Why the portrayal of sex is no longer a taboo in Bollywood

Oct 19, 2013, 06:10 IST | Subhash K Jha

There was a time when sex meant pregnancy, notoriety and much on-screen wailing. But the recent crop of films is talking about the S-word in a whole new light

Before Shoojit Sircar’s Vicky Donor, the ‘s’ word -- and we aren’t talking about sex -- was taboo in our cinema. No one made any mention of sperm, not even childless mothers who wailed and whined for procreation. When Shoojit went to producers with a proposal to make a film on -- ahem -- sperm donation, they thought he had lost it. “They were convinced I was going to make a cheesy wet-dream special targeted at morning shows for male students in backwater towns,” he says. “I am glad Vicky Donor opened doors and windows that we were afraid to open. I think sex is finally getting yanked out of the hush-hush environment of bedrooms.”

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Shoojit feels that films like Vicky Donor and BA Pass, which deals with male prostitution in Delhi, are a sign of a growing society. “Yes, we are talking openly about sex. The concept of sexuality has changed. The new generation is more vocal.” The frank new release Shuddh Desi Romance comes from the house of Yash Chopra, who was known to be fairly conservative in his cinematic expression. Things are certainly changing at Bollywood’s most prestigious production house after its head honcho passed away. Yash Chopra did not encourage films with double meaning or overtly sexual content. Once in a memorable meeting with me, he spoke out against Deepa Mehta’s Fire saying, “I don’t approve of films about such topics as homosexuality and live-in relationships.” One doesn’t know about homosexuality. But the live-in-relationship has now entered the portals of Yash Raj Films (YRF). And why not? An actor from YRF’s rom-com Shuddh Desi Romance says, “The film is to Yash Raj Films what Delhi Belly was to Aamir Khan. It’s a very bold subject about a live-in relationship. I wouldn’t call it vulgar at all. But it’s way out of the league of what audiences expect from a Yash Raj film.”

WINDS OF CHANGE: Shuddh Desi Romance is typical of the changing mindsets about sexual mores, which are seen in the conservative corridors of film studios as well as society salons

This is YRF’s first adult film. It is a rom-com that talks about sexual matters, casually and irreverently. So has YRF decided to change its profile? A veteran actor who has worked repeatedly with the premium production house doesn’t see radical changes in content happening at Yash Raj. “Even if there are big changes happening, what is wrong with it? One has to move with the times. Perhaps there were stories, themes and situations in scripts that Aditya Chopra was hesitant to tackle during his father’s lifetime. And let’s not forget that Yashji made some very bold films like Dharmputra about a Muslim-Hindu alliance. Daag was about a man with two wives and Lamhe was about a girl in love with a man old enough to be her father.” Things have certainly changed at YRF, and Shuddh Desi Romance manifests the winds of change in sexual mores, sweeping through its conservative corridors.

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Parineeti Chopra and her co-star Sushant Singh Rajput are shown sharing a live-in relationship in Shuddh Desi Romance. But a live-in relationship in a small town of North India! The feisty Parineeti, who plays the lead in this raunchy rom-com, feels live-in relationships are no big deal. She feels such a situation reflects the reality of our society. “I come from a small town, Ambala. Live-in relationships are a reality there. There are so many taboo subjects and situations that are quite normal in real life. I am not saying live-in relationships should become the norm but they do exist. Gender equations have changed and Shuddh Desi Romance reflects that change. We are not saying whether live-in relationships are right or wrong. We’re only acknowledging their reality.”

OPENING DOORS: Vicky Donor paved the way for society to talk about a different dimension of sex, feels its director Shoojit Sircar

Incidentally, Bollywood is no stranger to live-in relationships. While the principal cast of Yashraj Films’ Shuddh Desi Romance has gone to town... rather, several towns and cities... about the film’s theme of a live-in-relationship, the interesting thing is that there is an even more pronounced and casual live-in relationship in the same week’s other release, Zanjeer. Like the much-touted live-in relationship between Parineeti Chopra and Sushant Singh Rajput, the one in Zanjeer between Priyanka Chopra and Ramcharan Teja also ends up in bed. Says Apoorva Lakhia, “Yes, PC and Ram’s characters do live together. What’s the big deal about it? If you remember the original Zanjeer, Amitji and Jayaji’s characters had also shared a live-in relationship. That was 40 years ago. But this is the new millennium. In this movie, the lead charactersdo sleep together.” Lakhia sees nothing shocking or sensational in this. Incidentally, Priyanka was also shown sharing a live-in relationship with her boyfriend in Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion.

