As a film on friendship starts drawing room discussions about female sexuality, a look into how popular culture is changing to bring women’s desires to the forefront and what comes with this change
The term itself is hilarious, charam-sukh, which loosely translated, means ‘ultimate happiness’. But when the word was uttered by Shikha Talsania, one of the four main actors in the recently-released Veere Di Wedding, many in the cinema hall burst out into a roar, while some let out uncomfortable shrieks. The scene depicts four friends discussing sex where Meera, played by Talsania, tells her friends that charam-sukh stands for orgasm in Hindi. A little later in the film, another character played by Swara Bhaskar is seen using a sex toy for masturbation. The scene lasts for less than a minute, but the silence in the multiplex is thick. There is almost a sigh of relief when the frame shifts after Bhaskar has experienced charam-sukh.
A woman’s sexual escapade in a film is nothing to write about, but when a few reels are spent showing a woman using a sex toy in an otherwise commercial film, you know something has changed. The Rhea Kapoor- and Ekta Kapoor-produced film, which may otherwise be labelled as an ‘urbane female exploration of life’, threw open a taboo topic for discussion—female sexuality.
Veere Di Wedding is not the only one. Around the same time, Lust Stories, an anthology that sheds light on modern relationships from a woman’s viewpoint, was released on Netflix. The film hit the spotlight for its women who were unapologetic about their desires. Last year, actor Ratna Pathak Shah in Lipstick Under My Burkha gave the audiences a befitting performance as a 55-something buaji, who reads erotica and indulges in phone sex with her swimming instructor, even if she is slut-shamed later by her family.
Cinema of change
Female sexuality isn’t in the closet any more. If you look at the spate of films that have been released in the past couple of years, they seem to tell us that women mouth expletives, watch porn and don’t mind talking about orgasms—things taken for granted when it comes to men. Even books, which otherwise may not be erotica, have instances of a woman’s sexual desires weaved into the main narrative to present a world where women have such desires.
So have we finally shed our inhibitions? Are we ready to talk about female desires in our popular culture? “I would like to believe so,” says actor Swara Bhaskar, who has received both praise and flak for the masturbation scene in Veere Di Wedding. The film’s director, Shashanka Ghosh, says the scene was put in after much deliberation. “I asked my producer Rhea whether there should be a sanitised version. But then we decided to be unapologetic about it and show it the way it should be,” Ghosh says.
Agrees Bhaskar, who plays a socialite stuck in an unhappy marriage in the film. “We underestimate our audience and indulge in self-censorship, but the success of Veere Di Wedding shows that they are quite progressive.”
The film’s box-office collection reflects this. It had an opening-day collection of `10.7 crore in India, making it this year’s third-highest initial-day earner within the country among Hindi films. Despite not having a top male lead, the film crossed the `50-crore mark in less than a week. Delhi-born Bhaskar, who suffered trolling on social media for the masturbation scene, feels ‘validated’ now. “Women, and even men, felt that it was a pertinent scene. It’s nice when your efforts pay off,” she remarks.
In Netflix’s Lust Stories, directed by Karan Johar, Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee, the stories highlight sexual dissatisfaction, infidelity, one-night stands and sexual powerplay—all from a woman’s perspective. ALTBalaji’s Dev DD was a version of the classic, with a female protagonist who isn’t afraid to express her affinity to alcohol and sex. YouTube’s The Other Love Story, set in the 90s, is touted as India’s first lesbian Web series.
Says Alankrita Shrivastava, director of Lipstick Under My Burkha: “There have been more women-centric films in the past two years than ever before. That these films are being made, watched and loved shows that a change is underway.” Her film went on to win several international awards, including the Spirit of Asia Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival and the Audience Award at Glasgow Festival.
Pink, which dealt with a woman’s prerogative to say no to sex, went on to win the National Film Award for Best Film on Other Social Issues in 2016. The 2015 film, Angry Indian Goddesses, won a standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival for its sensitive portrayal of women’s issues related to objectification and same-sex marriage.
The tales don’t just stop at the screens. Literature is playing its part too. Lust and desire in the context of female sexuality are slowly being looked beyond the rose-tinted glasses of morality. Author Shuma Raha, whose debut collection of short stories, The Love Song of Maya K, was launched last month, offers an explanation. “Lust, sexuality, sexual fantasies, or even the feeling of sexual inadequacy, are human instincts—experienced as much by men as by women.” In one of her stories, titled The Cabbie, a go-getter fantasises about her taxi driver on a drive to work despite being wary of being termed a cougar. In another, a career-oriented, upwardly mobile woman watches a newly-married couple make out in the train, and the display of their naked sexuality awakens her desires. “I have no message; I was just trying to portray the whole shebang of the experience of being a woman,” says Raha.
