There Can Be No Sex in Bollywood
Hindi cinema’s obsession with chastity has long helped fuel sexual violence and victim-blaming in India. Independent film is finally changing that.
by Chaya Babu
“She couldn’t do these fuck scenes in bollywood that’s why she came to Hollywood,” a commenter on the YouTube channel Bollywood Whistle wrote about Priyanka Chopra beneath a clip of her character Alex having a quickie with co-star Jake McLaughlin in the pilot episode of ABC’s Quantico. The sweaty romp in the parked SUV was on a primetime network television show with no nudity and a few seconds of sweaty bouncing in the backseat — hardly a “fuck scene.” And while the video garnered other absurd responses, including “bollywood actresses are all whores,” the observation about the limits of Chopra’s roles at home, strangely enough, is not entirely devoid of logic.
A few years ago, as outrage following the infamous Delhi gang rape sparked a global dialogue about women in India, the international media suddenly had a moment when a chorus of voices rang out in sync, asking: Does Bollywood promote rape culture? These pieces inevitably critiqued the male gaze on women’s bodies and questioned whether the hypersexualization of Bollywood’s actresses served to normalize sexual harassment. This line of questioning wasn’t all that surprising considering the obvious objectification of scantily clad female characters in suggestive song-and-dance sequences, which most of the analyses focused on. But somehow, and this was an appalling omission, none of them pointed out a problem more pernicious than too much skin: that the broader plots and characterizations into which these “item numbers” are abruptly inserted are consistently built on the same actresses’ nonsexual attributes. You know, that these actresses don’t actually have sex at all in the films, either in scenes or implied as backstory, and that their golden image as darling heroines depends on it.
While Bollywood cannot be charged with building the inimical trope of the Good Indian Girl from scratch — she who so dutifully denies any semblance of desire for carnal pleasures, who dons shame like a second skin at the mere mention of lust — it certainly is the most powerful modern peddler of her holiness. Created in the legacy of mystical Hindu goddesses, the Good Indian Girl of the silver screen looms large, fueling not a seemingly harmless stereotype but our illusion that, with her, there can be such a thing as The Perfect Victim of sexual assault. The theory of true victims states that if women were “good” — as defined primarily by holding fast to their proper role as silent, passive receptacles of their husbands’ aggressive male sexual appetites, which are evidently the only sexual appetites — then they would never fall prey to rape (unless of course they encounter the very rare exception of real rape, which occurs only at the hands of a monstrous brute who is nothing like the regular men of societies rife with sexual violence). To shatter any confusion around whether the behemoth that is Bollywood actually influences our current material reality, we have the 2015 case of the man whose stalking charges were dismissed in a Tasmanian court because of his argument that movies, with their incessant offering up of chaste women who love to be chased, made him do it.
It’s not a stretch to say that mainstream Indian film has a sacred worship of its female protagonists’ virginity. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), a romantic comedy that’s in some ways dated now but far from ancient, was one of the highest-grossing Indian films ever and a classic across borders (Time listed it as one of 16 “Best of Bollywood” picks, with titles from 1951 to 2010); in it, an artful subtext about sex undergirds the sweet plotline of a widower finding love again in his best friend from college. Early in the film, the characters played by Rani Mukerji and Shah Rukh Khan enact a Ramayana-esque sub-narrative in which Tina is called upon to prove to Rahul that her “Indianness” — or virginity, rather — is intact. Walking the stone pathways of St. Xavier’s in her matching orange miniskirt and midriff-baring halter, she is the envy of all the girls on campus, turning heads with the sophistication and cool she acquired while studying abroad in London, though Rahul, the class hunk, claims to be unimpressed. Of course he thinks Tina’s hot, and upon meeting her he tries his luck with some spontaneous hallway flirtation because he can’t help himself, but when his confidant Anjali suggests he go for her, he dismisses the idea on the grounds that he needs a girl who’s more Indian — i.e., not someone sullied by loose Western mores.
