Sex in the Cinema

Posted on October 26, 2007


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OCT 28, 2007 – WHEN IT COMES TO WRITING ABOUT SEX IN THE CINEMA, you know the drill. Start with the Roop tera mastana sequence in Aradhana, where Rajesh Khanna and a blanket-wrapped Sharmila Tagore keep circling a crackling fire that’s presumably a stand-in for the heat building up inside them. That observation recorded, proceed to the chiffon-clad trifecta of Sridevi (Kaate nahin katte, Mr. India), Madhuri Dixit (Dhak dhak karne laga, Beta) and Raveena Tandon (Tip tip barsa paani, Mohra) – three heroines who unflinchingly thrust out bust and butt in service of their oh-so-fortunate heroes. And finally, wrap things up with Bipasha Basu in Jism or Mallika Sherawat in Murder, cluck-clucking that you no longer needed a Helen or a Bindu to spice up your film with cleavage. The leading lady was willing – and more.

These essayistic attempts, in other words, typically zoom in – tight close-up – on the women. When you talk of early instances of kissing, you go back to Zubeida and Devika Rani. When you digress to Tamil cinema, your mind’s eye fills up with the one-song-only images of Silk Smitha and Jayamalini. When you think of Malayalam films, you remember the posters with an all-black – and apparently nude – silhouette of a reclining Seema, foreshadowing her scandalously (for that time) naked thighs peeking out from under a shirt in Avalude Raavugal. So why not, for a change, ignore Rehana Sultan in Chetna, Sharmila Tagore in Mausam, Rekha in Utsav, and Dimple Kapadia in Jaanbaaz. Why not look at men instead – men who pushed the envelope by employing sex as more than just a means of easy titillation. Here’s a toast to five of these, uh, untiring performers.

1. RAJ KAPOOR: He introduced Dimple Kapadia (in Bobby) in a shocking-for-the-seventies bikini, and subsequently had her roll around in a bed with Rishi Kapoor. He reduced Zeenat Aman to her barest essentials – in transparent white, no less – as she hovered constantly around a lingam in Satyam Shivam Sundaram. He forced the conservative Vyjayanthimala, in Sangam, into a red one-piece – and later, into a cabaret outfit worthy of a Moulin Rouge star. He drenched Mandakini under a waterfall, in Ram Teri Ganga Maili, and gave the world a full-upper-body display. He radically redesigned our idea of demure Padmini by tearing off her blouse in Mera Naam Joker. And yet, Raj Kapoor was no mere voyeur.

No mere voyeur would have attempted to capture the confusion of adolescent sexuality, the way the showman did in Joker when he had the baby-faced Rishi Kapoor lust after his schoolteacher. Raj Kapoor, almost always, was after what sex stood for (and also, where it stood) along with everything else, in the bigger picture. You came away simply eyeing Mandakini’s full breasts in Ram Teri Ganga Maili? He’d tell you it wasn’t exhibition so much as the expression of unselfconsciousness of a virgin from the Himalayas. And watch that beach scene from Awara again to see how it’s not just about Nargis and her swimsuit. When she calls Raj Kapoor a junglee, the violence in his reaction is as much because the two of them belong to opposing social classes as opposite sexes.

2. K BALACHANDER: The last thing the nice, middle-class Tamil film audiences of the seventies expected was a case study in satyromania, but that’s what they got with Manmadha Leelai, with a horny (and married) Kamal Hassan running after anything in a sari. A few years earlier, Balachander showed college-student Srividya lusting after her professor Jaishankar. (And how! She salivates over a picture of him in swimming trunks, go figure!) Somewhere in between, he had Pramila play a prostitute in Arangetram, with unrepentant shots of her unhooked blouse. (The recent – and similarly-themed – Laaga Chunari Mein Daag is a Walt Disney picture book in comparison.) And then there’s Aboorva Raagangal, where a youth falls in love with an elder woman whose daughter falls for the youth’s father. (Imagine the creepy sexual politics if the relationships had worked out!)

Balachander combined sex with life, and he combined sex with death. (In Sindhu Bhairavi, the Carnatic singer that Sivakumar plays discovers a renewed reason for living when he begins an affair with his No. 1 Fan, Suhasini. And what do Kamal Hassan and Rekha do before jumping off a hilltop in Punnagai Mannan? Why, they make love, of course!) Balachander even combined sex with sermonising when, in Unnal Mudiyum Thambi, he had the womenfolk of a village refuse to share their bed with their husbands until the latter gave up their drinking habits. Are there any doubts whether the men gave in?