A statement that many female writers reiterate. “Women were generally seen as the objects of male desire and not as subjects with their own desires. I thought it was important to create visibility,” says Amrita Narayanan, a clinical psychologist and writer, who published A Pleasant Kind of Heavy in 2013 under the pseudonym Aranyani. A collection of erotic stories, the book explored the infinite possibilities of female desire. She later explored the subject further with her second book, an anthology called The Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica, published in 2017.
There’s more in the offing. Writer Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s collection of two novellas—Panty and Hypnosis—are bold writings on hardcore female sexuality. The novel Sita’s Curse: The Language of Desire by Sreemoyee Piu Kundu explores the theme of female empowerment through sexual exploration. In her new novella, The Nine-Chambered Heart, published last year, writer Janice Pariat explains desire through the different men in the protagonist’s life.
Sarojini Sahoo, writer of Upanibesh, a book that explores the relationship of culture and individualism in the context of sexual expression, feels that “sexuality in our culture is tightly woven to individual life. Sexual taboos keep women away from expressing such things”.
For long, popular culture has been seen through the male gaze. “In our country, storytelling has been through the male gaze and for mostly male consumption. That’s why a Pink needs Amitabh Bachchan and a Dangal needs Aamir Khan,” feels director Shrivastava, adding, “Women were either heroines or vamps. They had no grey shades. The objectification of women went to such an extent that we had something called ‘item songs’.”
Actor Bhaskar adds: “We follow a culture of silence. In our society, shame is considered a virtue, when people ask ‘have you no shame?’ But on the flipside, the same mentality, in a warped sort of way, puts the blame of rape on a victim. This is reflective in our popular culture, too, where patriarchy dominates and we don’t talk about women’s desires.”
Actor Neha Dhupia, no stranger to unconventional cinema, believes that “cinema has always been a reflection of society and not the other way around, and it is only now that women are being brave enough to talk about it socially”. She appears in the Karan Johar-directed short film in Lust Stories, where she plays the role of a librarian, who stimulates herself on the school premises. In the film, she tells her friend that a woman doesn’t need to rely on her husband, or rather any man, for sexual gratification. Besides Johar, it was the script that attracted Dhupia to the Netflix anthology. “The fact that it was bold enough and putting across a point at the same time about suppressed sexuality of women made me choose the role. Also, there was a lot of entertainment, but it was dealing with an important issue as well,” she adds.
Filmmaker Shohini Ghosh of AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, feels narratives became realistic with the advent of the internet. “Prior to the advent of the multiplex, most films were screened in single-screen theatres with a very diverse audience. Films had to have something for everyone. But now, films are more explicit and niche because the multiplex audience is less diverse, more middle-class and unlikely to be offended by things that the internet has brought to everyone’s mobile device. The real sexual revolution has happened on the internet. This has eased the way for sexual explicitness in cinema as well,” Ghosh explains.
So when director Shashanka Ghosh was shooting the masturbation scene in Veere Di Wedding, he had no intention for it to be a flagbearer of feminism or gay issues. “I just wanted it to be a regular incident in the life of a contemporary and urban woman,” says the director.
Mumbai-based sexologist Prakash Kothari drives home the point. “When I started my practice four decades back, I had no female patients. Today, 35-45% of my patients are women.” The popular sex columnist now receives queries on orgasm and masturbation from women from metros, as well as small towns. “They call me, write to me and even visit with their partners to seek advice for sexual dissatisfaction,” he adds.
Author Raha feels popular culture has tremendous influence over society. “It’s time we stopped drawing a decorous veil over women’s sexuality. It’s time we regarded them as normal human beings who are neither goddesses nor vamps,” she says.
This open acceptance of a women’s sexuality expands the space for sexual speech. “It also ensures that sexuality is not discussed in whispers,” says filmmaker Shohini Ghosh. Bhaskar shares an anecdote of how filmmaker Sooraj Barjatya (known for portraying women in conventional roles) sent her a message, saying he loved her latest film. “It felt so good. We are ready to break boundaries.”
Dhupia adds: “Women are being brave to talk about their sexuality socially and I feel like we’re ready for it now, more than ever before.”
Women are surely ready, and they are taking things into their own hands, pun fully intended.