But Tina catches Rahul off guard when he challenges her to a song in the campus square, a playful attempt to make her look foolish, and she picks a Hindu devotional to sing softly as her hair blows lightly in the wind. She’s transformed suddenly from the coy girl from abroad into an illustrious picture of piety. And then the camera cuts immediately to the next scene, where Rahul runs into Tina, dressed in a salwar kameez with a dupatta covering even the skin on her neck, holding a coconut and flowers on a silver plate in offering to the gods at the local temple. She smiles; he warms to her. All is well in the world as we are reassured that the beautiful, milky-skinned Rani Mukerji is what we need her to be: the Good Indian Girl.
The reference to the Ramayana is subtle and yet blatant — and terrifying considering the underlying victim-blamey moral of the mythological Hindu tale. If you don’t know it, the parallels between modern iterations and the original are easy to miss. The Ramayanais an epic poem of 24,000 Sanskrit verses that historians date back to 5000 BCE, chronicling the life of Lord Rama and his triumphs over the demon king Ravana. Despite being centuries old, its themes about patriarchy and righteousness through women’s sexual purity have remained alarmingly evergreen.
When Rama is banished to the forest with his wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana, Ravana succeeds in kidnapping Sita as part of his attack. After the battle between Rama and Ravana, Rama and Sita are publicly reunited, Ravana defeated. But he stops before allowing her to come home with him. After her time as the enemy’s prisoner, Sita’s loyalty, her devotion to Rama, is vulnerable to her husband’s doubt. Varying interpretations handle the nature of the suspicion around Sita differently — in some, the question is whether she and Ravana had any sexual contact at all, while in others, it’s implied that they did in the year or so that she was his captive and what’s up for debate is whether it was consensual or forced. Either way, Sita is forced to endure a test of “purity.” Rama makes her walk through a circle of fire: If she burns, she has betrayed him; if not, Rama can trust her word.
In one version, as told by Swami Vivekananda:
Rama with Sita and his followers left Lanka. But there ran a murmur among the followers. “The test! The test!” they cried, “Sita has not given the test that she was perfectly pure in Ravana’s household.” “Pure! She is chastity itself” exclaimed Rama. “Never mind! We want the test,” persisted the people. Subsequently, a huge sacrificial fire was made ready, into which Sita had to plunge herself.
Sita magically emerges from the fire unscathed.
There’s been a powerful movement in film toward pushing for rounder, stronger female protagonists.
Growing up, watching the Ramayana on a set of 12 VHS tapes without English subtitles, I failed to catch the basic message: the goddess Sita’s unfaltering submission to her man, the protector of the kingdom; her dutiful willingness to take his rejection of her as penalty for a crime of which she was the victim rather than the perpetrator; how, in this surrender to the shame he bestows her, she restores order to the land. Sita is the Original Good Indian Girl. She is also the Most Perfect of Perfect Victims. And this is the tale — and the woman — that serves as the moral foundation of our global Hindu-dominant Indian society.
In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, the metaphor is clear: Tina passed the fire test. (Anjali, the actual heroine of the film, never has her purity called into question but makes other transformations to embody a more classic Good Girlness, like growing her hair long and donning a pink sari, and she gets the guy in the end end.) Indian media scholar Asha Kasbekar called this characterization — and that of the countless other heroines in the history of Indian popular cinema who have been drawn in the shadow of the our blessed Sita — a “fetishization of chastity.”
“Even the most cursory examination of the Hindi film narratives would reveal that of all the virtues of the idealized woman, none is more crucial than that of chastity,” Kasbekar wrote. She’s right. In the 1980s, a certain leniency was introduced in regard to many of the markers of traditional, desirable womanhood as depicted by the mainstream film industry. Increasingly, films started presenting modern, independent heroines who wear revealing clothing and even drink and smoke, and there’s been a powerful movement pushing for rounder, stronger female protagonists. But flexibility around the infallible virtue of virginity? Not so much.
Tina, while only a supporting role in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai,is a prime example of this, and she heralded the way for her more contemporary counterparts, the Bollywood protagonists of the 21st century. If they go too far, as Deepika Padukone’s character Veronica does in the 2012 romantic comedy Cocktail by adding premarital sex to her otherwise innocent partying, they’ll lose the guy to the good girl — even if they reform late in the game, as Veronica indeed tries to do. Once tarnished, no amount of proper behavior can bring back a girl’s Goodness.
