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In Mahesh Manjrekar’s award-winning bi-lingual film Astitva (2000), Aditi (Tabu) is an unhappy housewife. Her husband is away for work a lot and denies sex to her. She ends up having sex with her music teacher – but clarifies to him that she does not want a relationship; she just wanted sex!
While she is aware that what she did is against the sanctity of marriage, she is not apologetic about going after her desires. In the end, she leaves her husband and son because they question her character, ignoring her years of devotion and love for them.
In a country where sex was still a taboo topic, Astitva was a milestone. For the first time, Indian audience watched a relatable female character – one who is not a vamp, but a wife and mother – following her sexual desires. This was an ugly truth for India, where sex is seen only as a means of having children, while the women’s desires are easily ignored.
In the decade that followed, Bollywood started looking at female-leads beyond the cliché of romance and sacrifice. More female characters were defined with human traits like sexuality – not as a flaw or as an odd trait, but just as a part of her being. We saw a glimpse of it in DevD (2009) and a little more than a glimpse in Ishqiya (2010). In the last five years, we have had gems like Margarita With a Straw (2015), which showcased the story of a young woman with disabilities exploring her sexuality, and Manmarziyaan (2018) in which the heroine’s sexuality is an essential part her character development.
Interestingly, the last few years have also seen a rise in female sexuality on small screen, thanks to OTT platforms, a new generation of scriptwriters and rising awareness on the LGBT cause. Even mother-characters were written as sexual beings, baring the idea that women’s sexuality is independent of her marital status, age, or socio-economic class.
On International Masturbation Day, MAKERS India takes a look at the films and web-series which portrayed women’s sexual needs without holding back.
This web-series on Amazon Prime served female sexuality on a shocking platter for the Indian audience through two prominent characters - Gajagamini Gupta or Golu (Shweta Tripati) and Beena Tripathi (Rasika Dugal).
Although it focuses on the lives of the villagers and local gangs in rural Uttar Pradesh, the series has some progressive notions. For instance, Golu is smart, intelligent, studious, diligent and brave. She is willing to take on the college gunda and son of the area's mafia don in the college elections. But she is at her boldest when she is keen to explore her sexual desires too; she masturbates in the college library while reading a book!
Likewise, Beena Tripathi, wife of the don Kaleen Bhai/Akhandanand Tripathi, calls out her husband's inability to satisfy her in bed and chooses to have a sexual relationship with her house-help to satisfy her desires. The uncritical approach without vilification of either characters is not just refreshing but a much-needed change of narrative.
This Leena Yadav-directorial, which focuses on the poverty and misogyny in a rural village community in Rajasthan, keeps the audience hooked to the lives of the protagonists, including their sexuality.
Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee) and Lajjo (Radhika Apte) show two facets of how marriage betrays women. Yet, neither gives in to fate. Motivated by their friend Bijli, the local dancer-prostitute, who encourages them to push themselves beyond the shackles of marriage and poverty. She is the one who evokes the two women’s sexuality as well.
In fact, Lajjo does not even realise (or acknowledge) her sexual needs; all she wants is a child. Finally, when she gets a chance to be impregnated (thanks to Bijli), she just lies down and lifts her skirt - with no musings of foreplay. Yet, the ‘sperm donor’ touches her with respect and grace, softly but surely taking her to the zenith of pleasure.
As film critic Anupama Chopra stated, "The larger narrative of the film is inert and clunky, but the spirited female characters will stay with you."
Lust Stories (2018)
This Netflix anthology film -by four filmmakers- reveals women’s sexual desires with different tones in each segment.
In Anurag Kashyap’s segment, a married college teacher (Radhika Apte) hopes to explore her sexuality with extra-marital relationships. She has a sexual relationship with her student, dates a colleague, and yet she is as lost as ever.
Zoya Akhtar’s segment starring Bhumi Pednekar and Neil Bhoopalam brilliantly sketches out the intersection of class and sexuality, while Dibakar Banerjee’s segment - starring Manisha Koirala as a mother of three and having an affair with her husband’s best friend - showcases how women want husbands to treat them as more than just “the mother of my children.”
Karan Johar’s segment saw Kiara Advani playing a ‘traditional’ new bride, frustrated with her husband’s lack of concern for her sexual pleasure. Trying to take matters into her own hands (pun not intended), she tries using a vibrator, only to end up climaxing in front of her unsuspecting in-laws!
Lipstick Under My Burkha (2015)
Alankrita Shrivastava’s directorial effort draws out the real-life flavours from Bhopal’s lower-middle class, focusing on four women. The film, which created controversy for sexually explicit scenes that irked the Censor Board, shows these women fighting patriarchy that rules their lives, in their own tacit ways.
Rehana steals modern clothes that she wears under her burkha; Leela is self-sufficient and unapologetic about her sexual independence, and Shireen is a working woman without the knowledge of her husband who demeans her in every way.
But Usha Parmar aka Bua ji¸ played by Ratna Pathak Shah, takes the cake. Despite being the old-lady-next-door to everyone around her, she secretly reasserts that sexual desires know no age, and even braves an affair with a young man covertly. In one of the jaw-dropping scenes in the film, she even pleasures herself while talking to her lover on phone. The film even ends with a reading of soft porn, clearly enjoyed by all the four women, who have otherwise been beaten by life.
Four More Shots Please (2019-)
When the first scene of the pilot episode is an almost-naked Milind Soman making love to a surly Sayani Gupta on a conference table, you know this series is not about subtlety. This web-series, available on Amazon Prime, also has four women from diverse social backgrounds as central characters.
The story sees them as multi-dimensional characters, handling issues that most young women face in India: family drama, sexual orientation, body image, mental health, gender bias at workplace, and the all-encompassing Log Kya Kahenge attitude.
At times desperately trying to be India’s Sex and the City , this series - which has had two seasons so far – may be superficial at some parts. Yet, there is no denying that it is pathbreaking in the portrayal of the sexual fantasies (and realities) of the millennial women.
Where else have you seen a single mother pleasuring herself to an oddly-worded rhyme, or a 24-year-old millionaire heiress losing her virginity to a (male) prostitute?
Veere Di Wedding (2018)
Rhea Kapoor’s third production venture, which starred Kareena Kapoor, Swara Bhasker, Sonam Kapoor, and Shikha Talsania, was noted for its light-hearted portrayal of female sexuality.
The four friends – all in their late 20s - openly discuss everything, including trivia like: what is the Hindi word for orgasm?
Shiksha’s character is happily married but does not have time or energy for sex after having a baby, while Sonam’s is under pressure for arranged marriage but enjoys casual sex. On a warm note, Kalindi (Kareena) finds love and sex in the same man, thus finding her happily-ever-after.
In one of its most (in)famous scenes, Sakshi (Swara) gets ‘caught’ by her husband while she was masturbating, which leads to their separation from each other - revealing how Indian women are still caught in a regressive tale of Madonna-whore complex. Yet, the film encourages women to embrace themselves.
(With inputs from Varnika Gupta)