Why Indians Are So Turned On by Navels

From frying eggs on a woman’s belly to spinning toys on the umbilicus, Indian cinema has a navel fetish and loves to capitalise on it.

A man urges his partner to lie down on a dining table. She relents. He rewards her compliance by deeming her a “very good girl.” His hand deftly uncovers her sari-draped torso to reveal a close-up of her belly button. He smashes two eggs together just over her exposed stomach. Cut to a shot of the eggs now falling over her belly, accompanied by the sound of sizzling. We see steam rise in front of his awe-struck face as he turns to the woman to signal his approval. As the eggs cook, he flips a metal spatula in the air and turns the omelette over. Amidst a few well-timed gasps from the two, dinner for one is now ready. 

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This isn’t a scene from a Wattpad fanfic; it’s a real scene from a 1996 Tamil film called Love Birds starring megastars Prabhu Deva (our egg expert) and Nagma (whose sizzling belly doubles as a frying pan).

Watch from 11:15 onwards for the scene. 

A still from Love Birds (1995) where actor Prabhu Deva cooks an omlette on actress Nagma's exposed stomach.

Indian cinema, which isn’t just limited to Bollywood, has featured sexualised depictions of navels for a long, long time. Call it a cultural thing, as most traditional Indian dresses for women leave the navel exposed, or a fetish. In several south Indian films, navels are seen as a sensuous and erotic part of a woman’s body. Close-ups of the navel, with the male actor caressing his face against or hands over (or both!) on the actress’ navel is the equivalent of a sex scene. Beyond films, a quick Google Trends search term for the word “navel” and with the duration spanning 2004-present threw up India as the leading country googling with that term. The other related terms that Indians are looking for online include “hot navel in saree,” “kajal navel” and “anushka navel,” referring to actresses Kajal Aggarwal and Anushka Shetty, who mainly work in south Indian film industries.

A screenshot showing which countries are googling the word 'navel' the most

So, what is up with India’s navel obsession?

“Item songs” or songs where the actress dances seductively while scantily clad are still common in Indian films. Item songs objectify the woman but at the same time, it’s a woman’s open declaration of her sexuality and desire, albeit through the male gaze. In almost all item songs in Indian films, an actress’ navel is always visible with hip thrusts, shimmies and seductive moves drawing more attention to the area that is given abundant close-ups.

A navel is formed when the doctor cuts off the umbilical cord that connects the mother with the baby. The stump eventually dries and one is left with either an innie or an outie. A quick search for “Indian navel” on porn websites will lead one to snippets of actresses in item songs, or scenes where their navel is visible. The term “navel queen” is used for several Indian actresses including Tamannah Bhatia, Katrina Kaif, Kirti Sanon, Samantha Ruth Prabhu, and Tejasswi Prakash.

Varun, a 35-year-old engineer from Mumbai, found himself drawn to navels as a teenager. “From films and advertisements to songs, navels were everywhere. In some erotic songs, navel scenes would be added for titilating the audience. Navels were also a part of the female body which I was exposed to in the real world,” he told VICE over Reddit, requesting us to use just his first name to maintain his privacy. I found Varun on a subreddit for navel fetishes that exclusively feature navels of Indian actresses. “I discovered the navel in south Indian cinema much later. I grew up watching Bollywood films of the 90s that featured navel scenes.”

As film journalist Kirubhakar Purushottam pointed out, navel obsessions are unique to Indian cinema. “You don’t see something like this in Hollywood,” he said. “But at the same time, you won’t have a kissing scene or a sex scene in a film [from India] showing erotic navel scenes.”  The sizzling egg scene, though, was inspired by the 1991 film Hot Shots! starring Charlie Sheen. Sheen cooks eggs and bacon strips on his co-star Valeria Golino’s exposed stomach. 

Indian films have traditionally avoided having sex scenes or kissing scenes since open displays of affection are frowned upon. In the place of actual intimacy, making out or sex, films have depicted close-ups of two flowers to suggest sex, or umbrellas or trees for lovers to hide behind. “I think we, as a society, are okay with suggestions towards sex rather than the actual act. An actor caressing the woman’s navel is okay, but if he did that to any other part of the body, the film could face backlash and even be banned,” Purushottam added.

In the Tamil film Kushi released in the year 2000, the lead characters get into a fight after the woman catches the man staring at her navel. Since Indian films hesitate from showing “private parts,” the navel is seen as a sexual part of the body that is easily accessible. The navel is not just a sexy and visually appealing part of the body, but also an erogenous zone. Purushottam compared the suggestive sexual acts like using flowers, umbrellas and trees in Indian cinema to Japanese porn where genitalia is blurred to circumvent their laws on indecency. “Japan has some hardcore hentai porn, and yet, the genitals are often blurred. I think cultural repression leads to sexual desires and fantasies coming out as fetishes.”

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Telugu filmmaker K Raghavendra Rao is known for featuring erotic navel worship scenes in his films. In the 1991 film Chinna Gounder, actor Vijaykanth places a spinning toy called “lattu” on the actress’ stomach as she moans.

A still from Chinna Gounder (1991) where a toy spins on the actress' stomach

This is not to say that only Indians have the navel fetish. Several cultures across the world look at the navel as an erogenous zone. Japan has an annual belly button festival that is all about celebrating the navel. In the U.S., films followed the Hays Code from 1934 to 1968 and one of its many restrictions included that navels should be covered at all times. In the 1950 film Some Like It Hot, Marilyn Monroe wore a dress that showed skin everywhere but a small piece of fabric covered her navel. This, however, changed in the 60s when community standards changed.