Thanks to long and grueling efforts by Indian feminists, India’s archaic policy of subjecting rape survivors to examinations in which a doctor inserts two fingers into the vagina of a woman to assess its laxity was banned in 2014 based on a Supreme Court ruling. Less than two years ago, checking to see how loose, literally, a rape victim was counted as an official medical procedure that was widely accepted as a way of confirming whether the hymen had only recently been torn and would ultimately be used to credit or discredit her claim. The underlying thought was that if there was sufficient slack of the vagina to assume the woman was “habituated to sexual intercourse,” then she may also be of “loose” character — i.e., a liar — or have actually consented to the act, obviating the accusation of rape.
This is, of course, one of the classic rape myths. “The myth results in a cyclical trap for a sex crime victim: The woman becomes ‘bad’ by virtue of having been raped because one myth holds that she would not have been attacked if she had not provoked the assailant with her sexuality, while another myth holds that only ‘loose’ women are sexual,” Helen Benedict wrote in Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes.
In May 2015, the Indian government submitted guidelines to hospitals reintroducing the two-finger test in some cases. The Wall Street Journal reported, “At a news conference, [Health Minister Satyendra] Jain said that ‘medical professionals should not use the finger test unless it [is] medically indicated. It may be needed in some cases for treatment purposes only.’ He did not elaborate.”
Under what circumstances would the need to check the tightness of a woman’s vagina after she’s raped be “medically indicated”? The Indian government seems to create a circus out of retaining this procedure without ever providing a concrete explanation for its actual purpose. Perhaps it’s evident that it might be frowned upon for one to state explicitly that the desire to make women responsible for violence of which they are the victims is behind the tenacity of the two-finger test.
“A girl who gets into a car with boys is never innocent.”
There are, however, those undeterred from voicing such opinions, revealing an even more frightening reality: the shameless adherence to the notion that a woman, unless a vessel of chastity who never spends time with men who are not her blood kin nor leaves the confines of her home save for grocery shopping and the like, is an imperfect and therefore impossible rape victim. During a two-week-long investigation in 2012 into how law enforcement officials in India handle rape, senior police at over a dozen police stations were taped as they repeatedly expressed that women were at fault for their own rapes: “It’s very rare that a girl is forcefully picked up by 10 boys. A girl who gets into a car with boys is never innocent. If she does, she definitely has a relationship with at least one of them,” Dharamveer Singh, a station house officer at Indirapuram Police Station in Ghaziabad in northern India, said about gang rapes. Some were of the belief that if a woman has consensual sex with one man, it’s understandable for his friends to see her as for the taking.
If police stations are the first place rape victims go to file complaints, far before their cases get to the courts or higher ranks of justice, what hope do they have of receiving any shred of retribution for their attackers? Or worse, of avoiding punishment themselves?
In India’s Daughter, the documentary about the “Nirbhaya” rape case — in which a young woman was brutally beaten and raped by six men on a bus in Delhi, the severity of her injuries leading to her death two weeks later — defense attorney A.P. Singh is shown speaking to Asian News International. “If my daughter or sister engaged in premarital activities and disgraced herself and allowed herself to lose face and character by doing such things, I would most certainly take this sort of sister or daughter to my farmhouse and in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight,” Singh says. This is a man who works for the judicial system. Defending rapists.
Singh’s view of women plays out in commercial cinema as if nothing is amiss, the heroines happily shouldering the weight of ensuring they don’t disgrace themselves or lose face and character. Ultimately, they play by the rules. The rules, incidentally, also require a concession that consent is murky territory in Bollywood; Good Indian Girls don’t say yes, but no is seriously elusive as well. “No” is only ever a challenge to be overcome. Courtship songs and dramatic scenes of heroes fighting to win over the resistant damsel are as quintessential to Hindi film as item numbers. And the woman always gives in, because that’s what makes a romance. Or does she? Choice is absent. She resigns herself to her fate, to the burden of her female body. In this way, “Nirbhaya,” the name given to Jyoti Singh Pandey to protect her identity initially and which translates to “fearless,” serves to perpetuate the warped conception of Goodness and thus the Perfect Victim framework, bolstered by other voices in the documentary that wax sentimental on Pandey’s strength.
