Women and Sexuality in Indian Cinema

WOMEN, SEXUALITY AND INDIAN CINEMA By Shoma A. Chatterji WORD-COUNT: 1900 Recent films like Tauba Tauba, Murder, Julie and Jism have focussed on something not explored before in mainstream cinema – the sexuality of the Indian woman. Though this has given the director and producer ample scope for exploring the anatomy of the woman in a hundred different ways to lure the box office, the one positive spin-off of these films is that they have uncovered the sexual desires of the Indian woman. The woman need not be beautiful though it is mandatory that she has a beautiful body.

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The woman need not be single either. Sexuality of women in Indian cinema has historically been ignored so far as women’s autonomous expression of sexuality, female desire, etc, are concerned. Sexuality in female characters has been directly linked to the woman as ‘object’ of the male gaze, both within the film, and without it. The male characters in a film are constructed in a way that they treat their female counterparts as objects of their gaze, desire, oppression, humiliation, glorification and celebration.

Since the woman is not generally vested with a ‘voice’ of her own, this extends to a casual indifference to her sexuality as the ‘subject’ of desire, rather than an ‘object’ catering to the desire of other people, mainly male. Outside the film, the woman – both the star as well as the ‘character’ she portrays, is the ‘object’ of the male gaze within the physical parameters of the studio. The costume designer, if he is male, the cameraman, the spot boys, light boys, make-up man, etc. re (a) by social conditioning, (b) by male impulse, and (c) by professional necessity, trained to ‘look’ at the younger female characters as if they were sex objects to be ogled at, or, fantasized about or have wet-dreams around. In this, the editing studio forms an integral part. If the editor decides to keep the footage with close-ups of the heroine’s face alone, the director may ask him to include the close-up of the heroine’s (or vamp’s for that matter) cleavage in a dance sequence, or, on her mouth showing her running her tongue over her glossy lips in a scene of suggestive seduction.

The opposite too, could hold true. A director not interested in portraying his female characters as sex objects may be persuaded by the editor to have second thoughts about his ideology. The financiers, distributors and exhibitors are the real people behind the making of a film because without their backing, a film will just not happen. They can even dictate to the producer the cast of the film, how many songs and dances they wish to see in the film, how many close-ups of the female body, and how many rape scenes. It is business, pure and simple. Then comes the turn of the audience.

It seems to get a strange kind of ‘kick’ in seeing women being raped, beaten up, humiliated on screen as much as they enjoy a strip-tease act cinematographed in deliberate and sometimes, imaginatively shot slow motion. Rape for instance, is one instrument that on celluloid, that comes in handy not only in controlling women, but in controlling their sexuality for good. According to feminist film critic Laura Mulvey, male visual pleasure is the controlling pleasure in cinema. Therefore, it seems logical that rape in mainstream Indian cinema follows this ideology within its own cultural context.

Rape in the commercial mainstream is used mainly as a technologically skilled manipulation of male visual pleasure created with imagination, for purely commercial purposes. Rape is a statement of fact translated into action in a patriarchal society. Therefore, it offers abundant scope to a mainstream filmmaker to be used as a political strategy to provoke audience-voyeurism. The subject of Bandit Queen explores the very objectification of a single woman, Phoolan Devi (from birth till she lays down her arms to the police) it seeks to condemn and attack.

The scene showing Phoolan forced to parade the streets in the nude in Behmai to draw water from the well raises an ideological question. Isn’t it tantamount to the director and the camera subjecting the body of Phoolan to the same ‘rape’ she had to suffer throughout her childhood and adult life? The top-angle shots painfully bring across Phoolan’s vulnerability and senseless humiliation, true. But it is also true that for once, Kapoor definitely and unambiguously designs the camera to turn voyeur in a deliberate attempt to attract the attention of a global audience.

Not surprising therefore, that the Academy of Motion Picture and Arts chose to rate Bandit Queen among the ten best films ever made. However, the same film also acknowledges the sexual desire of Phoolan when she falls in love with Vikram Mallah. When Vikram is recovering from a gunshot wound in the thigh, in hiding in Kanpur, Phoolan strides atop him and makes love to him like a man, the more aggressive partner in sex. It underscores the mutations in the life and style of an unlettered woman who has been subjected to repeated rape, who has grown into a sexually aggressive woman, who no longer shies away from her physical needs.