In fact live-in relationships in Hindi cinema date back to Vijay Anand’s Guide in 1965 where married heroine Waheeda Rehman moves in with her lover, Dev Anand. Recalls Waheedaji, “It was indeed a very bold film and I confess I had my reservations about what people would think. But Vijay Anand convinced me, and I am glad he did.” In 1973 the same year as Zanjeer, Jaya Bhaduri was shown moving in with Sanjeev Kumar’s character in Anamika. The same Sanjeev Kumar provided a home for Zeenat Aman in Shammi Kapoor’s Manoranjan.

Most substantial voices in Bollywood feel the long-delayed sexual revolution is finally happening in tinsel town. Progressive Urdu-Hindi litterateur Rajinder Singh Bedi’s granddaughter Ila Bedi, who co-wrote the recent Agneepath, feels the winds of change. “We are emerging out of the closet and are not ashamed of our sexuality. Mindsets are changing. The youth is more empowered. Gen Next makes no excuses or apologies for what they are. It’s a silently, gradually, growing revolution.” Ila is enthused about writing unorthodox scripts. “I salute writer Jaideep Sahni (who wrote Shuddh Desi Romance) and Aditya Chopra (who produced the film) for their gutsy, unapologetic cinema. I am now inspired to write out-of-the-box stories and characters I wish television would also grow out of its cocoon of conservatism.”

Ajay Bahl, who made a startling directorial debut with his film BA Pass, about a bored housewife and a gigolo, feels that now is the time to shed our conservative skin in cinema. “Cinema is inspired by life and is a reflection of the times we live in. The changing moral codes and the acceptance of unconventional sexual preferences, gay, lesbian or bi-sexual, are bound to find a voice in any modern filmmaker’s work.” However, Ajay feels that sex in our movies is by and large still a tool to shock. “It is yet to be tackled with maturity, simplicity and unambiguity. And also we need to stop using sex as an apology for being brushed under the carpet for so many generations of cinema. The day we deal with sexual themes in a matter-of-fact tone is when the sexual revolution will really occur in our cinema.”

Scholar and filmmaker Dr Chandraprakash Dwivedi feels we need many more films that discuss sex without coyness. “Talking about sex is still taboo in a society that created Khajuraho. But slowly and steadily, our society is opening up. Filmmakers are now willing to explore sexual themes with candour. I’d say it’s a welcome change.” Child activist-filmmaker-actor Amole Gupte feels we have a long way to go before we achieve sexual liberation on celluloid. “Hollywood went down that path long ago. For us to make a film like Milk (about gay activist Harvey Milk) would take a long time, because our actors are still shy of playing gay. Hats off to actor Saqib Saleem, for playing a gay character in Bombay Talkies. For a real sexual revolution to happen in our cinema, we first need to come out of the comedic mindset.”

Ironically, the new sex-oriented release Indra Kumar’s Grand Masti is filled with brutally unvarnished innuendo and smutty jokes describing women’s anatomy as a ‘milk factory’, etc. Grand Masti writer Milap Jhaveri proudly says, “The youth of our country is definitely ready for the sexual revolution. They are evolving and modern. That’s why Grand Masti is so eagerly awaited.” Writer Prasoon Joshi feels cinema is and will remain a mirror of social change. “Cinema shapes the mores of our society. Cinema is also a form of self-expression. Sexual themes will always get varied treatment. When such films become commercial successes, we see a kind of mass acceptance of sexual themes. There is a change in the offing, I’msure.”

Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra feels society has to be ready for a cinematic sexual revolution. “If our society is ready and willing for that revolution, cinema will automatically assume that change. Cinema has always played an important role in sensitizing society about non-traditional values.”  Sure enough, a plethora of forthcoming films from big commercial production houses reflect a change in sexual mores. Karan Johar’s Student of The Year had a prominent gay character, played by Rishi Kapoor. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s forthcoming Ram Leela is his most passionate film to date. It will demonstrate a sexual frankness, alien to this passionate filmmaker’s cinema so far. Yes, Bollywood cinema has finally grown up. 

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