The anxiety about sex on screen is not really new. The anxiety about the body as sexual, as something that desires sex, usually comes with the moral baggage of those who want to control, well, everything
I start getting anxious when people touch each other all the time in films! Do you feel that?" a friend said to me soon after physical distancing entered our lives. Now, as we contemplate back-to-work, this has become a central question of cinema. Film bodies worldwide are trying to define SOPs for shooting intimate scenes.
The anxiety about sex on screen is not really new. The anxiety about the body as sexual, as something that desires sex, usually comes with the moral baggage of those who want to control, well, everything.
Early Indian cinema did feature some full-on, close-up smooching, which vanished by the 1940s—but not mysteriously. Cinema, like much of art, is an elusive, iridescent bird that exists to feed our senses, and pleasure always has a precarious existence. It is never seen as a good enough reason for something, neither artistry, nor relationships. The fear that our pleasures will take us across the Lakshman rekha of social segregation—gender, caste—means pleasures are often censured for 'higher purposes.'
Scholars like Neepa Majumdar have shown how Indian cinema sought to legitimise itself in the 1940s by aligning with the nationalist movement. This involved some sanitising—no kissing and less maza masti, more social issues and family dramas. The scholar Sangeeta Gopal quotes a film journal responding to a reader's query on the absence of kisses: the technique of love-making in the West is different. Sexual freedom threatens national freedom. It is this legacy whereby films that want to be considered important go to some lengths to strip themselves of pleasurable, sensual elements. Social issues acquire authoritativeness and enjoyment deemed unnecessary.
Since nature, yes, even human nature, abhors a vacuum, kisses in Hindi films were replaced by songs, (sometimes featuring the much-maligned cuddling roses), suffused with eroticism, triple meanings, lip-biting and longing. That we remember songs, but rarely the movie, must tell us something about our bodies, which like to carry these memories, and also, why we like roses.
Laws governing film censorship were based on the potential of cinema to lead us astray with that impactful bodily encounter in the dark of the theatre. No kissing on screen, to keep our thoughts safe and sanitary. 'Authorities' would decide our thinking for us, rather than let us understand, with the right information, what works for us, without harming others.
Media and movies prop up this thinking by constantly telling stories of how dangerous the world is, yaniki gritty realism (you gotta be a real man to take it na), where, on the other side of social boundaries, lie rape and murder.
Stories about sex are mostly stories about violence, not pleasure, apparently for our own good. Violence is also touch, but it seems to cause no anxiety (ya, I'm also confused). All this terrorises us into sticking to the straight and narrow (minded), never developing the confidence and judgement to make our choices.
Today, there is a literal, heightened risk to our bodies. Yet, emergencies are often used to create new normals of repression and control. Can the future, imagined purely as danger yield answers that enable us to choose our own good while being free? Or maybe we're likelier to discover those answers, by imagining a desired future—of security but also freedom and kisses.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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