Whether this is a consequence of her acquiring the male masquerade or, is due to her passion for Vikram remains ambiguous. Did Mansi in Basu Bhattacharya’s film Aastha commit adultery? This is a rather piquant question since the fact of her sleeping around with men who are not her husband/s is undercut by the fact that she is paid for the ‘services’ she renders. In other words, she is a prostitute who sells herself for money. How does one try and connect the question of adultery with the raw reality of prostitution? Basu’s film throws up this question, albeit unwittingly (unwillingly? but fails to offer an answer. In the rather confusing climax, her husband says he ‘understands’ her. Does that mean she goes on prostituting herself and silences her husband with expensive gifts on the one hand and sizzling sessions in bed on the other? Aastha triggers off an intriguing backtracking to Hindi cinema and how it has treated sexuality among its women when the women were, on rare occasions, the ‘subjects’ of the film. In India, chastity runs like a constant thread in all social relationships a woman is legitimately involved in: daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt, mother-in-law, friend.

Anything beyond this realm is unthinkable. The minute a married woman is discovered having a physical relationship with another man, she is regarded a whore. Aparna Sen’s film Parama is an example of how modernity is a surface hypocritical mask that veils the double standards of an urban, ‘progressive’ family, a fragile surface that cracks under the expose of the middle-aged daughter-in-law’s brief, but torrid affair with the friend of a nephew who is years younger. For thousands of years, adultery has been considered a male monopoly just as much as monogamous sexual desire is interpreted as being a female one.

How far is this patriarchal theorizing true? Is this a deliberate underestimation of a woman’s guts on the one hand and her sexuality on the other? True, that the word ‘guts’ for adultery might make men and women cringe. But note that this too, is the result of patriarchal conditioning, which has laid down one set of morals for the male of the species and a completely different one for the females. Adultery by any woman immediately marks her out as bad woman, a social outcaste no one should communicate with. Is this a psychological security for the men who made all those rules about men being more ‘hot’ than women?

For that matter, adultery committed by a woman is perhaps more a question of seeking security and confidence than just guts. It might be a search for self-assurance, which a boring marriage to an indifferent spouse has designedly destroyed. In Deepa Mehta’s Fire, lesbianism is presented as part of the rationale of women’s autonomy, loyalty and mutual commitment, as well as a positive alternative to draining, unrewarding and positively negative relations with men. It is also a strong statement on the two women’s assertion and acknowledgement of their own sexuality, without either shame or pride.

The absence of lesbians and of the issue of lesbianism from films is consistent with the absence of lesbianism from all other forms of representation. It echoes society’s systematic repression of ideologies and sub-cultures, which oppose, challenge or undermine the hegemony of racist, sexist and capitalist patriarchy. This brings us full circle to Astitva, directed by Mahesh Manjrekar, noted in the industry for leashing the screen with blood, gore and violence. This film is a turn-of-the-century statement on the sexually deprived married woman’s right to her sexuality, despite her husband.

Aditi (Tabu) who finds a voice at the end of the film, blasts not only her husband who disowns her for a single sexual encounter that was extra-marital, juxtaposed against his several ‘affairs’, but also the man who sired her only son, who felt grandiose in donating his entire property to her just because she mothered his child. He too, like her unfeeling husband Shrikant, did not care to consider the repercussions of his action on her life, even after his death. The son castigates the mother because she is ‘immoral’ and Aditi is left with her memories of a 27-year-old marriage that turned out to be as mpty as the suitcase she carries out with her. “Should I spread out my begging bowl when I have the need for sex? ” she asks her husband point-blank, disgusted with the cutting out of the family she has nurtured with love, care and commitment for so many years. In India, the burden of morality (chastity, virtue, purity, the pativrata ideal, izzat, self-sacrifice, motherhood, etc. ) is vested in the women of the family, specially the wife within the nuclear family and the daughter-in-law in the extended family.

There are no clear-cut lines between morality, immorality and madness, between ‘mad’ and ‘bad’ for women in distress. Women are seen as guardians of morality in the family. Any deviance from long-established feudal and patriarchal norms is not tolerated. Indian women, married or single, divorced or widowed, have little control over their sexuality. All societies have constructs about ‘good women’ and ‘bad women’, based on the sexual identities constructed for them and for women in general. But in actual situations, both constructs can be used against the women to deny them any authentic experience of sexuality.

This double-bind women find themselves in, in many sexual relationships, reflects the mechanisms of the other cultural double binds that many women cannot easily negotiate, leaving them with unclear, if not confused sexual identities. There is a savage and rampant mystification of female sexuality through different socio-communicative practices ranging from the traditional to the post-modern, from religious literature to advertising to pornography. Our society gives mixed signals about female sexuality, which women find difficult to relate to.

Indian cinema exhibits brazen representations of female sexuality and flaunts the female body. A woman who objects to her husband seeing erotica is likely to be labelled a ‘prude. ’ A woman who actually enjoys it is likely to be called ‘too fast. ’ All societies have constructs about ‘good women’ and ‘bad women’ based on sexual identities constructed for them, and for women in general. In reality however, both constructs can be used against women to deny them any authentic experience of sexuality. Remember Guru Dutt’s Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam? ************************** Copyright: Shoma A. Chatterji(2004

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