Khwab Bankar Koi Ayega – Hema Malini and Parveen Babi, two of the most beautiful women in Bollywood ever, in a highly sensual scene lying on a boat bed – in this sublime song from Razia Sultan (1983), Parveen Babi sings to Hema Malini that only her male lover can now ease her into sleep. At the same time, the women exchange caresses and even a kiss behind a plume; there’s also talk of garm badan ki khushbu, narm zulfon ki mehak. All of this is noticed but shushed up by the ladies-in-waiting rowing the boat.
The scene can be interpreted in many ways, but it remains a rare example of girl-on-girl homoeroticism in Bollywood films. In a larger sense, it’s also a rare display of female desire beyond stereotypes in Bollywood film songs. For otherwise, female desire is heavily policed and allowed only certain tropes of expression in Bollywood (and Indian) cinema. The way Bollywood songs are written and filmed best typify these tropes.
The fact is that most of the time women in Hindi films either show no desire for anything sexual, or are seen / shown as being sexual and desiring only in certain circumstances. Other than the odd, critically-acclaimed ‘alternate’ film – Fire, Margarita with a Straw, Parched or Lipstick Under My Burkha – all of which are labelled ‘parallel’, the Hindi movie experience has historically been only about the male gaze and male desire.
Binary of black and white portrayal
By and large, a woman in Bollywood cinema is either a ‘good girl’, potential wife, bahu, paragon of all virtues and passive receptacle of male desire and lust, who’ll go on to become the ideal Indian mother, forever sacrificing much bigger things than desire; or she’s a ‘bad girl’ who smokes, drinks, consorts with men, and can be sought to satisfy the more non-mainstream (non-procreative) sexual desires, but will never be marriage material.
Our patriarchal power dynamic defines heterosexual sex acts in a way that the man has to be the dominating partner. The social emphasis on ‘purity’ and virginity of the wife makes it doubly important for all forms of conditioning – including mass media – to emphasise the passivity of women. The moment a woman develops the agency to feel and express desire, she crosses the lakshmana rekha, and society curbs any such misadventures. The scarlet woman, paying for the rest of her life for one ‘mistake’ of feeling desire and acting on it – think Aradhana – is a pretty effective deterrent.
Women expressing desire on screen
There are, of course, exceptions to the binary (yes, even in Bollywood). But most of these shades of grey also come with major qualifications. For example, occasionally, the wife is also permitted to express sexual desire, but only before she becomes a mother. Even such wives are very often later demonized – think Anamika (1973), Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), or Saudagar (1973).
In Piya Aiso Jiya mein (Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam), there’s a sensuous step-by-step filming of the wife’s shringar. The camera lingers much like the gaze of a lover. She makes no bones of what she wants – jhat phoolon ki sejiya pe ja baithi is a clear enough indication that the husband’s visit is expected to end on the flower bedecked bed.
Then, there’s Sajna Hai Mujhe Sajna Ke Liye in Saudagar. An openly sexual and sensual portrayal, the wife freely expresses desire in this song, but with a male-centric tinge since she needs to get pretty for her man.
The song also has an interesting queer angle with a girl watching from behind a tree, from the second stanza onwards (more on queer angles in a while).
The fiancée too is allowed some leeway. Once marriage officially looms, sex can be in focus and the woman has permission to desire it, because lusting for the patidev is blessed by patriarchy. In Bindiya Chamkegi Chudi Khankegi (Do Raaste, 1969), the woman clearly acts as the temptress, enticing the man to ‘action’, while he attempts to ignore her and concentrate on his work / studies. The song is one of the rare, blatantly self-admiring ones where the woman flaunts her looks and youth.
Similarly, in Haye Haye Yeh Majboori (Roti Kapada Aur Makaan, 1974), the statuesque Zeenat Aman is sick of wasting her invaluable monsoons (read youth) in the hope of the boyfriend’s do takiya di naukri (two-bit job) working out. Though filmed from the perspective of the male gaze, this is another example of impatience of desire on the woman’s part.
Now, let’s take a look at the bad girl variants. Interestingly, the vamps in Bollywood often come across as more human and layered as film characters, and in older Bollywood films, even the vamps didn’t express desire without a hidden agenda. In Raat Akeli Hai (Jewel Thief, 1967), the vamp is a strong, assertive woman trying to stop the hero from leaving. One wonders though how much of her desire is real and how much a ploy.
Many years later, in the 1999 song Jaadu Sa Chhaane Laga from Dil Kya Kare, the bad girl has had a child outside wedlock. She ends up at the home of the man who fathered the child, and who’s married to another woman. The badness of the bad girl’s desire expressed in the absence of the man’s wife is mitigated by the fact that as the father of her child and taker of her virginity, he’s someone she should aspire to marry and desire forever. If you think of it, even Indian courts of law ask rape victims to marry their rapists.
