Indian Heroines Have Had Sexual Desires & We’ve Loved Them For It

When Lipstick Under My Burkha was refused certification by the Examining Committee of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), one expected the internationally acclaimed film to get cleared with reasonable cuts by the Revising Committee. That did not happen and from what one hears, director Alankrita Shrivastava is now all set to fight it out in the court.

What has apparently offended the CBFC is that the film depicts sexual fantasies of women and could hurt the sentiments of a particular community.

A still from Lipstick Under My Burkha. (Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

So let us first address the specific community. It is not as if this is the first time a that a heroine has been portrayed in a burkha in an Indian film. Just last week we featured an extensive story analysing how the culture of Muslim socials has sustained in Indian films beginning with post-talkies Pukar (1939) to as recently as Fitoor (2016). The problem arose every time the story depicted inter-community romantic relationships be it Tere Ghar Ke Saamne or Mani Ratnam’s Bombay.

During Bombay , if I remember correctly, some groups objected to Manisha Koirala’s burkha getting entangled and she leaving it behind while rushing to meet Arvind Swamy in the song - Tu Hi Re… but discussions, debates and arguments later Bombay was released and appreciated.

Manisha Koirala played a Muslim girl in love with a Hindu, Arvind Swamy, in Bombay.

In Muzaffar Ali’s Anjuman, the bride (Shabana Azmi ) when asked by the qazi “Tumhe nikaah qubool hai..?” shocks everyone with “Na qabool…” which is in accordance with Islam, where the bride has the right to disagree to a groom chosen by the family. BR Chopra’s Nikaah originally to be titled Talaq Talaq Talaq has an angry Salam Agha condemning her husband and questioning the Muslim Marriage Act in the climax. It was a strong film that made a strong statement and everyone, Hindus and Muslims loved the film.

Coming to seduction, erotica is a part of Natyashastra’s navarassa and the Hindi cinema heroine is the culmination of the ashtanayika, which is why our filmmakers have from time immemorial told about their passion and pain, yearnings and gratifications.

How can we forget the alcoholic chotti bahu (Meena Kumari) of a Hindu Brahmin family drinking and seducing her feudal husband (Rehman) to prevent him from going to the courtesan? ‘Na jao saiyyan…’ and Saheb Biwi aur Ghulam is the ultimate seduction on a four poster with nothing left to imagination. Waheeda Rehman in Guide is a victim of an unfruitful marriage, who motivated by a guide (Dev Anand) challenges her impotent archaeologist husband with “Marco, main jeena chahti hoon…

A still from Guide. (Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Tanuja in Jewel Thief understands that the hero does not love her but that does not inhibit her from expressing her attraction for him in the delicious “Tumhe humse na ho na sahi, hume tumse mohabbat hai… Raat akeli hai bujh gayen diye…

Similarly, Manoj Kumar is aloof and uptight on his date with the beautiful Sadhana on the moonlit beach in Woh Kaun Thi but she breaks his defences with her unconditional outpouring in the highly sensual “Lag ja gale se…

In Saraswati Chandra, it is Kumud Sundari (Nutan) who initiates romance with her fiancé (Saraswati Chandra) by sending him a flower wrapped in a letter, “Phool tumhe bheja hai khat mein …” and later by soaking into the pond together as he sings odes to her beauty “Chandan sa badan…

Whether it was Satyajit Ray’s Charulata or Aparna Sen’s Paroma, it was always the wife who responded to attention and unwittingly initiated attraction. In Ek Baar Phir, Deepti Naval could have resisted meeting her beloved one more time but she chooses intimacy over suffocation, just as Shabana Azmi chooses desire (Faroque Sheikh) in Ek Pal and describes her expression as a moment of truth rather than a moment of weakness.

In Basu Bhattacharya’s Aastha, wife and mother Rekha is lured into prostitution for additional income and is in the process seduced by consumerism, awakening to sexual gratification all along denied in a mundane marriage. She does a role reversal by seducing husband (Om Puri) and offering him a kind of sexual excitement that he has not experienced yet. In Hu Tu Tu, it is again a mother with political ambitions who has no qualms in using her sexuality to pursue her goals.

So is it fair to be judgmental of these women characters and to describe them as supposedly valuing “their fantasy above life”?

They were all vulnerable women in complex situations who followed their hearts, they were sometimes single (The Dirty Picture), often married (Astitva, Ghare-Baire) voicing their concerns and exercising their choices, so is it fair to judge intention out of context?

In the 70s, Shyam Benegal unraveled the intrigue of an actress who travels many relationships in Bhumika and remains lonely. In the 90s, showman Subhash Ghai created a furore by asking “Choli ke peeche kya hai…” in Khhalnayak to which a sensual Madhuri Dixit heaving her bosom replied “Choli mein dil hai mera…

In the same decade, Karisma Kapoor danced to “Sexy sexy mujhe log bole…” and again the censors condemned the song but the feminists applauded the celebration.

In 2016, Alia Bhatt in Dear Zindagi seeks counselor Shah Rukh Khan to validate her self-esteem damaged by other people’s perception about her.

Shah Rukh Khan and Alia Bhatt in Dear Zindagi. 

Coming back to Lipstick Under My Burkha, what is there for CBFC or for that matter any institution/organisation to become the moral guardian of Indian culture?

Besides, what is this Indian culture they feel obliged to protect against its own people? What is wrong in expressing a desire - be it sexual or cosmetic? Why do we need somebody else to dictate to us what is respectable/disrespectful? If our predecessors had done that, we would have been deprived of all the magical moments in cinema mentioned in the story earlier.

The girls from Lipstick Under My Burkha need to be heard and seen.

In Black, filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali portrays his disabled protagonist expressing her desire to experience a kiss. In Dev D, director Anurag Kashyap depicts Mahie Gill carrying a mattress on her bicycle when riding into the field to meet the hero.

The expressions of the heroine’s desires become more blatant in Sahib Biwi aur Gangster because these directors have faith that their intention will not be misinterpreted by their audience. So why is this faith missing in our institutions? Why do we underestimate our audience and assume his/ her sensibilities will be offended?

Nothing as dramatic is going to happen because passion is universal and expression of passion is individualistic and in case of cinema, reflective of the character which only the writer/director has the authority to decide.

(Bhawana Somaaya has been writing on cinema for 30 years and is the author of 12 books. Her Twitter handle is @bhawanasomaaya)