3. MAHESH BHATT: You didn’t have to know Mahesh Bhatt to see that the man was bedevilled by his adultery (though that was only one of his many demons, all of which combined to create Hindi cinema’s most candidly autobiographical filmmaker). Arth, of course, was an extrapolation of his affair with Parveen Babi, but, really, almost anything by Mahesh Bhatt dips its feet into some aspect of sex – from the palliative (Amrita Singh asking the troubled Anil Kapoor to spend the night with her in Thikana) to the exploitative (baby-doll Pooja Bhatt facing the prospect of prostitution in Sadak, which also features Sadashiv Amrapurkar’s terrifying eunuch-pimp, Maharani).

And again, as with Raj Kapoor and Balachander, the sex wasn’t an end in itself. It was simply the core that gave birth to the relationships and the drama, like spidery offshoots. You can see this in Zakhm, where the Hindu Nagarjuna is in love with the Muslim Pooja Bhatt. He cannot get married to her, because his family won’t allow it, so she becomes his mistress. And in one scene, they lock themselves up in a room as their son tries to get a peek from outside. It’s a cutesy family moment, but you’re never allowed to forget the things that have happened in this room when the son wasn’t around. Hell, he himself probably wouldn’t have been around if it weren’t for that room.

4. VAIRAMUTHU: There’s not a shade of the human experience that the great Kannadasan hasn’t crafted into masterful verse, but when he wrote about sex, he approached the matter with great tact and delicacy – as in Chinna chinna kannanukku (Vaazhkai Padagu), where he mused, Iruvarin thudippinile vilaivadhu mazhalaiyada (loosely, that a child is a result of a couple’s writhing), or in Paalirukkum (Paavamannippu), where he thusly described a first-night scenario: Paalirukkum pazhamirukkum pasi irukkaadhu/ panjanaiyil kaatru varum thookkam varaadhu (there’s fruit, but no hunger/there’s a bed, but no sleep). Vairamuthu, on the other hand, brought to his verse a robustly carnal appetite, and if you’re looking for an example, you only have to listen to Kaadhal sadugudu (Alaipaayuthey), where the lovemaking of newlyweds is equated to a game of kabaddi.

Vairamuthu gave an early glimpse of what was to come in one of Ilayaraja’s greatest creations – Panivizhum malarvanam (Ninaivellaam Nithya). It’s a young-love story, and the boy, here, describes the girl’s youth as having blossomed in the waters of perspiration: Viyarvayin mazhayile payiraagum paruvame. Adolescence brings along with it heat, and heat along with it sweat. Suddenly we are dealing with lust not just on a romantic-metaphorical plane, but at a physiological level – and the song that, to my mind, best reflects this intertwining of the sentimental and the sexual is Andhi mazhai (Rajaparvai), where Vairamuthu writes, Manmadha ambugal thaitha idangalil sandhanamaai enai poosugiren. In saying that the woman will spread herself as soothing sandal-balm on the Cupid arrow-wounds on her lover’s body, the poet elevates erotic amour to ecstatic art.

5. KAMAL HASSAN: Yeah, yeah, he’s a great actor and a terrific writer-director, but if there’s one thing this K-word star is really famous for, it’s for his yeoman service to the Tamil film industry in popularising that other K-word: Kissing. Like Indian chiefs collect scalps of the enemies they’ve vanquished, Kamal Hassan hoards lipstick marks. But there’s another reason he’s on this list, and that’s that no one writes love scenes (as in, falling-in-love scenes, being-in-love scenes, and, yes, making-love scenes) the way he does – utilising the most unusual female body parts, from Gautami’s fingers in Nammavar to Rani Mukerji’s buttock in Hey Ram!

Sex is a lingering presence in the Kamal Hassan universe, whether inside marriage (the intimacies with wife Gautami in Kurudhippunal) or outside it (with fiancée Raveena Tandon in Aalavandhan/Abhay). It has, sometimes, a playful, benign quality (the fooling around with Gautami over a suitcase that won’t close in Thevar Magan, which hints that this may not be the first time the two have gotten physical), and sometimes a horrifying one (Vasundhara Das transforms into a phantasmagoric rifle after a night of drug-induced lovemaking in Hey Ram!). But the sex is never vulgar – except, perhaps, to those who flinch at the very mention, the very idea of the on-screen depiction of this physical aspect of adult relationships. And along with the four others before him, Kamal Hassan has done a lot of work to ensure that these numbers are rapidly shrinking.

Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express