The evolution of female sexuality in Bollywood over the years

From ‘Fire’ to ‘The Dirty Picture,’ the portrayal of female sexuality in Hindi films has witnessed constant evolution, but recent representation raises concerns about oversimplification and the potential for regression while using humour as a means of addressing taboo subjects

November 10, 2023 01:48 pm | Updated 01:48 pm IST

Deepika Padukone and Shah Rukh Khan in the ‘Besharam Rang’ song in ‘Pathaan’

Deepika Padukone and Shah Rukh Khan in the ‘Besharam Rang’ song in ‘Pathaan’

In the lead up to the release of Siddharth Anand’s Pathaan this year, there was a lot of talk, not of the film per se, but a small 20-second clip that seemed to have sparked anger among some of the political rank and file. It’s hard to believe that after years of a slow but steady accretion of progressive films and portrayals, of women helming films about their own lives and desires, we have moved backward to a point where Deepika Padukone’s saffron bikini in the song ‘Besharam Rang’ caused people to take offence. Why? Because she is seemingly disrespecting, and sexualising a political colour. One female MP actually threatened to kick Deepika in the stomach, never watch any of her films, and destroy her business. Feminism 101.

Constant evolution in portrayal

Over the years, the portrayal of female sexuality on-screen has witnessed a constant evolution, from Deepa Mehta’s film Fire (1996) to Dirty Picture (2011) to Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016) to this year’s Thank You For Coming. Several of these films spotlight sensuous women, who are actively indulging their desires, whether for sex, money or fame. How, then, does one understand films like these in relation to the whole ‘Besharam Rang’ saga? There is a cognitive dissonance here; while one aspect of the Hindi film and television industry has gotten steadily more permissive and progressive, another part has tightened the shackles of societal mores, policing any and every transgression. This lays bare one of the most basic problems with breaking the glass ceiling; that a few female-driven films don’t mean we have evolved into an equal society. In fact, these transgressions are often punished with a doubling down on female sexuality in more mainstream films. In light of this, let’s take a look at the evolution of female sexuality on screen over the years.

Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi in Deepa Mehta’s ‘Fire’

Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi in Deepa Mehta’s ‘Fire’

Released in Indian theatres in 1998, Fire is loosely based on Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai’s short story Lihaaf, and is a seminal film when it comes to depictions of female sexuality on screen. 

The film revolves around Radha and Sita, two women unhappily married into the same house. While Radha (played by Shabana Azmi) is a “barren woman” whose inability to have children has accorded her second-class status, Sita (Nandita Das) is plagued by her husband’s affair with another woman. In the absence of marital love, Radha and Sita start spending time together, and eventually, develop a relationship. Radha, at one point, tells Sita, “This isn’t familiar to me, this awareness of needs and desires” – spotlighting how female sexuality is often extinguished in Indian families.

Also Read | Is ‘Veere di Wedding’ a feminist film?

To top it off, their names — Radha and Sita — draw parallels to the goddess Laxmi in Hindu mythology, alluding to divine sanction for their relationship. The film was revolutionary in its emphasis on two women desiring each other, an act that acknowledges female sexuality can exist outside of marriage and reproduction. This is a sexuality purely predicated on pleasure.

Though there was a general backlash to Fire (a 1998 India Today article on the subject begins with ‘It started like a bush fire…’) with the film being recalled by the Censor Board over objectionable content, it was eventually screened across the country – and moved the dial of female-centric cinema forward.

Women taking the lead

As we sailed into the 2000s, there came a slew of films like Dirty Picture (2011), Aiyya (2012) and English Vinglish (2012) that had strong women in the lead, talking, desiring, taking control, with the men relegated to an almost negligible background. For instance, The Dirty Picture tells the story of Silk Smitha, an 80s dancer and actress known for her erotic performances, and widely hailed as a sex symbol. Starring Vidya Balan, the film depicts Silk unapologetically using her sexuality to make it in a man’s world, and features Balan opposite three male leads over the course of the film; Naseeruddin Shah, Tusshar Kapoor and Emraan Hashmi, all of whom she has a love affair with.

