This is the summer the vibrator arrives in Bollywood. No woman in the 105-year history of the Hindi film industry has ever pleasured herself. But this month, in the blockbuster Veere Di Wedding and Netflix’s Lust Stories, no fewer than three women are featured in onanistic embrace.
It is one sign of the rapid change under way in India’s most prolific cultural industry. The past decade has seen Bollywood’s first gay kiss, a hit film about sanitary towels and the industry’s highest-ever grossing film – about the lives of two female wrestlers.
“It is a great time for Bollywood,” says Swara Bhaskar, one of the stars of Veere Di Wedding, a raucous comedy about four women who reunite for one of their number’s nuptials. “I think the industry is going through fast and interesting change.”
Mainstream stars, such as Akshay Kumar, best known for playing pugilistic action heroes, are wading into social issues without fear of alienating their audiences. Earlier this year, Kumar produced and starred in Padman, a film based on the life of an activist who pioneered a low-cost menstrual pad aimed at improving the health of poor women.
“I know [menstruation] is a taboo,” says Kumar. “A lot of times when I go to my social media, there are many who applaud, but one or two who say: ‘I can’t believe you’re talking about sanitary pads and vaginas so openly.’ But this is reality,” he says. “This is where you and I are born from, and we have to make sure it is healthy.”
In its heyday, in the 1950s and 1960s, Bollywood seemed to exist separately from the fledgling nation around it. “In the earlier years, we accepted cinema in Bombay as a spectacle, an adventure journey into wonderland,” says Sanjoy Mukhopadhyay, a professor in film studies at Javadpur University. “It was always rich boy meets poor girl, or the other way around, but with Indian elements, such as expressive song or dance.”
By 1975, India’s fractious politics had started filtering into Hindi cinema. That year, the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, declared a national state of emergency, ruling by decree, imposing censorship and imprisoning thousands of activists. The biggest films of the year, Deewaar and Sholay, featured morally ambiguous anti-heroes struggling against a corrupt society around them. “These new kinds of heroes allowed us, the ordinary commoner, to feel anger at the injustice in the country,” Mukhopadhyay says.
Free-market reforms in 1991 opened India to the world. Incomes rose, and foreign films, television shows and brands flooded in. This gave rise to a new wave of films such as Hero No 1, set in glamorous European locations and featuring characters who switched between Hindi and English, reflecting a generation of middle-class Indians who “were increasingly becoming global citizens”, Mukhopadhyay says.
The film critic Anna MM Vetticad credits the national outpouring of anger that followed the 2012 rape and murder of the Delhi student Jyoti Singh for the recent surge in women-centric cinema. “The industry is gradually – too slowly, I say – waking up to the largely untapped market of women with the money to buy tickets and a desire to see films they can relate to.”
Yet India remains a conservative country. The masturbation scene in Veere Di Wedding prompted a small but fiery backlash. The Indian censorship board also ordered the purple vibrator Bhaskar’s character uses to be blurred. “We have a culture of silence around female desire and sexuality which is pretty pervasive,” Bhaskar says.
The same week the film was released, censors also banned Love, Simon, an American romantic comedy about two teenage boys who fall in love. “The censor board still sees itself as a kind of moral guardian,” says Alankrita Shrivastava, a Mumbai-based director. She fought the board last year to release her film, Lipstick Under My Burkha, about the experiences, including sexual, of four small-town Indian women. Censors initially banned the film on grounds it was “too lady-oriented” and included “audio pornography”, but the decision was overturned on appeal.
“The female point of view is still not so welcome in popular culture,” Shrivastava says. “In the case of my film, I think it was also a class issue. It gave you the point of view of women who are not so economically well off, and that’s still seen as transgressive.”
Rising chauvinism across India about religion and caste is also putting pressure on film-makers. Padmaavat, a film about a mythical Rajput queen starring Deepika Padukone, was dogged by rumours it depicted a love scene between the queen and a Muslim conqueror. Angry members of Rajput caste groups rioted in cities and threatened to mutilate Padukone if the film was released.
It was finally premiered under heavy security, becoming one of the highest-grossing films of 2018. But it has made stars such as Kumar wary. “About history, people are very sensitive,” he says. “So it’s better to avoid these things … You have to be careful of people’s sentiments.”
Bollywood is the most commercial of India’s film industries and the most averse to risk. But the box office success of films such as Padman and Veere Di Wedding are showing that audiences are “not as prudish as we assumed them to be”, says Bhaskar.
The next frontier for Hindi cinema would be an unflinching look at the caste system, she says. “I don’t think that commercial Bollywood has looked at caste in an any kind of depth. We’ve so far only chosen to celebrate caste in very parochial and unthinking ways.”
More film-makers could also take their cameras outside cities and tell the stories of the rural and poor communities that make up the majority of the country, adds Mukhopadhyay. “There are still too few films about people who ride the metro, or work in the fish market, or take their tea in a roadside stall,” he says.
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