Actor Kiara Advani’s character Megha using a vibrator and hitting the G-spot in Netflix’s anthology Lust Stories (2018) sent shockwaves through her husband (Vicky Kaushal) and his typical family. Kaushal, who is completely oblivious to his wife’s desires and his pushing-for-children family are rather symptomatic of a larger mainstream India. Around the same time, actor Swara Bhaskar was slut-shamed for depicting female masturbation on screen in Veere Di Wedding (2018). Amid shrieks and scandal-mongering, the Great Indian Female Masturbation or Orgasm is here to stay.
The rise of Netflix and other global OTT platforms in India has unboxed the subject of female sexuality with the operative words being pleasure, desire, consent and even crime. As conversations around sex and sexuality gain momentum, they remain incomplete without including sexual assault and violence awareness, rights, justice and issues of diversity and inclusion. Take Disney+Hotstar’s Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors (2020) and the theme of intimate partner abuse both physical and mental, marital rape and victim shaming, foregrounding the trauma of protagonist Anu Chandra (Kirti Kulhari). Anu faces trial for murdering her husband, Mumbai’s top and ultra-suave lawyer Bikram Chandra (Jisshu Sengupta) and a so-called respectable, loving and progressive man. While Bikram’s snobbish mother unleashes the power of esteemed advocates against Anu, the couple’s daughter and Anu’s father who were tricked by Bikram into believing in his magnanimity likewise share their testimony, conveniently positioning Anu as the criminal offender.
The courtroom drama that doesn’t let the viewer turn into the voyeur sheds light on Bikram’s gaslighting technique – how Bikram had made Anu feel inadequate, nervous, confused and his unequal behind the closed doors away from the view of the outside world justifying his repeatedly raping her as a deserving punishment. What laid behind the bouquet-buying seemingly doting husband’s optics was the ugliness of abuse, violence and a sustained violation of Anu’s right to safety, sanity and dignity. Bikram was successful in distancing Anu’s adolescent daughter and father, and in cutting her off from any social role; a deliberate invisibilization of an adult woman in any sphere of life outside the closed walls of her home. Later, Anu’s surmounting silence, timidity and tepidity – her passivity being unbearable to watch at times – seals her narrative as the one who struggles with a language that probably can’t suitably shape her experiences as its codes are defined by morality and patriarchy. The show broke new grounds in depicting aspects of patriarchal power play and female identity within the socio-legal institution of marriage that commands much emotional investment.
Also read: Hitting the G-Spot On Screen: How Indian Films and TV Shows are Welcoming Female Sexuality
Female desire beyond urban privilege
The OTT space designed to challenge the domination of the traditional box office, populist morality and stereotypical storylines, has emerged as a fertile ground for exploring female sexuality. If Amazon Prime’s Made in Heaven (2019) and Four More Shots Please! (2020) flesh out female desire within an urban, privileged and upper-class narrative, there are shows like Alankrita Shrivastava’s Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare (2021) that projects its protagonists navigating their sexuality within Greater Noida’s upcoming township.
Rife with resonances of their middle-class backgrounds, cousins Dolly (Konkona Sen Sharma) and Kitty (Bhumi Pednekar) strive for sexual freedom and fulfilment. Dolly is mother to a queer boy who prefers going to the Dolls Museum over the Rails Museum much to her chagrin stemming from her own inherent biases. The film that explores intersectionality of gender with class and demographic shows Dolly serving tea to her senior male colleagues at office. And, at home, she is married to a lecherous husband who has declared her as frigid. Doomed in her rented apartment and blamed for their non-existent sexual life, the socially aspirant Dolly seeks and attains pleasure outside matrimony through her sexual encounters with a younger Muslim delivery boy, Osman Ansari (Amol Parashar). The “frigid” woman reactivates her latent sexual energy in an otherwise masculine space. On the other hand, Kajal or Kitty, Dolly’s cousin from Bihar’s Darbhanga with her goals of financial independence, eventually empowers herself by working at a cyber romance-servicing company of a dating app, signifying a growing millennial workforce that refuses to play up with society’s moral prejudices. Their fierce battles and sisterly bonding over alcohol reinforce their identities of women at the margins who insist on pleasure for the sake of pleasure and uncompromised freedom.
Imtiaz Ali’s Netflix debut She traces the trope of female sexual awakening through a route of entrapment and release. The protagonist is an undercover cop posing as a sex worker to honeytrap a drug dealer who “unlocks” her latent sexuality. In what could have been a standout story about Bhumika’s (Aaditi Pohankar) sexuality through her subaltern identity and profile of a low-ranked woman constable in a male-dominated police force, is however, spoilt by the male gaze and problematized through assault, control and power play. Although Bhumika weaponizes her body, is she in command?
Intersectional female desire takes a badland turn in the Amazon Prime drop Mirzapur (2018-). In Mirzapur 2, Rasika Dugal’s Beena Tripathi, married to Tripathi senior, takes out a gun (a signifier of male power) from her dressing table drawer (the vantage site of the woman’s dress-up session) and mulls killing herself as she is repeatedly raped by her father-in-law only to reserve her weapon for later. Beena who has sex with her household servant to get the pleasure that her impotent husband can’t give her, emerges as a key player plotting carefully to emasculate the three generations of Tripathi men. Then there’s Gajagamini ‘Golu’ Gupta who was introduced as masturbating at a library in Season 1. In the second edition, Golu’s character grows as the archetypal revenge seeker who demands sex minus love in an albeit half-heartedly scripted scene with sadist underpinnings.
Of rebel heroines and rebellious female writing
Hindi cinema has given a few landmark badlands-based female characters in the 2010 decade. Take the epic 2012 Anurag Kashyap directorial Gangs of Wasseypur franchise on the Dhanbad coal mafia. In Part 2, lovers Huma Qureshi’s Mohsina Hamid asks Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Faizal Khan who clumsily clasps her hand in a perceived sexual advance: “Permissan liye hai aap? … Jo man mein aaye woh karenge? (Did you take permission? Will you act as you please?). As the macho gangster breaks out in a soft tear, Mohsina teaches Indian men an important lesson in consent.
Today, this growing graph of female sexuality promises to be a diverse ecosystem of female sexualities with women creators and producers breaking into the paradigm. Not to forget the rise of unconventional women leads who are anything but the typical heroine of male fantasies.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)