While sex and everything connected to its pleasure is seen as taboo in Indian society, female sexuality is viewed to be even more problematic. Perhaps because Indian society still sees a woman’s identity to be ultimately domestic, a space in which the equation of carnal pleasures don’t quite fit in. Even if they do, voicing those sexual desires brings her ‘moral’ character under scrutiny, eventually subjecting her to an arbitrary categorisation of the virgin-whore paradigm. Since Indian popular culture and cinema rarely prioritise discussions around female sexuality, we decided to sift through and cherrypick those that do.
Here’s a list of Indian films that unflinchingly put female sexual desire at the forefront, allowing the female protagonists to exist as independent sexual beings. From conversations on masturbation, celebrating lesbian love, the passions of female sex-workers, the meaning of a woman’s sexual consent to enjoying sex beyond the constraints of marriage, these films reflect the Indian woman’s unrestrained exploration of her sexuality.
I. India Cabaret (1985)
Director: Mira Nair
Known for putting women at the focus of her film, India Cabaret is Nair’s last documentary film that follows the life of two strip-tease dancers, in a cabaret house at a time when Mumbai was still Bombay. While the protagonists out of desperation and poverty use their sexuality to make a living, the documentary also looks at the other side of the coin – their own enjoyment of sexual pleasure. India Cabaret makes a strong statement on the way patriarchy divides women into the categories of virgin and whore, depending on their profession, while completely disregarding a woman’s right to her own sexual freedom.
HG loves: With no voice overs, this documentary is truth un-manipulated.
II. Fire (1966)
Director: Deepa Mehta
Language: English Hindi
The first in Deepa Mehta’s Elements Trilogy, Fire is a story of frustrated female loneliness between two generations of women, Radha (Shabana Azmi) and the younger Sita (Nandita Das) that takes the course of a lesbian relationship. Their love becomes both a means of sexual liberation and a catalyst to defying the patriarchal bondage in their lives. Hailing from traditional hindu families Sita and Radha leave their domestic lives and indifferent husbands, to be with each other. The movie is believed to be the first to bring the theme of same -sex female love to mainstream Bollywood and has been an iconic queer film since then.
III. In The Flesh (2002)
Director: Bishakha Datta
Language: Hindi and Bengali
This documentary revolves around three sex workers: Shabana, who after being driven out of her village, became an independent sex-worker, Bhaskar, a young hijra who has no other option but to earn her living through prostitution and Uma, an old theatre actress who has quit sex work but continues to live in a brothel. This documentary explores what it means to sell sex through the point of view of the ones selling it. We see the protagonists’ struggles with societal stigma, violence, HIV prevention along with their own passions, which often get subdued due to the nature of their profession.
HG loves: The sex workers are not seen as victims but as survivors in a world that refuses to accept them.
IV. Water (2005)
Director: Deepa Mehta
Water delves into the tragic lives of the Hindu widows in Varanasi; never allowed to remarry by the regressive dictums of Hindu law, they are confined to an ashram by the Ganges river. Set in 1938, pre-independent India, one of the stories in the film is that of the beautiful widow, Kalyani (Lisa Ray), who is forced into prostitution by the head of the widow house. During the course of the film Kalyani falls in love with a young liberal Indian law student, Narayan (John Abraham). Never having experienced romantic intimacy before, Narayan with his gentleness evokes in Kalyani her first sexual awakening. Kalyani dares to dream of a better life for herself with Narayan, and therein lies her liberation.
HG loves: The spectrum of lush blue hues of the cinematography through which the untold stories of Hindu widows unfold.
V. Margarita With A Straw (2014)
Director: Shonali Bose
Margarita With A Straw is a story that revolves around a teenager named Laila (Kalki Koechlin), with cerebral palsy and her romantic dilemmas as a differently-abled bisexual woman. While Laila’s disability poses a challenge for her to fully express herself sexually, it doesn’t prevent her from having lovers. The film also explores Laila’s own difficult acceptance of her bisexuality while coming out to her traditional mother. She tries to make her understand that her sexuality is her own private business.
