7 January 2018

The Year of Sex - II

My Mirror column:

Hindi films in 2017 made more space for sex than ever before, but there’s still a self-fulfilling hierarchy to be overcome. (Second of a two-part column.)

2017, as I wrote last week, was a year in which sex got more screen space than ever before. Films like Lipstick Under My Burkha, Haraamkhor, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, Tumhari Sulu, Anaarkali of Aarah and others gave us a whole host of characters, many female, for whom sex was a factor in their lives. Its role in these films was as varied as in real life.

But whether sex appeared as a painful yearning, a trigger for excitement, a source of anxiety or a comfortable anchor, after a near-century of watching butterflies alighting on flowers, it felt remarkable that it was allowed to appear at all. Having finally made its entry into an area reserved for romance, however, sex remains a second-class citizen. This hierarchy was expressed over and over in what the Hindi film industry put on our screens.

One way in which the hierarchy appeared was the traditional one — to pretend that romantic love has no sexual component. Tu Hai Mera Sunday, which I mentioned last week, did this in all the relationships it wanted us to root for. The test of love was doing things for the other person: Rashid’s connection with his neighbour (Rasika Dugal) involved watching out for her disabled children, Barun Sobti’s romancing of Sahana Goswami took the route of babysitting her ageing father, a third relationship blossomed over being on the same side in an office battle. All very heart-warming, but there was something incongruous about the way the film kept the erotic at bay — as if the appearance of sex would make these loves less true.

Another instance of this in 2018 was Bareilly ki Barfi. For all its sharply-observed portraits of masculinity, there was a deeply asexual quality to the film. Its old-fashioned romance, produced by the old-fashioned means of handwritten, hand-delivered letters, unfolded with zero erotic charge.

The hierarchy becomes clearer when you compare Bareilly’s chaste world of Mishras and Dubeys with another 2017 film set in the Uttar Pradesh small town: Babumoshai Bandookbaaz. If Bareilly’s Brahminical universe has not a smidgeon of sexiness, Kushan Nandy’s thriller (which also had a Dubey) seems wholly propelled by it. Right from the first scene where a man gets off on watching his wife receive a massage, to the heroine Bidita Bag’s ‘intro’ scene demanding that Babu (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) pay her double for the privilege of having checked her out as she repaired his sandal, all the way through to the lust-fuelled denouement, this is a film intent on delivering a sock in the jaw to old-school romance. It is of a piece with that ambition that Nandy makes ‘Kucch toh log kahenge’ the soundtrack to Nawaz taking a shit in the open, and has ‘Maine tere liye hi saat rang ke sapne chuney’ playing in a butcher’s shop. In Babumoshai’s world, love is fuelled by lust — but so is violence. And the lusty woman’s loyalty is always suspect.

The suspect-ness of sexual passion is clearly a powerful narrative in our heads, appearing even in what was the year’s most programmatic attempt to frame female desire as a legitimate thing. In Lipstick Under My Burkha, Aahana Kumra’s Leela broke from a long lineage of coyly resistant Hindi movie heroines when she showed up at her lover’s room proposing a bout of passionate make-up sex. But Lipstick also shows how easily all the power of that openness can be turned against her, as soon as the man decides to demean the woman’s desire by calling it ‘merely’ physical.

Even in a film with as risk-taking a heroine as Simran, the old separation between sex and love has not left us. Despite the non-judgemental calm with which Kangana Ranaut’s Praful deals with her friend’s and her own sexual escapades, the film’s only depiction of a loving, potentially-long term relationship for Praful is one in which there is only conversation, and the conversation isn’t even flirtatious. The having of sex, it seems, is now allowed, but it is a marker of non-seriousness. Of non-love.

So it should be no surprise at all that the year’s self-proclaimed big romantic release, Imtiaz Ali’s Jab Harry Met Sejal, turned on precisely this hierarchical division between lust and love. The film’s plot, such as it is, turns on a whirlwind journey through Europe, during which Shah Rukh Khan’s tour guide character Harry becomes unwillingly, unwittingly involved with his sort-of client, Anushka Sharma’s Gujarati heiress Sejal. Harry is the textbook hero of modern romantic fiction aimed at women: cocky on the outside, unhappy on the inside, the man for whom flirtation is a game in which he always wins, until he loses his heart — to you. But what’s relevant for our purposes here is that even when the man is a player — or perhaps especially when he is one — and the relationship hinges on a tantalising sexual chemistry more than anything else, sex must be removed from the equation, to prove it is love.

I’d be the last person to suggest that sex must be necessarily tied to love, or even to a relationship. Sometimes sex is about pure erotic thrill, and that can be a wonderful thing. But it is the converse that worries me. As long as Hindi cinema continues to insist that true love must be produced independent of sex, all lust will continue to remain suspect.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 7 Jan 2018.

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