After Swara Bhaskar’s masturbation scene in 'Veere Di Wedding' made trolls ‘uncomfortable with their grandmothers’, VICE spoke to Ira Bhaskar about the history of female pleasure on the Indian screen.
A husband walks in with flowers to find his wife, played by Swara Bhaskar, “cheating on him.” With a vibrator. She sees him, freezes momentarily, but motions him to wait and continues to “paddle the pink canoe.” She gasps. Her back arches. She almost levitates. And then, finally gets off.
Though it has its lovers and its haters, Veere Di Wedding has made a splash at the box office, and the “charam sukh” scene, though played for laughs, is set to become iconic. No Bollywood film, in over a hundred years of the industry’s existence has had an orgasm scene.
Ira Bhaskar, a film historian with a PhD from the Tisch School of Arts, is a professor of Cinema Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She specialises in historical trauma in film, memory, the Partition, and communalism, besides other themes. She’s also Swara’s mom (but understandably didn’t want to comment on Veere). VICE spoke to her on phone.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
VICE: Could you give me a brief chronology of how you’ve observed female sexuality or pleasure being depicted on screen over the decades?
Ira Bhaskar: Let me begin by saying that sexuality per se in Indian cinema is not a subject that has been directly expressed. At the same time, historically, our cinema is unique in the sense that it has developed, over the years, a very complex and refined idiom on eroticism. And that idiom is the song.
A lot of things that can’t be addressed directly can be addressed through the song. Be it the Hindi film song, or the Bengali film song. Malayalam or Tamil. You don’t find this anywhere else—as a fundamental and defining feature of the form itself. A lot of the articulation was done through song. Emotional articulation. Articulation of what is tabooed. Sexuality and eroticism.
What are some of the examples that come to mind?
'Aayega Aane Wala', for instance, the first song that brought Lata Mangeshkar fame from Mahal (1949). Look at the lyrics and the yearning in that song—it is an articulation of a female desire. I can give you so many examples. Songs from the 1940s onwards. In a film called Bandini, the song ‘Jogi Jab Se Tum Aaye ’.
Just think of Mughal-e-Azam: in that song ‘Jogan Ban Chali’, that word ‘jogan’ actually is Meera—the one who has renounced the world for her lover. So this complete dedication to your object of your passion. What is that but female desire?
These films didn’t have direct representation of sexual act or the act of lovemaking. Mahesh Bhatt has said that the most erotic sequence in Indian cinema is that of Dilip Kumar stroking Madhubala’s face in close up in Mughal-e-Azam.
Earlier I think that phrase might have been more common: “a woman’s desire”. Now it’s “female pleasure” or maybe “female sexuality”. Can you talk a little about how you’ve seen the shift?
I think there is a shift. From very metaphoric and symbolic articulation, there is a movement towards much more direct articulation. For example, if you look at Veer Zaara, the “Tere Liye” song sequence, it is very clear it is yearning. But in films like Fire, like Lipstick Under My Burkha and now Veere Di Wedding.
Or something like Anarkali of Aarah. Here is a woman who enjoys her performance. She is sexually active. She makes no qualms about what she wants. She wants to not be in a position of being humiliated for being who she is. Her choice and agency is very important. Here is a woman who is confident of her own sexuality.
In Lipstick under my Burkha, the tragedy of the unfilled sexual desires of Ratna Pathak’s character. The world doesn’t accept an older woman with sexual desires.
Besides song, how else was desire depicted in the past?
Song is one, and the other is the way in which the camera works. That visual is also unique in our cinema. It was in 1940s that this idiom evolved. There are very lyrical, fluid camera movements. A close up of the beloved, either the woman or the man.
The other thing that is very important is the ways in which erotic love, how this eroticism works in our cinema. The erotic is very much in our films. The difference is that it is not articulated through the sexual act. It is articulated through metaphorical terms: song and camera movement and close-ups. But also the idiom of the sacred. Vaishnav poetry and Sufism, both are erotic. Just think of Radha’s yearning of the erotic pleasure she has shared with Krishna, which she will never experience again.
What about any prior iconic instances of female pleasure onscreen?
The actual sexual act itself, no. I would say Anarkali from 1953, or that absolutely iconic song from Pyaasa, “Aaj Sajan Mohe Ang Lagalo”. It is the articulation of desire for sexual union. You just have to see Waheeda Rehman’s expression. If you were to do a very detailed reading of that sequence, it is like a sexual experience itself. The look. Her expression. The way the camera moves. So we have a number of films in the 40s and the 50s that are saturated by the expressions of feminine desire. Except that the younger generation wouldn’t recognise it as that.
There is a film called Tarana that is the most unusual and most wrecked articulation of a woman who doesn’t care, except for her desire for her lover. In Fire, or any other modern film, it would be censored. Or the women would be punished. What happened in the cinema earlier is that the narrative domesticates this desire. Sometimes the person dies. For example in Achhut Kanya. This is not a desire that can be socially sanctioned. So who is punished? Obviously the woman. But that desire generated an excess that can’t be accommodated easily. So the power of female desire is always considered dangerous.
Outside of Bollywood, have other schools of Indian cinema been bolder in showing female pleasure?
I’ll come to South cinema but there is also Indian New Wave cinema. And Fire actually inherits the legacy of Indian New Wave. But in most of these films, the woman is punished.
As far as South cinemas are concerned, of course I am not an expert, but I would say that in Malayalam cinema we have had a very paradoxical and a very tragic articulation. In the Malayalam cinema from 1960s’ onwards, women were used for depiction of erotic purposes, but they were exploited as well.
There is a famous case of an actress, Vijayasri, who committed suicide because there was a song where she is standing under a waterfall and she is covered with a cloth and because of the force of the water, the cloth slips. The camera should have stopped rolling, but it continued to roll. She asked to edit that out, but it wasn’t, and the film was released. She committed suicide in 1974.
This is the mainstream cinema, and then there is the whole porn industry. Where all these women—and Shakeela, who is a big star of this genre— all of them have spoken about their exploitation. And how society rejected them. It is a very tragic kind of situation there.
What role does class or wealth have to do with the depiction of female pleasure on screen? I’m thinking Shenaz Treasurywala in Delhi Belly , but on the other end, also Huma Qureshi in Gangs of Wasseypur .
Delhi Belly is a very good example I think, in terms of depicting women from a particular class, especially the upper class, In Lipstick Under My Burkha the problem is not just class but also age. Ratna Pathak’s character can’t have sex, but for a younger woman it would be fine. It is class and age also. In Lipstick, the way sexuality can be a form of oppression is clearly there in Konkana Sen’s character. For the other two girls, it is connected with the idea of liberation. And to break societal norms.
With women from the upper middle class, in a way it seems more acceptable. Then there’s Dev D, Kalki Koechlin’s character. When she begins, she’s a school girl. Or Masaan. These are all women who are claiming sexual pleasure and therefore going against social norms. These films articulate the very repressive structures in which these women will be punished.
Depicting masturbation onscreen is something that has become—if not uncontroversial—at least relatively common in Hollywood or American TV, for example Lena Dunham’s Girls . Do you see anything like this happening in India?
I think in web series, things might happen. Because they are free from censorship. There is a general tendency to think that web series is an uncensored space. It’s possible, but to do it with a certain kind of power, a certain kind of significance. I don’t know if you have seen that series, Big Little Lies. It is actually about violence of human relationships, how men use women, yet how women find the strength to fight. To do it in that way will take time probably.
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