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Veere Di Wedding, Lust Stories puts women’s desires first, but female sexuality in Hindi cinema has been a slow, long journey

The year 2018 has brought in a definite change in Hindi cinema and its portrayal of a woman’s sexuality. It’s now parked firmly in the mainstream, the choice of a woman to pleasure herself. Karan Johar’s story in the anthology Lust Stories, Anurag Kashyap’s confused married woman in the same film, do not have morality driving them in essence. As remarks and counter remarks around Veere Di Wedding continue to stoke discussions online, it’s worth remembering that a woman’s sexuality has not always been a repressed matter in mainstream Hindi or Indian cinema. Films have explored this aspect in the past, and it has been a slow process of evolution that has equipped filmmakers today to show masturbation without compromise. Each time, such films have sparked conversations.

Posters of Veere Di Wedding, Lust Stories (Facebook)

Utsav, by Girish Karnad, might have sunk Shashi Kapoor financially as a producer, but the film stands apart for its aesthetic and forward-thinking depiction of a courtesan’s beauty and sexuality. True to form to an ancient Indian text, Utsav doesn’t paint the central character of Vasant Sena, played by Rekha, as an evil temptress. Made in 1984, Utsav is a breakthrough film.

As Veere Di Wedding and Lust Stories set a benchmark of sorts in putting women’s desires first, the journey of female sexuality has been gradual. It has also been slow to catch up, not in sync with India’s growing liberal, independent women. It’s easy to miss those films that sought to address female desire in the general categorization of mainstream Hindi cinema, which is reductionist. But the change has always been happening.

On the fringes of mainstream cinema, a few more have explored facets of female sexuality. Pink argued for a woman’s right to say no to sexual advances. Deepa Mehta’s Fire and Water directly addressed the conflict of social mores, family limitations against a woman’s physical desire. Fire took up lesbian love and Water touched upon love and desire that young widows, sequestered from society, experience. Both films were considered controversial, whereas they just addressed realities that prevail. Anarkali of Aarah and Parched deal with sexual desire and its role in shaping women’s lives in small towns and villages. In the former, a showgirl refuses sexual advances of a powerful local politician and has to face consequences; in the latter, four women in a rural setting have to travel different paths of sexual experience to solve their problems.

Since the onset of the new millennium, a woman’s sexual voice has begun to find expression subtly and slowly. Films that have put the woman’s sexuality out there and made it central to a story have made an impact in the past too. In these films, women were not suffering courtesans or nautch girls; they aren’t victims, seeking to be validated as good women by society, making them stand out.

Poster of Pink (left); still from Margarita With A Straw (centre); still from Astitva. Facebook

Utsav, by Girish Karnad, might have sunk Shashi Kapoor financially as a producer, but the film stands apart for its aesthetic and forward-thinking depiction of a courtesan’s beauty and sexuality. True to form to an ancient Indian text, Utsav doesn’t paint the central character of Vasant Sena, played by Rekha, as an evil temptress. Made in 1984, Utsav is a breakthrough film.

As Veere Di Wedding and Lust Stories set a benchmark of sorts in putting women’s desires first, the journey of female sexuality has been gradual. It has also been slow to catch up, not in sync with India’s growing liberal, independent women. It’s easy to miss those films that sought to address female desire in the general categorization of mainstream Hindi cinema, which is reductionist. But the change has always been happening.