Geometry of relationships

Changing notions: Old ideas of romance and monogamy are not realistic any more. Clockwise from from left bottom: Stills from Dil Kabaddi, Dostana and Fashion.  


The presentation of sexuality in three recent Bollywood films is a curious but welcome phenomenon.

A Chinese proverb wishes us euphemistically by saying “may you live in interesting times”. For observers of mainstream Hindi cinema, this is a fascinating time. Of course it is a given that multiplexes and their niche audiences have altered the production and marketing of films. Even so, the variety of subjects and genres emerging has been cause for wonder. Particularly curious is the presentation of sexuality, its variations and complexity, in three films, very different from each other, released over the past few weeks.

It is not suggested that “Fashion”, “Dostana” and “Dil Kabaddi” follow any trend or are made with a conscious design to explore Indian sexuality. On the contrary, as with a lot of Hindi films this year, the movies want to be as contemporary as possible and to connect with a young audience that has its collective minds addled by 24x7 television, Internet and video games. The films look for available space in 10GB capacity and know that traditional notions of sexuality won’t find it. The world is changing and the idea that all sexuality in the movies be tied to the ideas of romance, marriage and monogamy is not realistic anymore. It’s boring and simply not true.

Sex as commodity

From the word ‘go’ the assumption in Madhur Bhandarkar’s “Fashion” is that sex is a commodity meant for transaction in the world of fashion. It is so essential to the industry that the numbers for sex, bearish and bullish, should probably be listed in the Dow Jones index. Super model Meghna Mathur (Priyanka Chopra) needs to be on the ramp, at photo shoots, parties, discos and, most importantly, in the good books of designers and photographers, the prima donnas of the industry who can make or mar a face in days. A small town girl from Chandigarh, she comes to Mumbai and quickly climbs the ladder. To be eye-candy for a week is easy, she discovers, but to stay at the top as ‘numero uno’ and ‘cover girl’ requires nerves of steel, a flexible heart, and an ability to separate sex from too many feelings.

Right through the film what we see are compromises for professional success. She quickly jettisons her model boyfriend because his rise in the industry is too slow to match her own meteoric one (‘a super model should not be seen on the arm of a struggler’). Then she has an affair with a married fashion industry tycoon. And later, just in case you say that a hetrosexual designer is an oxymoron, we have a super model friend who marries a gay designer to make his mother feel better.

“Fashion” goes on in this fashion until a turning point is reached. One night, an inebriated Meghna visits a disco, gets turned on by dancing with an African stranger and wakes up the next morning in his hotel room. The scene is quite extraordinary. She looks at the sleeping man next to her, is horrified, gathers her strewn clothes and creeps downstairs and into an autorickshaw. When she gets home she desperately wipes her face with tissue after tissue, almost rubbing off her skin, in an attempt to erase the night of raw passion.

There are two ways of looking at this scene. First of all you could look at it as an expression of guilt. But considering that Meghna has already made compromises in the film before and has understood that sex is barter in the fashion industry, this seems unlikely. What is more likely is that she is appalled that she has given in to a night of lust with an African. This is emphasised the morning after when she doesn’t look at the man’s face, just his naked back across the bedsheets. The scene is sexual and racist at the same time.

The point is that directors are now looking at sexuality in a more complex and honest manner in Hindi cinema. More interesting is that mainstream stars like Priyanka Chopra are happily accepting such roles. It is by far her best performance to date. Even more interesting is that films like “Fashion”, without any of the conventional ingredients of melodrama and sentimentality, are now successful at the box office.

Look at the sub-text

Take “Dostana” for instance. On the face of it you would say that a Karan Johar production has to be full of sugar and spice and all things nice. But “Dostana”, directed by Tarun Mansukhani, turns out to be a film with a text and a sub-text.

The text is hetrosexual; John Abraham and Abhishek Bachchan are only pretending to be gay for purpose of renting an apartment in Miami and for filling in an immigration form (gay couples get their papers through faster). But the sub-text of the movie is completely gay. If it were only a comic story about pretending to be gay, the gag would end in a few scenes. Here, the story of a ‘gay’ couple is the whole movie. The girl in the film (Priyanka Chopra) and her heterosexual boyfriend (Bobby Deol) are, for all practical purposes, part of the sub-plot to keep the film on even keel.

It is a movie which clearly explains what it is to be gay in Indian society. It tells you why most Indian gays are married with children and pretend to be hetero or, at best, bi-sexual; because of their mothers, because Indian society works around the family and because of the desperation of all Indian men to keep their name and genetic line going through procreation. It explains why most gays in India lead double lives and also the complexity of such lives for the individuals concerned and for the families.

When a very open gay in the movie (played by the inimitable Boman Irani) rushes to Abhishek’s mother (Kiron Kher) and tells her to accept that her son is gay, she slaps him. But when Priyanka Chopra explains nicely to her that her son is a man in love and that John would be like a ‘bahu’ to her, she understands and does aarti for John, gives him her bangles and asks him to keep karwa chaut. The text is comic, the sub-text is dead serious.

So is the idea that human sexuality is too complex a phenomenon to be anchored by boundaries like monogamy, marriage and heterosexuality just something appearing in Hindi movies for variety and entertainment, or is it true social reflection?

The kink issue

Quite naturally, this would depend on the social class and economic background to which you belong. Take “Dil Kabaddi”, where two couples (Irfan Khan-Soha Ali Khan and Rahul Bose-Konkona Sen Sharma) look for variety in their love lives. All the characters are upwardly mobile, urban, educated consumers with plush apartments and cars. Each has a kink. The Irfan Khan character is into sex toys; Soha Ali Khan is turned on by art movies and Indian classical music; Rahul Bose is a Professor who has fantasies about some of his students; and Konkana Sen Sharma is looking for a man to ‘mother’.

“Dil Kabaddi” is a set piece in the sense that it explores the geometry of relationships by excluding all cultural ambience. You might as well be watching a beautifully decorated platform on a stage (with a sign saying ‘Lokhandwala’) with characters talking to each other and to the audience. But it does say that you need a social vacuum to play sexual ‘kabaddi’ in India.

In other words, these three films seem to be saying that leisure, space and privacy are essential to both the exploration of sexuality and the production of films which talk about it. The consumers, the audience of course, belong to a cross section of society that will certainly be young but may not be urban or well heeled. Yet the films, at least two of them, are successful. Perhaps this tells us a lot about the nature and role of ‘aspiration’ in consumerism!