In the 70s and 80s, south India saw a rise in the softcore porn industry. As Kahini Iyer said in a video for the media platform Arré, filmmakers then started a movement that resembled the French New Wave and German Arthouse Cinema. In 1978, I.V. Sasi’s film Avalude Ravakal became the first Malayalam film to get an A-rating. Similarly, Rathinirvedam directed by Bharathan discussed the taboo subject of a teenager dating an older woman. Around this time, softcore porn, which mainly came from south India, became hugely popular across India. Actresses like Silk Smitha and Disco Shanti were among the prominent names on the scene. The infamous egg scene from Love Birds was recreated in Silk Smitha’s biopic The Dirty Picture starring Vidya Balan as Silk Smitha.

The infamous egg scene from Love Birds (1995) was re-enacted in the 2011 film The Dirty Picture starring Bollywood actress Vidya Balan.

Bharatan and Sasi’s films dealt with subjects that were seen as taboo in Indian society. “These narratives provided great scope for sexual display of female bodies,” writes C.S. Venkiteswaran, an Indian film critic in the book Women in Malayalam Cinema: Naturalising Gender Hierarchies. “A new crop of heroine-actresses like Seema (the lead actress in Avalude Ravukal) and Subha entered the scene as central characters. They exuded a sexuality that was never displaced into moral or ideal issues; their bodies were frontally placed both in the composition of the frames and within the narrative. With the heroine herself placed in such a way, there was no longer any need to create alibis like the cabaret or the promiscuous den of the villain.”

Iyer also compares the buxom women these films starred to the ancient Yakshi figurines from the Kushana Empire. “This [tradition in south Indian cinema] is a part of their old-school appeal – lusting after buxom women who burst out of their navel-baring sarees is ancient tradition dating back to the Yakshis of the Kushana empire.”

Naren, a 25-year-old engineer from Chennai, grew up watching Tamil and Telugu films. He saw navels highlighted everywhere, from films to magazines. “I thought it was the sexiest part of a woman’s body,” he told VICE. Like Varun, Naren is also active in several navel-related subreddits. “I noticed that even if a film didn’t require a glamorous scene, they’d still add an item song where the actresses would flaunt their navels.” 

Today, Naren has a partner who enjoys navel play with him. This can include touching, caressing, fingering the navel, or just staring at it. “We were friends before we started dating, so it was easy to reveal it to her. I am always honest about my attraction towards navels and my partner lets me enjoy hers.”

So, can the influence of cinema make people develop fetishes? Kink-affirmative psychologist Pompi Banerjee thinks so. “Visuals we are surrounded by influence our ways of acting out sexually. Films further shape our ideas of desirability,” she said. “Since Indian cinema doesn’t have a lot of displays of sex, the navel becomes a euphemism for the vulva and navel play becomes a euphemism for peno-vaginal sex.” 

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Banerjee further pointed out the cultural connotations of the navel. In the ancient Indian text Kama Sutra, the navel was seen as an erogenous zone. “Since navels found a mention in the Kama Sutra, people back then were probably indulging in navel play.” The Kama Sutra has tips on how people can take care of their navels to make them look more desirable or decorate it with jewellery. “A lot of Indian jewellery also highlights the waist. In a way, navel worship was passed down to us.”

How did filmmakers insert erotic navel scenes in a conservative country like India? A scene explicitly showing sex and desire would instantly get an A-rating from the Central Board of Film Certification, making the film accessible only to those above the age of 18. Instead, filmmakers would shoot steamy navel scenes of actresses in blouses. This would allow filmmakers to get a U/A rating that meant it was open to general audiences, which in turn meant more profits.  

However, filmmakers probably didn’t anticipate large online communities dedicated to Indian actresses’ navels. A Facebook group for fans of Bollywood actor Karisma Kapoor’s navel, for instance, has over 20,000 members; another group for fans of actor Madhuri Dixit’s navel has over 42,000. Subreddits and groups with dozens of Indian men obsessed with navels continue to thrive. A Reddit user admitted he justs post navel-related sexual content because that gets him more upvotes and followers.

The sexual imagery of navels is not just limited to cinema. On Shark Tank India, a company pitched an idea of the belly button shaper: a product that gives one a “deep and round” belly button. Eventually, amidst awkward laughs from potential investors, the product was rejected. 

Actor Taapsee Pannu claimed she had a coconut thrown on her midriff while filming a Telugu song. “[Other actresses] had flowers and fruits thrown at them. [When] my turn came and, I don’t know, maybe I was not prepared as I told you... they threw a coconut at me!” she told the audience. “I don’t know what is so sensuous about a coconut hitting my midriff.” 

A still from the film Jhummandi Naadam (2010) where a coconut falls on actress Taapsee Pannu's exposed stomach.

Another actor, Ileana D’Cruz, opened up to the newspaper DNA India about the time a porcelain shell was thrown on her belly. “In my first Telugu film, there was this scene where I had a porcelain shell dropped on my belly, in slow motion. And it was fairly big and heavy. My ab muscles hurt so much. I was 18 then and I had no idea what I was doing and why it is considered sexy.”

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Tagged:

cinema, Fetish, tamil, bollywood, navel, Mollywood, Indian, Belly Button, Telugu, navel queen

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