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No lady-oriented films please, we’re Indian

Double standards? It’s perhaps a hangover of a perverted sense of sexuality that allows vulgar comedies like Great Grand Masti and Mastizaade to pass the censor turnstile but strangles themes like Lipstick Under My Burkha.  

A week before International Women’s Day, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) gave us something to ponder over: the “lady-oriented film”. I’m not too sure what that’s supposed to mean, but from the qualifying statements that appear in CBFC’s letter to the producers of Lipstick Under My Burkha, I reckon it’s a stern admonition. The film, CBFC wrote, would not get certification because “the story is lady-oriented, their fantasy above life. There are continuous sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography and a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society.”

Let’s for the moment forget CBFC’s attempt to play safe with the Muslim orthodoxy (the “bit sensitive touch” business); the principal objection is clearly to the fact that the film’s story is about its four characters’ “fantasies above (about) life”. In the less arcane English that we all understand, this would mean female sexuality.

No, this column isn’t going to trash CBFC’s absurd nanny pretensions; everyone knows they are anachronistic in an age where even mainstream Bollywood has released female characters from their traditional shackles. It’s about that unmentionable term ‘women’s sexuality’ and its depiction in Hindi cinema (by ‘sexuality’ I mean desire and romantic/erotic feelings – which are governed by a moral code religion- and gender-wise in different cultures.)

Patriarchy or bust

Female sexuality in pre-millennium mainstream films was, in keeping with social mores, mostly cast in a patriarchal mould. Female characters were allowed to have romantic feelings (naturally, how else could romantic films be made?) but they were not allowed to take the initiative in articulating them. It was the hero’s prerogative to draw them out and indulge in a prolonged courtship, at the end of which the heroine would gracefully accept.

By the mid-’70s, the profile of the hero had largely changed from a gentleman to a lout. The prerogative to woo still remained his; and now, he also had the divine right to impose himself even though similar feelings did not exist in the object of his ardour. But eventually, whether one-sided or consensual, Neanderthal or sophisticated, the wooing inevitably culminated in the heroine giving in with a coy smile. (Even when she loved another man — watch Raj Kapoor’s Sangam for an enlightening lesson in adarsh nari conduct).

The only characters who boldly asserted their sexuality in vintage Bollywood were the vamps; a practice that subconsciously reiterated that women who articulated their desire were immoral. Take Imtihaan, where a student (tellingly played by a career vamp, Bindu) crushing on her professor is depicted as a full-scale scarlet woman who throws herself at him and, when rejected, weaves a web of lies to frame him for sexual assault. The difference between her played-up crude sexuality and the refined emotions of the professor’s demure sweetheart is even brought out in a song (Dekho idhar bhi jaan-e-tamanna) where the vamp’s lusty demands are juxtaposed with the sweetheart’s uber-spiritual expressions of sacrifice, silent suffering and worship of the beloved. The message is subtle but it’s unmistakably a message.

Making a move

Another film, Caravan, has another ‘vamp’, Aruna Irani, pursuing Jeetendra, her companion in a gypsy road show — he, however, falls in love with someone else. Irani stews in anger and jealousy and does her darnedest to seduce him but he remains steadfastly devoted to the woman he adores. Which is fine — however, he also constantly pushes Irani to accept a slow-witted sort because while he cannot love her, the simpleton does. The subliminal message of such films is clear; women have no business expressing their desire and should be happy to accept whichever apology for a man fancies them.

One mainstream film that flew in the face of this nonsense was Jewel Thief. Here, Dev Anand, whose attention is shifting from a young impish Tanuja to a more mature Vyjayanthimala, is openly pursued by the former who even does the stereotypical cabaret number in a shimmering gold gown to seduce him. Anand does not succumb but he doesn’t judge Tanuja either — his reaction is one of affectionate exasperation. The entire sub-plot is light-hearted, cheeky, and devoid of even a modicum of judgment — typical of the cinema of Vijay Anand, a film-maker far ahead of his time in terms of liberalism and social maturity.

Soul to body

With the advent of the parallel cinema movement, female characters’ sexuality moved one step ahead to assertions of actual bodily needs, often uncloaked by the genteel mask of love or emotions. Rihaee, a story about the wives of migrant workers left behind in their villages, was perhaps the first film to make a statement about the double standards with which society viewed the sexual activity of both genders; a perspective that was taken ahead by movies like Astitva and the recent Parched. Mainstream cinema caught up with this stance post-millennium without fuss or statementism — by simply having female characters comfortable with their sexuality and unapologetic about their relationships.

Parched, surprisingly, was passed mostly unmauled by the censors last year; why then the brouhaha about Lipstick Under My Burkha? (Is it because the former, about women fighting patriarchal abuse, was perceived as a ‘message’ film which is more permissible than female “fantasies above life”?) CBFC chairperson Pahlaj Nihalani, who was blamed for the impasse, retorted huffily in a recent interview that it was the committee that was responsible for clearing films, not the chairperson. That is true; however, it’s also a fact that the mindset of a head honcho generally sets the tone.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee, one of CBFC’s most progressive chairpersons, while talking to me about censorship once, had observed how puritanism was alien to Hindu philosophy; and how the original Hindu epics were robust and forthright before their earthiness was diluted for mass consumption. He illustrated his point by citing Sita’s angry words to Laxman in Ramayan when the latter refused to leave her unattended and go in search of the golden deer — words I will not repeat here because trolls have shown that they attack even dead people.

Contrast Hrishida’s attitude with that of Nihalani, a producer known for the most lewd, double entendre-filled films of the 1990s in which women were harassed and objectified by leering men. It’s perhaps a hangover of that perverted sense of sexuality that allows vulgar comedies like Great Grand Masti and Mastizaade to pass the censor turnstile but strangles themes like Lipstick Under My Burkha. Because in the finest traditions of B-grade Bollywood, films on sex and sexuality should be gent-oriented, not lady-oriented. Is that right, Mr. Nihalani?

The author is a freelance writer and editor

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 3:47:26 AM |

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