Women and Sexuality in Indian Cinema

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By Shoma A. Chatterji
Recent films like Tauba Tauba, Murder, Julie and Jism have focussed on something not explored before in mainstream cinema - the sexuality of the Indian woman. Though this has given the director and producer ample scope for exploring the anatomy of the woman in a hundred different ways to lure the box office, the one positive spin-off of these films is that they have uncovered the sexual desires of the Indian woman. The woman need not be beautiful though it is mandatory that she has a beautiful body. The woman need not be single either.

Sexuality of women in Indian cinema has historically been ignored so far as women’s autonomous expression of sexuality, female desire, etc, are concerned. Sexuality in female characters has been directly linked to the woman as ‘object’ of the male gaze, both within the film, and without it. The male characters in a film are constructed in a way that they treat their female counterparts as objects of their gaze, desire, oppression, humiliation, glorification and celebration. Since the woman is not generally vested with a ‘voice’ of her own, this extends to a casual indifference to her sexuality as the ‘subject’ of desire, rather than an ‘object’ catering to the desire of other people, mainly male. Outside the film, the woman – both the star as well as the ‘character’ she portrays, is the ‘object’ of the male gaze within the physical parameters of the studio. The costume designer, if he is male, the cameraman, the spot boys, light boys, make-up man, etc. are (a) by social conditioning, (b) by male impulse, and (c) by professional necessity, trained to ‘look’ at the younger female characters as if they were sex objects to be ogled at, or, fantasized about or have wet-dreams around. In this, the editing studio forms an integral part. If the editor decides to keep the footage with close-ups of the heroine’s face alone, the director may ask him to include the close-up of the heroine’s (or vamp’s for that matter) cleavage in a dance sequence, or, on her mouth showing her running her tongue over her glossy lips in a scene of suggestive seduction. The opposite too, could hold true. A director not interested in portraying his female characters as sex objects may be persuaded by the editor to have second thoughts about his ideology.

The financiers, distributors and exhibitors are the real people behind the making of a film because without their backing, a film will just not happen. They can even dictate to the producer the cast of the film, how many songs and dances they wish to see in the film, how many close-ups of the female body, and how many rape scenes. It is business, pure and simple. Then comes the turn of the audience. It seems to get a strange kind of ‘kick’ in seeing women being raped, beaten up, humiliated on screen as much as they enjoy a strip-tease act cinematographed in deliberate and sometimes, imaginatively shot slow motion. Rape for instance, is one instrument that on celluloid, that comes in handy not only in controlling women, but in controlling their sexuality for good. According to feminist film critic Laura Mulvey, male visual pleasure is the controlling pleasure in cinema. Therefore, it seems logical that rape in mainstream Indian cinema follows this ideology within its own cultural context. Rape in the commercial mainstream is used mainly as a technologically skilled manipulation of male visual pleasure created with imagination, for purely commercial purposes. Rape is a statement of fact translated into action in a patriarchal society. Therefore, it offers abundant scope to a mainstream filmmaker to be used as a political strategy to provoke audience-voyeurism.

The subject of Bandit Queen explores the very objectification of a single woman, Phoolan Devi (from birth till she lays down her arms to the police) it seeks to condemn and attack. The scene showing...
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