(and, how the Indian media is reclaiming it)
This is article was originally published through South Asian Productions.
Why do young desis never have the opportunity to date, romance, or find pleasure in sex without relying on it as a necessity for procreation?
Is it a cultural phenomenon? Religious?
Is non-sexuality so engrained in our heritage that we aren’t able to escape its clutches three thousand years later?
Is it colonial? Courtesy of Portuguese missions or the English church and the KJB (The King James Bible)?
Did the British Raj impact our way of life so much as to limit and police the bodies of teenagers and young adults?
Now, look, I’m not writing a dissertation or a thesis. And, yes, I am making a rather broad generalization about a subcontinent of over a billion people.
However, I’m just trying to grapple with the conflicting ideas within our collective culture while having fun with it. So, I will speak to my audience a little more liberally than usual—if you’re offended by references to sex or a healthy practice of love in different ways, this may not be the article for you.
Why did we marry children off and then expect more children?
Indian sexuality, or the perception of sexuality originating from the Indian subcontinent, is not exactly progressive. Desi families don’t encourage dating or sexual exploration at a young age; we’re far from Scandinavian in more ways than geographic. As a diasporic Indian woman, I’ve noticed that the farther we are away from the motherland, the more conservative Asian parents become. Maybe you had to sneak out as a teen or wear certain kinds of clothes at home or hide your current romantic partners from your parents or pretend they were Uber drivers — being South-Asian-American hyphenates means we grapple with two (or more) distinct cultures. Even with the heavy-handed references to the Kama Sutra in Western media—generally as a comedic trope—I still have yet to meet a South Asian family that owns a copy of the text, which by the way, discusses way more about love and relationships than sexual intercourse itself. Conversations around sex in South Asian households are often muted by awkwardness and the unwillingness to educate their children about healthy and safe sexual practices even if their family has one or multiple medical professionals!
Film began as quite a progressive medium before Hollywood’s Hayes Code, which responded to flapper culture and suffragists secretly being lesbians. Indian cinema was no less; nudity was not as much of an outcry, and Indian conservatism regarding sex was a little milder, a hot-take in those days. After all, Indians were and still are reproducing at an unbelievably fast rate. And, if you travel down south (pun intended), films got raunchier even as early as the seventies—or present day, if we were to count all the instances of the blatant objectification of women in item songs, slow panning shots of glossy legs, and a measly 3% Bechdel Test passing rate.
If you don’t believe me, check out the original Tamil version of “Zara Zara” from Rehna Hai Tere Dil Mein and let me know what you think in the comments. he film is called Minnale, and the song “Vaseegara.” I was mildly taken aback at the early Noughties (and Madhavan’s hair). Heads up, the audio sounds like it was fried in tel and dried on a paper towel.
For reference, here’s the Hindi version; the audio isn’t any better, but it’ll give you a sense of the visuals. Even in a see-through blouse, Dia Mirza manages to keep it relatively PG.
Then, one must consider that most South Asian films are being entirely handled by men or through the male gaze.
Through the lens of a Bollywood camera, everything becomes sexy.
Got hips? Easy, do a thumka and jig past the censor boards.
What about a clavicle and some exposed shoulders? Yup, we can make that work.
Got nips? Even better, and even amongst men, I suppose there is some equality in this regard.
Feet? Have you seen our toe-rings and anklets?!
After a hundred years of Hindi cinema, we deserve a realistic, approbative representation of love. And, with those horrible Kya Kool Hai Hum years, we deserve a little more than a hundred years to make up for it. I, for one, have thoroughly enjoyed the rise of unabashed sexuality and healthy, normalized sexual relationships in new Indian films. Let’s celebrate them!
- Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016)
Did you know in the US, senior-living communities are breeding grounds for STDs? Yo, everyone does it! Starring Ratna Pathak Shah as a newly widowed woman looking for her purpose in life, the film has some fantastic performances and a truly universal appeal for all women — no matter their age! This isn’t your dadi’s film, though, so expect some adult content.
Unfortunately, due to its limited release worldwide and in India, I couldn’t find a respectable way to watch the film in North America.
- Shuddh Desi Romance (2013)
Starring the late Sushant Singh Rajput in one of his lighter roles, the film explores the relationships between a man, his ex-live-in-girlfriend, and his current girlfriend. The film is set in Jaipur and has some beautiful visuals to accompany the cast’s strong performances.
The film can be accessed via Amazon Prime with a Prime membership.
- Made in Heaven (2019)
Starring a cast of new and somewhat familiar faces (I love you, Jim Sarbh, please notice me), the show is spearheaded by Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti of recently-formed Tiger Baby Films. An exploration of Indian marriage-making and high-society Delhi culture, Made in Heaven was one of my favorite shows of 2019. Watch it for the lush sets, the forever chic Sobhita Dhulipala, and watch out for the very, very explicit gay sex scenes.
The show can be accessed via Amazon Prime with a Prime membership.
- Margarita with a Straw (2014)
Made by a bisexual woman (Shonali Bose) about a bisexual (and disabled) woman, the film stars Kalki Koechlin, Revathi, and Sayani Gupta.
Unfortunately, due to its limited release worldwide and in India, I couldn’t find a respectable way to watch the film in North America. It was on Netflix for a few years, however.
- Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan (2020)
Unpopular opinion: Ayushmann Khuranna owned being a sexy “man’s man” and a man in love with a man at the same time. The nose ring was… an interesting choice, though. I don’t even care how overrated this film might be, but I laughed at every joke and cried when I needed to. This was the last film I saw in theatres before the quarantine, stay-in-place, and I’m so very glad I was able to! After witnessing a lukewarm Sonam Kapoor in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019), I just felt like SMZS was the perfect response. Not in any means, the perfect depiction of the LGBTQIA+ community, but a wonderful, comedic yet heartfelt take on a gay relationship (not a relationship that happens to be gay).
The film can be accessed via Amazon Prime, with a Prime membership.
- Special Mentions: Fire (1996), Little Things (2016), Dhobi Ghat (2011), Lust Stories (2018) (haters can hate, but Kiara killed it), Sacred Games (2018), Badhaai Ho (2018), Super Deluxe (2019) (just for the opening scene LOL), and tons of desi films that have been made and are yet to be made.
And, most recently, have you watched Dolly Kitty Aur Chamakte Sitare (2019), yet?
It did just come out this Friday, and if you like slice-of-life romantic dramedies with maybe a little too much sex to watch with your family, you should definitely check it out! 😉
I hope you enjoyed these suggestions and added a couple to your watchlist and/or queue.
Thanks for reading!