The portrayal of female sexuality in Indian Cinema has evolved; exploring the concept of desire and eroticism across multiple dimensions. The gradual shift was first noticed in the 1960s and 70s with songs such as ‘Aaja Piya Tohe Pyaar Dun’ (Baharon Ke Sapne, 1967) & ‘Baahon Mein Chale Aa’ (Anamika, 1973), where a female voice makes suggestions to offer sexual comfort. Vastly different from the previous depictions of the female character’s often rejecting sexual advances to stand true to the ‘Abla Nari’ (helpless woman) trope. In the early 2000s ‘Zara Zara’ (Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein) constantly expresses the female characters’ fantasies, where the desire belongs solely to the woman.
Breaking away from the tabooed view of sex and female sexuality, the following subtle depictions helped pave the way for more profound and nuanced portrayals on screen.
I. Astitva (2000)
Aditi is a complex female protagonist played by Tabu, who explores the character of a housewife sexually unsatisfied in her marriage. The award-winning bilingual film challenges the role of a wife and a mother through the depiction of female agency. As Aditi forms an intimate relationship with a man outside her marriage, the groundbreaking portrayal separated the expected duties of a woman toward her husband and instead focussed on dissecting the controversial topic of older women and their desires, which are often frowned upon in Indian society.
II. Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016)
A dark comedy film presents the unique stories of different women with sensitivity. Upholding the integrity in female desire and not treating it with contempt. One of the stories focuses on the character of Usha ji played by Ratna Pathak Shah. An older woman who reads erotica and lives vicariously through the character of Rosie, who forms a romantic interest in a man much younger than her. The ageing woman rediscovers her sexuality and lives out her desires behind closed doors due to the fear of losing respect in the eyes of families that place her on a pedestal of chastity. Most people regardless of age call her ‘bua ji’ (Aunt), further desexualising her completely. Her story is a triumph over the limitations placed on women that surpass a certain age.
III. Ajeeb Daastaans (2021)
A Hindi-language anthology film that explores four different narratives. ‘Geeli Pucchi’, a segment starring Konkona Sen Sharma and Aditi Rao Hydari has acquired much attention due to its multi-layered depiction of the queer-Dalit identity. Simultaneously the segment with Lipakshi, played by Fatima Sana Sheikh, focuses on the storyline of a woman married to a gay man who finds herself sexually unsatisfied. While they follow the challenges faced by both the characters, the exploration of female desire is treated with nuance, diving deeper into the consequences women face.
IV. Once Again (2018)
An Indian romantic drama film that follows two middle-aged characters, a widowed restaurant owner and an actor. The relationship begins with an accidental phone call and delves into the intricacies and hurdles faced by a woman who is a mother but moreover a widow, desexualised by society. This domestication of women leads to the idea that the existence of her identity is in reference to being a daughter, a sister, a wife or a mother and furthermore, in relation to a man, and in this case her dead husband. The film focuses on the idea that these ‘duties’ negate her sexual needs.
V. Ishqiya (2010)
A dark comedy film that follows a deceitful woman who seduces two of her late husband’s friends into helping her plot a kidnapping. The narrative explores a female character beyond the dichotomy of good or bad. She is displayed in a mixed light where her sexuality takes centre stage. She ‘shamelessly’ pursues sex; acting as an antithesis to the ‘ideal’ Indian woman. Her tempting presence is depicted in shades of grey using the trappings of the ‘innocent widow’. The film explores her clever traits as an admirable quality and seduction as a means to power, further reframing the Indian heroine and her evolving sexuality on screen.
All of these films showcase the existence of women who own their sexuality and are heavily scrutinised for it. The exploration of such a range of female desire and sexual expression challenges pre-existing portrayals and must be acknowledged. Transcending culturally entrenched ideas of shame, they truly embody the hidden desires of women across India.
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