Vidya Balan in ‘The Dirty Picture’

Vidya Balan in ‘The Dirty Picture’

There’s a poignant moment when Silk, while accepting an award on stage, calls out the hypocrisy of those who dub her ‘dirty’: “Apni film ko take off karne ke liye mujhe boarding pass ki tarah use kiya, phir bhi vulgar main hoon. Dance karvaya aapne, par vulgar main hoon. Family ke saath meri films dekh nahi sakte, par chup chup ke dekh kar dhadaake se sex karte jaa rahe hai. Par tab bhi vulgar main hoon.”

That a film like this found mainstream success — it grossed over ₹117 crores at the box office and won Balan the National Film Award for Best Actress — is a testament to changing times and portrayals. It subverted Freud’s famous Madonna-Whore complex that boxes women into one of two categories: Madonna, a woman who is admired and respected, or Whore, a sexy woman who is consequently disrespected. Balan on screen was both, signalling a living, breathing multiplicity.

Post 2015, there started emerging a perceptible shift in the way female sexuality was treated on screen. This began with Lipstick Under My Burkha in 2016, but was carried forward in films like Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017), Lust Stories (2018) and Badhai Do (2022).

The most significant change in all of them was the use of comedy to deal with sex and sexuality, particularly that of women. Until this point, most films depicted female sexuality as a serious affair, to be treated with the gravitas they believed the topic deserved. But then came Lipstick Under My Burkha, which spotlighted the secret lives and desires of four women in the small town of Bhopal. The film’s voiceover has 55-year-old widow Buaaji (Ratna Pathak Shah) reading from an erotic novel featuring a woman called Rosy and her tadakte phadakte sapne. This, in itself, is a source of subtle comedy as the narration has Rosy doing things like spying on her neighbour as he bathes, an act of sexual agency mirrored by Buaaji, who starts taking swimming lessons and seducing her instructor.

Ratna Pathak Shah in ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’

Ratna Pathak Shah in ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’

Successive films played up this comic element, and soon, a number of films featuring female sexuality were made as comedies. Whether it is Bareilly’s barfi Bitti Sharma who, as the film indicates, is just like a boy – smokes cigarettes, stays out late, break dances and takes full control of her love life; or the librarian Rekha (Neha Dhupia) in Lust Stories, who wears low-cut blouses and masturbates in the library, women’s sexuality was handled with a lighter touch, that emphasised a sexy frivolity that didn’t take itself too seriously. Sometimes, comedy spilled over into horror, giving you a film like Stree (2018), which was dubbed a comedy-horror. In this, a chudail named Stree plagues the town of Chanderi, her MO being “Woh purusho ko uthaati hai, aur sirf vastra chhodti hai.” In a comic role reversal, it’s the woman who is depicted as a predator on the loose, and the men who, to protect themselves, are instructed not to stay out too late. Though ironically astute, the premise betrays an underlying confusion about what exactly the Streewants: sex or respect.

Relegating female sexuality to the comedy or horror genres

Both comedy and horror have their advantages: comedy often serves to lighten heavy topics and make them palatable to a wider audience, while horror can heighten the senses, punctuating the point of the film with greater efficacy. But there is a flipside – the problem with relegating female sexuality to the comedy or horror genres is that it can end up flattening a rather complex subject, in the process stripping it of nuance; which is what, to a certain extent, happened in Stree. And which is what also happened in the 2023 sex comedy Thank You For Coming.

Bhumi Pednekar in ‘Thank You for Coming’

Bhumi Pednekar in ‘Thank You for Coming’

Directed by Karan Boolani, the film has all the tick marks of a progressive film centering on women: it features a strong female cast of Bhumi Pednekar in the forefront, flanked by the coterie of Shehnaaz Gill, Kusha Kapila, Dolly Singh and Shibani Bedi. It also emphasises female pleasure, particularly orgasms, with the film serving as one long search for who gave Pednekar her first and only orgasm. But underneath the progressive paraphernalia lies a post 30s woman terrified of turning old, and in perpetual search of a Prince Charming. A lot of the film’s main themes — sexual pleasure, relationships, harassment — are bludgeoned in the name of comedy, which, ultimately, is not even very funny.

In today’s saffron bikini-ridden times, laughing seems a welcome respite, and perhaps a good coping mechanism to counteract the harshness around us. It’s also a great way to surpass censorship of what are considered taboo subjects. But amid the laughter, we should be careful not to undo the progress made over the years, and end up triggering a devolution of female sexuality on-screen.

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