There’s also the bad girl with a commercial agenda – not quite in the film, but for the film to make money. In the past, tempting the man and expressing desire was the prerogative of the vamp. At the turn of the millennium, however, a new trend emerged – the item number. A song with little connection to the plot of the movie, its sole purpose is to titillate the male audience and add to the marketability of the film but in no way portray real desire of the woman performing the item number.
The unabashed woman
This is probably closest to ‘fair representation’ and the examples are rare. The lyrics in Aaj Saajan Mohe Ang Laga Lo (Pyaasa, 1957) make it clear that the song is talking of the very physical aspect of love. Ang laga lo (embrace me) . . . so that . . . hriday ki peeda, deh ki agni, sab sheetal ho jaye (the pain in my heart and the fire in my body are both calmed), and prem sudha, itani barasa do, jag jal thal ho jaye (rain down so much nectar of love on me that everything is inundated).
Cut to 2012 – Meenakshi Deshpande (Rani Mukherji) in Aiyyaa openly objectifies the man, from the heroine’s point of view. The songs Aga Bai and Dreamum Wakeupum are an outright portrayal of a woman talking about wet dreams and all things sexual pleasure.
And finally, hidden homoeroticism – girl-on-girl (but not quite)?
There’s always been an undertone of girl-on-girl eroticism in Bollywood songs from Kajra Mohabbat Wala to Didi Tera Devar Deewana couched as harmless fun between sakhis. The social situation of segregation also creates these spaces – the aangan, the zenankhana, the
‘female’ parts of the house where a lot of physicality, crude language, double entendres, touching, caressing and more become allowed and accepted simply because there are no men present and it’s seen as a sort of feminine version of the horseplay boys / men are allowed. Cross dressing is a motif that plays a major role, and sexuality is played out in a sort of practice session in preparation for marital sex.
In this context, Naya Daur’s song Reshmi Salwaar Kurta Jaali Ka (1957) will probably have the highest recall value. This delightful song was all about female-to-female romance under the guise of village entertainment. What makes it interesting is that Nautanki has a connotation of risqué song and dance sequences, all over North India, and back then, almost all Nautanki performers would’ve been men.
Move on to Utsav (1984) – Mann Kyon Mehka Ri Mehka is blatantly sexual / sensuous, and has a definitely not-so-subtle queer sub-text. It’s also noteworthy because while one of the two women in the song is a courtesan, the other’s a poor Savarna housewife and mother. Traditionally, lower caste women, ‘public women’ like courtesans and nautch girls, and other outliers such as tribal women have had more of a leeway expressing desire since they are considered more wild, less civilised, and hence more sexual. This is part of the denigration and marginalisation of such identities. Upper caste Hindu women, wives and mothers are to be desireless and chaste, except when they’re needed to ‘serve’ their husbands. Even the Manusmriti, arguably the source of much of our traditional caste and gender oppressions, is clear about this. Progeny and procreation are the critical conditions associated with marital sex, and it’s said that good women should be free from all sexual thoughts and find stimulation only in their husbands. So, Mann Kyon Mehka Ri Mehka breaks more than one stereotype.
In more recent times, Girls Like to Swing (Dil Dhadakne Do, 2015) seems to start with addressing the male audience, talking about the body and desire, but the instant the two women start dancing and singing together, it boldly subverts and gives a new meaning to the song title – girls do like to swing for girls.
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The lyricists of Bollywood film songs in the last three quarters of the century have almost always been cisgender-heterosexual men, as have the film directors. Thus, female desire on screen has almost always been patriarchy dictating what female desire should be.
Songs in Bollywood films are primarily instruments of entertainment, and commercial considerations drive the music and lyrics. There are instances – in regional cinema – where lyrics are used to fast forward the uneventful phases of the story, and provide insights into the mind of a character. But Bollywood’s treatment of songs as a mere masala topping doesn’t allow for deeper connections.
More influential women and queer directors (who’re considered mainstream enough not to be motivated by the need to break-even commercially) will certainly help, but that horizon still seems too far away. Khwab bankar koi ayega?
About the main graphic: Clockwise from top left: Film stills from Aga Bai (Aiyyaa), Girls Like to Swing (Dil Dhadakne Do), Mann Kyon Mehka Ri Mehka (Utsav), Khwab Bankar Koi Ayega (Razia Sultan), Raat Akeli Hai (Jewel Thief), Haye Haye Yeh Majboori (Roti Kapada Aur Makaan) and Aga Bai (Aiyyaa) again. Sources for film stills included in the song hyperlinks. Graphic credit: Souvik Rakshit