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Sexuality on the Subcontinental Screen

Priya Lal

From Bollywood's latest, raciest song and dance numbers to the newly released, controversial Girlfriend's, it's going to take a lot more than these types of frivolous female exhibitions -- two lesbians making out, the token 'loose' woman character slinking sinuously through a crude dance routine -- to signal the arrival of an honest treatment of sexuality to Indian cinema.

While munching on bhel puri and samosas in the Indian snack shop near my Southern California home, I often come across the following scene: middle-aged Punjabi couples with young children, elderly Gujarati auntie-jis wrapped in pale-colored saris, and an assortment of various first-generation representatives of the Indian diaspora come together for a brief instant to inhale sharply and exhale, in unison, "Chee!" Following their gaze to the television screens peppering the walls of the restaurant, I already have a good idea what my eyes might find, of what that disapproving syllable spat so emphatically from their sorrowfully shaking heads is directed toward.

Sure enough, my expectations are confirmed. The restaurant staff has abruptly switched the entertainment programming from a crackly old Meena Kumari film to a montage of Bollywood's latest, raciest song and dance numbers. Scantily clad bodies are cavorting lasciviously, in the background is nightclub set, while the screen's foreground reveals a close-up of female hips gyrating forcefully. The gray-haired woman next to me, peering with wide, horrified eyes through her thick glasses at the scandalous flesh-fest unfolding before us all mutters, "Filthy . . . Indian movies have become so cheap!"

The past decade has in many ways seen a considerable relaxation in the Mumbai-based movie industry's unofficial codes for the treatment of sex and the display of bodies on the screen. Interestingly, while most mainstream Bollywood films continue to skirt around actual depictions of the act of copulation itself, the baring of copious amounts of skin slinking or jiggling around in highly unsubtle sexually suggestive maneuvers has become increasingly common in newly released films. And the skin in question almost always belongs to females.

In contrast with older Bollywood conventions of coyly maintaining an almost maddening sense of modesty, these daring new adventures in sexing up the subcontinental screen naturally seem positively outrageous to many. Older generations of Indians, both in and out of the diaspora, as well as younger South Asians still holding onto more conservative, traditional values, are not the only ones who disapprove, however. While self-identified liberated women and their male supporters may aspire towards an erosion of stifling cultural taboos against even acknowledging sexual matters in their India of today, many of them would be loathe to identify the selectively liberal filmic shows of carnality as terribly progressive. Rather, they argue, these tasteless cinematic bacchanals are tired and unoriginal, and are mostly designed only to titillate heterosexual male viewers.

It is illuminating to keep this context in mind as we examine how the traditional old-guard and the feminist vanguard are currently responding to Bollywood's latest product, Girlfriend. The uproar generated by Karan Razdan's unprecedented movie, centered around a lesbian relationship, is truly remarkable for shedding light not just on the abominable social sanction against homosexuality that continues in modern India, but also the country's urgent need for an honest national discussion about gender issues.

The first sign of the unfolding of conservatives' wrath was evidenced in the confrontational actions of that monster epitomizing the most insidious potential of right-wing Indian traditionalism: the militant Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena ("army of God"). The Sena was quick to denounce Girlfriend as a "regressive" testament to the corrupting influences of Western civilization, and essentially decried the film as anti-Indian. In Varanasi, Sena activities set a theater that screened Girlfriend on fire; in Mumbai another contingent of the hardliners invaded another such screening; and in cinema halls across the country Sena folk and their civilian affiliates have been vigorously protesting against what they argue is a paean to the lewd evil of lesbianism.

In many ways, the racket put up by the religious extremists in response to Girlfriend resembles the hullabaloo raised by Deepa Mehta's thoughtful 1998 Fire, the only other major Indian film to directly address female homosexuality. In the case of Fire, reactions by Sena-ites and their like were much the same, including a repertoire of responses including disruptions of screenings in big cities, calls for national courts to ban the movie, and ridiculous labeling of the film as the work of Muslim cultural infiltration. But, notably, the national reception of Fire differed from that of today's Girlfriend in a major respect � progressive, large-minded Indians and feminists were cheering while the right-wingers wailed.

Why? Fire was much more than a mere nod to the fact that homosexuality is (duh) a reality in India, and went far beyond throwing a woman-to-woman kiss or two at its viewers. Rather, Mehta explored the larger condition of the lovers (the fabulous Nandita Das and the extraordinary Shabana Azmi) as women, as well as lesbians, confined to a life of unhappiness in an oppressive Hindu patriarchal family. Honest in its exploration of a female's place in traditional India, if a bit heavy-handed, Fire was lauded by forward-thinking critics not just for overcoming a taboo against "polluting" Indian film with treatments of homosexuality, but for linking this revolutionary gesture to thoughtful questions about subcontinental gender relations more broadly.

Fast forward to the present. So if Fire was almost everything a meaningful, provoking lesbian-themed film should be, then what is Girlfriend? Indian feminist and lesbian organizations are actually denouncing Girlfriend; in a bizarre case of the unlikely coincidence of progressives and conservatives on a particular judgment, both sides are labeling the movie "regressive". Why? Well, while the traditionalists scream "moral corruption", the women's groups are decrying not the fact that director Razdan has chosen to portray a lesbian relationship on screen, but rather the way in which he has chosen to do so.

In short, Girlfriend steers away from the meaningful cultural analysis penetrating Fire, in favor of a snappy, generally vacuous reproduction of gender stereotypes. The narrative follows lovers Tanya (Isha Koppikar) and Sapna (Amrita Arora) through an extended jealous spat as Sapna falls for a man (Aashish Chowdhry), bestowing a generous presentation of the two women's flesh on the audience's gaze along the way. Of course, the movie features a requisite "lesbian sex(y) scene", which in the larger context of Girlfriend's plot seems less to be the gorgeous, humanly touching revelation that was Fire's understated bedroom episode, and more like a gratuitous erotic episode designed to shock most female viewers and arouse most male spectators.