What’s most insidious about the Sita-Purity Industrial Complex is how it has been constructed to maintain caste and class hierarchies, upholding the upper-caste woman as pure — the gatekeeper of an unadulterated Hindu nation-state and the honor of her blue-blooded family and community — while framing the lower-caste woman as always, inherently polluted. This immovable state of pollution or untouchability, a necessity for keeping the pure-polluted binary intact in order to preserve upper-caste dominance, means that lower-caste, in particular Dalit, women are by default imperfect victims — theconviction rate for rape cases in which Dalit women are victims is 2%, in comparison to the already abysmally low, and declining, 24% for women in general in India. When lower-caste women face sexual violence, nothing, not even the most flawless of Perfect Victim narratives, can save them.
We forget that Sita is a myth, a fabrication. The specter of her divine Goodness haunts us, both on and off the Bollywood screen. The two-finger test, along with the other debasing tactics used to prove a woman’s chastity and disprove rape claims, is the present-day version of Sita’s walk through fire — and the Good Indian Girl, as delivered to us so neatly through popular cinema, validates the impunity with which the bogus examination is used to humiliate and demonize women. It’s tough to discern whether movies create culture or the other way around; more likely, they simply reinforce our existing mindsets and values. But I don’t have to consume Bollywood to recognize the Good Indian Girl and be beckoned to follow in her vaunted path. She crosses borders, permeates three-dimensional life, and invades the psyches of real women all over the world with the spell of shame that she casts if we dare break the hallowed code of swearing off sex. (I hate to admit that there was a period in my young life when the nickname “Chastity Chaya” was one I let happen and stick.)
It’s not just that the Good Indian Girl doesn’t have sex and doesn’t want to — she is the abject renouncement of sexual desire. There was a time when the heroine in mainstream films was framed in opposition to the harlot, the courtesan, the moll, as a way of asserting her chastity. It’s only been in the past few decades that the two images merged, erasing the iconic femme fatale from her fleeting role of seductress (think ’70s cabaret girl in an opium den performing the item number). And while the ancient Madonna-whore dichotomy indeed reduces women to caricatures of good and bad women, at least in the past the hitherto vamp, however marginalized her position, left room to imagine other possibilities of how to live in the world. Her audacity, her flagrant sexuality, her shamelessness, all of this was something we could aspire to while dreaming that over time she might move closer to the center from her corner. But now, when the girls in bra tops have made a silent secret pact to never, ever fuck the hero or the gangster or the servant, all while licking their lips at the screen, gyrating to Hindi pop hits, and shooting their heavy-lidded kajal-lined eyes at the camera, whom can we rely on to lead us to freedom?
When Deepa Mehta’s Fire was released 20 years ago, it was met with a storm of controversy and protest because of its portrayal of unapologetic female sexuality. Sita and Radha are the wives of two brothers in a joint family, destined to lives of neglect by their husbands, cheating and celibate respectively. (Radha is also the name of a Hindu goddess, and Mehta definitely knew what she was doing.) But Sita is resolute in her belief that she deserves to experience love and lust, to touch and be touched. One night, when Radha comforts her with a hug, Sita meets it with a kiss. Their physical intimacy flourishes from there.
“This isn’t familiar for me, this awareness of needs, of desires,” Radha says, as what was long dormant awakens. Explaining to her husband, Ashok, that she’s leaving him, she tells him, “Without desire I was dead.”
“Shameless rundi [whore],” he spits out at her, gritting his teeth. “What kind of woman are you? You should be touching my feet.” She looks at him with pity.
