Sex & Relationships

Bollywood Is India's Sexual Battleground

The ongoing battle over representations of sex in Indian movies reflects a larger conflict between tradition and change.
It's hard to imagine that two people kissing publicly would cause popular outrage, but that's exactly what happened last April when Richard Gere and Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty kissed at an HIV/AIDS awareness event in Mumbai. Protesters burned effigies of Gere and pictures of Shetty. When Shetty defended Gere, some threatened to boycott her movies. Others went so far as to file legal complaints against the actors, accusing them of violating Indian obscenity laws.

The episode is just one struggle in the ongoing battle over representations of sex and sexuality in Indian movies. The protests against the increase of sexuality come from a highly radicalized segment of Indians and reflect a deeper rift in society. Traditionalists within India are enraged by explicit displays of romance in movies, and they view the increased use of sexual content as an attempt to mimic "Western" culture. That doesn't seem to bother much of India's youth, who -- judging by ticket sales -- enjoy watching movie stars getting physical on screen. The recent controversies over public affection in film demonstrate that traditional parts of society have trouble understanding the desires of younger Indians. This partly has to do with the conservative nature of traditional Indian culture. Young Indians, like Americans, are accepting of new standards for public affection, but still believe in the value of tradition.

The Indian film industry, often synonymous with the infamous Bollywood, produces more than 600 movies a year. (Its American counterpart produces about 400 each year.) Bollywood films, Hindi- or Urdu-language movies made in Mumbai, are typically musicals, and always have happy endings, regardless of any plot twists that occur along the way.

Romance is no stranger to Indian movies, but the methods of depicting relationships have changed over the years. In the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, a love song and dance sequence would involve the stars singing -- well, lip-syncing -- a romantic melody to one another, but from afar, and if they did come close to touching, at most they might have clasped each other's hands and stared into each other's eyes. From the '60s to the '80s, touching progressed from clasped hands to hugs and the occasional face caress, but the audience never saw actors kiss. In the '90s, directors moved to the next level. Lovers would run to one another, drawing closer and closer as if to kiss, but at the last minute the woman would turn her face to the side in shyness and run away. Sometimes filmmakers would obscure the lovers' faces with the woman's duputta (veil) just before their lips met, leaving the rest to the audience's imagination. These moves, while highly entertaining and risqué compared to the romantic gestures of previous decades, were tame enough for the public.

In the '90s, Bollywood redefined the concept of its "item girl." In traditional Indian films, item girls performed a one-time song and dance sequence meant to titillate the audience and enhance its interest in the film. While the item girl dances in pre-'90s films were fairly subdued (in terms of sexuality, at least), the films of the last decade saw a dramatic rise in female sexuality. In an attempt to be more "Western," dancers began to dress provocatively by wearing low cut shirts with bare midriffs that revealed more breast and stomach. Dance moves also became more provocative. While revealing costumes and dance moves are fairly standard and inoffensive for most Western audiences, the changes represented a marked difference for Indian moviegoers.

Today, sexuality is at the forefront of the Indian movie scene. Dance numbers have become more and more risqué; women are dressing more provocatively and dancing much more openly with men. The settings themselves have become more "sexual" as well, particularity with the use of clubs and large parties. Set designers increasingly use rain and candles to set the mood. Hit item girls, such as Rakhi Sawant and Mallika Sherawat, are increasingly popular.

The first "kissing scandal" -- long before Gere dipped Shetty on stage -- came in 2004 with the film Murder, starring Mallika Sherawat and Emraan Hashmi. In the film, the main characters kiss openly and the plot alludes to them engaging in sexual intercourse (although there is no nudity). The film did well at the box office, yet it branded Sherawat as an item girl and stirred some outcry against the film.

Dhoom 2, which was released in 2006, featured the hit Bollywood stars Aishwarya Rai and Hrithik Roshan kissing on screen. Indian elders across the nation were shocked to see such well-known and respected actors engaging in public affection. Older Indians thought Rai's role in the "scandal" was a degradation of Indian women and tradition. And yet the film did very well at the box office, mostly due to the superstar cast.

In the same vein, Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (Never Say Goodbye) revolves around two people in unfulfilling marriages who engage in an affair. They choose to confess their unhappiness to their respective spouses, divorce them, and start a new life together. Conservative Indians claimed that the film mocked traditional values of Indian marriages, and portrayed an aspect of a life distinctly "not Indian." The film didn't show erotic scenes, but the concept of divorce is relatively foreign in traditional Indian society.

It is clear globalization has a strong influence on Bollywood, and may cause fissures in Indian society. While the traditionalist part of Indian culture may be stifling some creative expression, it is also clear that Bollywood directors tend to overdo the sexuality in some films. Conflict between older and younger generations of Indians may cause "kissing scandal" stories to pop up every three months, but this is something that Indian society should resolve without more burned effigies.
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