HG loves: Kalki Koechlin’s nuanced performance in voicing the ignored narrative of the differently abled.
VI. Angry Indian Goddesses (2015)
Director: Pan Nalin
The film takes us to a gathering of friends, hosted by Freida (Sarah-Jane Dias), a fashion photographer, at her ancestral home in Goa. Mid-way through the film, Freida reveals that the congregation was called to celebrate her upcoming wedding. To the utter surprise of her friends (and the audience) the groom is part of their group - Nargis (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a tribal rights activist. What is refreshing about the film is the uninhibited way in which the girl gang expresses themselves sexually-playfully ogling the hot neighbour, their raunchy repartee and the celebration of a homosexual marriage.
HG loves: Finally an Indian female “buddy” movie!
VII. Parched (2016)
Director: Leena Yadav
Located in the in the arid landscape of Rajasthan, Parched is the story of three women- Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee) a 32-year-old widow, Lajjo (Radhika Apte) a woman who is unable to conceive, Bijli, (Surveen Chawla) a street dancer and part-time prostitute. While battling with the stigmas attached to their statuses in society, the women also know how to claim their fair share of joy. Rani indulges in a cell- phone romance with an anonymous man, Lajjo gets her first woman on top experience in an extra-marital affair and Bijli aspires for romantic love beyond her pervert clientele. What sexual liberation they lack due to circumstances, they reclaim in their bawdy banter.
HG Loves: The voice of the rural Indian woman in matters of bodily pleasure.
VIII. Pink (2016)
Director: Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury
Pink is a courtroom drama that examines the sensibility that justifies rape as the fault of the victim as opposed to the perpetrator. In the film, three young Delhi-based independent women – Minal (Taapsee Pannu), Falak (Kirti Kulhari) Andrea (Andrea Tariang) and their lawyer, Deepak Sehgal (Amitabh Bachchan) battle a legal system that uses the woman’s moral character as a way of denying them justice against sexual assault. The film draws attention to how a woman’s promiscuous lifestyle comes into scrutiny rather than her will when considering her sexual consent.
HG loves: Powerful performances by the debut female leads that drive home the concept of female sexual consent loud and clear - “no” means “no”.
IX. Memories Of A Machine (2016)
Director: Shailaja Pandindala
This short film, shot in the style of a home video sees a woman (Kani Kusruti) narrating her early sexual experiences as a curious young girl to her husband. She nonchalantly talks about consenting to sexual touch as a minor and her consequential discovery of masturbation, both of which are considered taboos in Indian society.
HG loves: The boldness of the film to normalise self-sexual exploration.
X. Masaan (2015)
Director: Neeraj Ghaywan
One of the parallel stories in the film is of a woman, Devi Pathak (Richa Chadda) who lives in Varanasi and is punished for exploring her sexual desires. The police barge into the room she takes with her boyfriend and is framed in the media as a prostitute. In fear of defamation, her boyfriend commits suicide. This leaves Pathak to defend herself against blackmail, by herself.
HG Loves: The poetic narrative of the film in which a woman refuses to be ashamed of her carnal desires.
XI. Anaarkali Of Aarah (2017)
Director: Avinash Das
Introduced to the audience by her married lover and manager as “desi tandoor videsi oven”, Anarkali (Swara Bhaskar) is a raunchy folk dancer from Arrah in Bihar. While her all-male audience understands the line between her on stage persona and her private bedroom, the sleazy Vice Chancellor of the city (Sanjay Mishra) misunderstands. When Anarkali resists his sexual advances she must bear the brunt of the police and death threats from local gangsters. What follows is Anarkali’s defiance to show the townspeople “randi ki na” (the refusal of a prostitute) in fiery defiance against misogyny.
HG Loves: The realism in this highly entertaining film and the complete sexual freedom of its lead protagonist.
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