Mehta received death threats after the Indian premiere of her film and spent 24 hours under police protection. Members of the Hindu fundamentalist group Shiv Sena staged violent demonstrations. The film was banned for its incisive critique of a woman’s duty to her husband, its audacity to present options. When protesters smashed glass panes and burned movie posters at theaters as part of their demands to stop screenings, Chief Minister Manohar Joshi supported them, declaring, “I congratulate them for what they have done. The film’s theme is alien to our culture.” Translation: Women with sexual agency are alien to our culture; and, more clearly, we need women’s sexless bodies to be the battleground upon which we fight for caste patriarchy and purity.
There is no Good Indian Girl; there never was.
Mehta stood by her claim that Fire is not about sexual orientation, but rather about choice in general. She took the Original Good Indian Girl — a goddess in name, at home in a sari, her hair braided and her bindi in place — and endowed her with a fierce determination to feel pleasure, to discover what it means to be alive, and to define Goodness on her own terms. Fire revealed the truth: There is no Good Indian Girl; there never was. It’s that painful truth that people viciously rallied against.
Mehta was onto something in using parallel cinema, as India’s noncommercial film industry is frequently called, as her outlet to creating female leads who serve as an alternative to those in Bollywood. While this is a genre with a much smaller audience, it’s nonetheless an arena of hope. Masaan, a 2015 independent drama about corruption, loss, caste injustice, and more in present-day India, gave us a badass protagonist brazen about her sexuality, probably one of the most notable in years.
The movie opens with the Devi, a student and call center worker, watching porn on her computer. The scene is brief and cuts quickly to the next, in which she meets Piyush for a hookup at a cheap hotel. Devi initiates their touching and fumbled attempts to kiss, but once in bed, they’re interrupted by a band of shouting police who break into the room and begin to beat Piyush. Devi, meanwhile, says to the officer taking her photo and taunting her, saying that her life is ruined: “You’ve got it all wrong.”
She meets his gaze head-on as another cop holds her by the hair. It’s a fleeting but irrefutable fuck you.
Srishti Chaudhary, a Delhi-based blogger, called director Neeraj Ghaywan’s treatment of Devi “volcanic.” She wrote, with apparent sarcasm, “A woman in a small town watching porn on the internet, who then goes to have sex with her boyfriend, admitting that she didn’t want to do it under the so-called pressure to ‘put out’ but because she was also a human being who had sexual urges and a curious mind. What? A woman who wants to have sex?! Out of choice?! How blasphemous!” (It’s also likely not an accident that devimeans “goddess” in Sanskrit.)
Throughout the film, Devi’s stance on her damning experience in the tawdry hotel is defiant, graceful, unwavering: She wanted to do it and she would do it again. Varietycalled her the “one truly interesting character” in a “disappointing drama”; the New York Times, however, called Masaan the most acclaimed Indian movie of the year, and at the Cannes Film Festival it won the FIPRESCI Prize and the Promising Future Prize in the Un Certain Regard section. “The pity is that Devi (Richa Chadda) is a fascinating figure who’d be far better served with a film of her own,” film critic Jay Weissberg wrote. I worry, though, that as an outsider to Indian society, Weissberg failed to really grasp what makes Devi shine. Without calling out how truly rare a female lead like Devi is and why, we can’t get any closer to eliminating her antithesis, the Good Indian Girl.
In the harsh light of statements like those made by the officers at Indian police stations and the Nirbhaya defense attorney — assertions that highlight the all too common repulsive belief that a woman deserves to be raped or murdered if she consents to extramarital sex — it’s clear just how bold of a step Ghaywan took in endowing his young ordinary protagonist, the daughter of a humble university professor turned stallkeeper at the Varanasi ghats, with real, human, unbridled sexual desire.
We need more Devis to cut through the fantasy of Good Indian Girls and Perfect Victims. It’s not about the need for fuck scenes but rather the need for women with agency who reject the corrosive, degrading feelings of shame around sexuality. The Good Indian Girl was a figment of folklore and later celluloid, and as long as we pretend she’s anything but an illusion, we default on our collective responsibility to deal with our global culture of sexual violence. The myth of the Good Indian Girl is the rape myth that buttresses all the others — we have to destroy her. It is our duty; our prized morality depends on it. •