Beyond the apparently conscious artistic decisions made by the director to load Girlfriend with images that not-so-subtly evoke the forbidden territory of predictable pornography rather than explore the political realities of proscribed sexualities, there is the film's plot. In their defense, the Girlfriend team might cry out that the love triangle storyline is a Bollywood staple, and that faulting their movie for drawing upon this Indian classic would be tantamount to criticizing Girlfriend for it's "Bollywoodness" more than anything else.

But while the recycled storylines that Mumbai churns out might just seem benignly fantastical and lovably unrealistic in some cases, in others the decision to use stock narrative skeletons can be downright irresponsible. In Girlfriend it means that the two female lovers turn into catty, jealous beings fighting over not another woman, but a heterosexual man. Thus one of the first films to introduce a lesbian relationship to India's screens portrays women for whom the heterosexual male is central to the way they define their own identities, the way their own love unfolds � a source of desire for Sapna, this man is also a source of envy for possessive, neurotic Tanya.

Come on. Can't we do without all this? Bollywood's characteristic melodramatic excess, sometimes bombastic unsubtlety, and tendency to rely on sweeping caricatures just isn't winning when directors like Razdan choose to deploy ugly stereotypes uncritically. The handful of movies Mumbai has produced that feature gay characters have been similar in this sense, tending towards the same ridiculous, often unprogressive portrayal of a classic typecast flaming homosexual man. This reliance on the same easy formula to flesh out the homosexual character, a new character on the Indian screen, becomes particularly concerning when the country's record on lgbt (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender) issues is examined.

A quick peek at India's current social climate with regard to basic lgbt rights, let alone wider cultural acceptance, is alarming. A 142-year-old national sodomy law remains on the books, and while in cosmopolitan cities like Mumbai and Bangalore a few gay men are able to live openly, throughout the rest of the country lgbt individuals tend to live in fear of social censure and being labeled criminals for engaging in what is deemed "unnatural" sexual acts. What is also important to inspect here is not just India's record on sexual orientation, but its record on gender issues more broadly. Lesbians deal with an intersecting set of pressures, and as homosexuals in a homophobic atmosphere, they suffer doubly for being women in an environment that still revolves around traditional patriarchal family structures that often deny females the freedom to express their voices and fulfill their human rights. That's precisely why Fire was so powerful; because it delved into this intersection between lgbt issues and larger gender issues.

All of this is not to say that every lbgt-themed Bollywood film needs to sacrifice its Bollywoodness � its fun, its music, its dance, its outlandishness, its fantasy � to become an artsy, sobering Deepa Mehta affair. Girlfriend has the potential, in fact, to be far more subversive and incite a far more widespread dialogue on lgbt and gender issues than Fire, precisely because it employs the popular Indian musico-spectacle format. But this potential can only be fulfilled if the ensuing dialogue doesn't address homosexuality in a void; if discussions about the representation of lesbians in Indian popular art don't explore the larger treatment of sex and women on the silver screen. And if a film's honesty about acknowledging lesbian relationships doesn't come without a more meaningful honesty about the realities surrounding said relationships � the national taboo against open public discussions about sex and sexuality, the role that women play in standard Indian tropes of familial and sexual relationships � then ultimately little forward motion has been made.

I tend to agree, for different reasons, with the judgments of the frequently grouchy, stolidly traditional crowd frequenting the little India within the doors of my favorite Los Angeles snack shop. Watching Indian women smushed into stilettos and hot pants and humping well-placed poles while film soundtracks bump wildly in the background gives me little pleasure. But I don't take issues with these supposedly erotic displays because I am yearning for some fictitious past golden age of modesty and decency; I do so because I believe vulgarity comes not just from skin displays, but the manner in which and reason behind why the skin is displayed. To me, the vision of Yana Gupta purring and twisting on a stage for a crowd of salivating men in Dum's (2003) racy item number evokes, to an unpleasant effect, a crowd of salivating male spectators in Indian cinema halls, an image which is particularly disturbing when I remember that Dum's main heroine won the hunky protagonist's heart for being an almost asexually beautiful, devoted, prim family woman. Is this progress?

I'm all for adding some raciness and spice to film, but I do insist that sex-talk has to be candid and empowering, not disabling. A popular medium like film has the ability to erode, not sustain the double standards and stifling, contradictory expectations of women by a patriarchal culture. When living tradition continues to celebrate women who maintain the home, follow "family values", and use their sexuality to fulfill their husband's carnal needs, then cinema needs to do more than allow females to play out men's sexual fantasies in order to be progressive or subversive. Rather, women need to appear in narratives that allow them to express their own sexual voices and desires, and find their own holistic sexual satisfaction. And India needs to be willing to watch them do so without screaming for the censors.

It's going to take a lot more than these types of frivolous female exhibitions � two lesbians making out, the token "loose" woman character slinking sinuously through a crude dance routine � to signal the arrival of an honest treatment of sexuality to Indian cinema. The Indian right wing's violent protests against Girlfriend remind us that South Asia has a long way to go in coming to terms with its own, very real, homophobia. But the dismayed reaction of women's groups to the same film signals to us that this discussion is about more than just sexual orientation or bigotry, but also about the wider meanings of womanhood in modern India. A willingness to acknowledge the sexual potential of bodies onscreen doesn't have to entail the pandering to tropes of male sexual fantasies and careless perpetuating of gender stereotypes. Bollywood, you can do better.

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