non-conformity relies on repulsion to maintain stability and order. Beneficiaries of this threatened system feel compelled to separate themselves from the non-conforming subject in order to avert “contamination”. This compulsion leads to a rejection of the looming body as ‘abject’, consequently maintaining social acceptability. The sexualisation of the ageing female body can be seen in some senses, as a practical retelling of Kristeva’s theory.

Ratna Pathak as Usha Buaji in ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ (2016)

Challenging this notion, is Shrivastava’s ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ where Usha Buaji played by Ratna Pathak, a 55-year-old widow is seen rediscovering her sexual identity, 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 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 really the 55-year-old woman who couldn’t swim and is repulsed by the idea. However, this has no effect on the tenderness of it all. This detail, in fact, confirms the idea that the story had nothing to do with him anyway. 

Unlike Draupadi and her five husbands, Mirabai’s erotic poetry and Kerala’s strong-willed Sita, Indian cinema and specifically Bollywood’s women have been failed for years. With the advent of independent film and OTT platforms, female protagonists have begun to challenge the dominant notion of women’s bodies being viewed as ‘docile’(Foucault’s Discipline and Punish). Certain bodies tend to carry the weight of expectation. They are culturally trained to become dormant or malleable with regard to external projections of fear from comfortable stakeholders benefitted by the existing system. Breaking this anti-revolt construct of viewing women as catalysts, directors like Majrekar, Shrivastava and Kashyap have, at least to a marginal extent, come to represent female desire outside of the virgin-whore dichotomy and actually celebrate its complexity in ways that not only liberate but empower women to speak up and reclaim what is and always has been, rightfully theirs.  

Experience Further: Cardi B’s ‘WAP’ has seemingly taken the media– and many men– by storm. Having sparked major controversy, the song does challenge sexism and double-standards evidently present in the rap industry. Many female artists like Cardi B (Nicki Minaj and Beyonce for example) have commented on the need for black women to reclaim their tag of hypersexuality and women at large, their sexual agency. My article is limited to the Indian demographic, and therefore carries additional nuances of cultural convention. However, it explores the very same reclamation and celebration of female desire and sex-positivity in the entertainment industry that B’s ‘WAP’ makes long-due room for.

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Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

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