Two people on a casual date, discuss their love lives. The woman, chirpy and extroverted of the two, asks the man as he takes a bite of his food, “Are you a virgin?” Hearing this, the man chokes a bit. The woman follows up with, “These days, over eighty percent of women…before their wedding…do…honka bonka bonks!”
Honka bonka bonks.
This scene, which really could be from any mainstream commercial Hindi film over most of its expansive history, comes specifically from Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se, an otherwise excellent film. The two adults who couldn’t even utter the ‘S’ word? Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta. Hindi cinema’s tryst with sex and intimacy over the decades has been awkward to say the least. We’re all too used to watching the last-minute dodge from a lip lock, the allegorical shaking flowers or bushes, or the use of winks or plain gibberish, all just to skirt around openly discussing sex. And let’s not forget the films where the hero would merely glance at the heroine to knock her up.
Oddly enough, Indian cinema wasn’t always so shy about intimacy. And now it is once again evolving towards more realistic – bordering on overdone – depictions of sex. Here, we take a look at Hindi cinema’s bumpy relationship with sex (pun partially intended). The plain and simple of it all? It’s complicated!
In this summer’s runaway hit Delhi Belly, Poorna Jagannathan's feisty character dry humps stunned co-star Imran Khan in an effort to scare away an old couple from their own hotel room. The scene is a prime example of a commercial Hindi cinema witnessing a youthful and rebellious renaissance of sorts. It is another in a series of films that are quickly shattering the often-mocked reputation that there’s no kissing or sex in ‘Bollywood’. But it’s been a long, arduous and very political journey to this point.
India hasn’t always been the ultra conservative society imagined by the rest of the world, where the mere mention of the ‘s’ word would trigger a ripple of gasps across the subcontinent. Once upon a time, the land of the kama sutra and the erotic Khajuraho temples was forcibly and dramatically altered as the conservative Mughals and perhaps even more high-strung Victorian Brits decided to invade. The British may have left, but Indians remained Victorian.
A powerful right-wing nationalist movement since independence didn’t help matters much, either. Modern Indian society was pushed into a conservative corner of imagined ‘Indianness’ where no one talked publicly about sex yet the birth rate skyrocketed out of control.
However, Indian cinema of the 1920s and 1930s wasn’t so timid. Characters would kiss openly if the scene required it, with films such as A Throw of Dice (1929) and Karma (1933) as the most well known examples. Then the independence movement, tethered to nationalism, quickly shifted focus to films that fed into the imagined Indian society – righteous, pure and better than the West. In essence, the Victorianization of India easily flowed into creating a modern India proud of its piety and ironically unlike what the society used to be before any invaders came marching.
An economically liberalizing India of the 1990s was thrown into a moral and cultural crisis. As an ever more vocal Indian youth began to embrace all things Western, the Hindu nationalist movement also gathered momentum to ward off the very same “evil.” Film producers cashed in on the desires of the younger generation and began including rare kissing scenes that were “required” by their scripts.
Kissing, sex and nudity became gimmicks used to the hilt by some filmmakers, while others tried to remain loyal to the filter of conservative “family entertainment”. Where a film like Khwaahish (2003) was blatantly marketed on its grand total of 17 onscreen lip locks by the lead pair, superstars such as Shah Rukh Khan vowed never to kiss on screen. Earlier in the decade, the iconic Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ) had an infamous scene where the lead actress Kajol wakes up in bed wearing a man's shirt and has a panic attack over whether or not she had committed a sin with Khan in their drunken stupor the night before.
Oddly enough, audiences accepted both routes. A film with Khan romancing for a family audience was still wholeheartedly accepted at the same time that more “bold” films such as Jism, Murder and Raaz (incidentally all from the Bhatt camp, Vishesh Films) were making a splash. This strange equilibrium even prompted actress Neha Dhupia to deliver an apt quote that caught on like wildfire: “Only sex and Shah Rukh Khan sell in Bollywood.”
Eventually the “family” films carefully edged towards making the discussion of sex less morally criminal. Kya Kehna, starring the same Preity Zinta who had to resort to “honka bonka bonks” in her debut film, showed a female protagonist who has a child out of wedlock. Instead of being damned to the fiery depths of hell for such a mistake, she wins the support of her family and starts an alternative family that was otherwise deemed nonexistent in India.
The new millennium thus ushered in an overt sexualization of Hindi cinema. Women and men alike were objectified on screen – close-ups of backsides, slow motion tilts on bodies, “tasteful” sex scenes and yes, real kisses that lasted more than half a second. This didn’t come without its new challenges. Hindi filmmakers repeatedly clashed with a Censor Board that threatened to stamp films with ‘A’ (or Adult) certificates, thereby dramatically stunting the film’s theatrical reach.
The desperately needed overhaul of the film certification system is another, much longer, debate. But as the nation’s biggest stars realized they had to catch up with the times and give in to onscreen kissing, the Censor Board too is slowly showing signs of loosening up. Perhaps we should thank the likes of Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Hrithik Roshan who, shedding their royally pure images, indulged in an overhyped kiss in a Yash Raj Films production, Dhoom 2? Or new age directors like Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee who tell gripping stories of contemporary India without shying away from pretty much anything?
The change is still in motion and we’ll have to wait to see if Hindi cinema settles on a plateau of sorts with its relationship with intimacy. For now, it’s still largely treated as a novelty or cheap stunt to lure increasingly voyeuristic audiences. Actors are labeled ‘serial kissers’ (ahem, Emraan Hashmi). Actresses deny speculation that they have “steamy” scenes in their upcoming films. And producers use their battles with the Censor Board to create hype around releases.
It seems we are yet to reach a stage where two characters can simply kiss in a scene because it’s natural to do so in the situation and we all move on. But then again, there are also upcoming films such as The Dirty Picture, with Vidya Balan playing famed b-grade star Silk Smitha, that would not have been even considered feasible just a decade ago. And in what was perhaps an even bigger move, a Yash Raj Films production Band Baaja Baraat showed the lead pair waking up after a night together and just casually going about their day. For a production house that has built its prestige on family-friendly films, this was a huge leap from the similar scene in DDLJ.
Hindi cinema's complicated relationship with sex remains complicated still. But the change, growth, evolution - whatever you wish to call it - is visible. The gimmicky use of "intimate scenes" is growing alongside the more realistic, mature approaches to relationships between characters. And there is an eager audience for both. What remains to be seen is how the evolving Indian culture, increasingly vocal youth, outdated government policies on censorship, and the booming film industry all intersect further in the years to come to affect attitudes and representations of sexual intimacy in cinema. And Shah Rukh Khan still refuses to kiss on screen!