Sex and the urban Indian

November 2, 2016

Cinema served as a lens to examine societal changes, especially changing sexual behaviour and morality in a post-liberalisation era. A burgeoning middle class was coming into its own. Inconvenient taboos were cast aside. Sexuality was a major part of the change.

 Madhu Jain
December 10, 2015 | UPDATED 13:33 IST

It was a leisurely lunch on a lovely Sunday winter afternoon in 1989, tables laid out on velvet green and glistening grass. A guest in his mid-40s, several glasses of wine down, turned to me and said: “Have you noticed the number of Indian men going through a mid-life crisis… almost contagious”. I think he, a few years away from the half-century mark, was refer-ring to himself and his friends. I brought up this casual remark in our editorial meeting the next morning. Aroon Purie, the editor, looked up from something he was reading, a sparkle now visible behind his glasses, and suggested I work on this.

And, so, the remark became a story, which in turn became a cover story: Mid-Life Blues (March 31, 1989). Those were the days when we were dispatched far and wide on what we called fishing trips. No copious briefs needed: a mere hunch was all it took to “sell” a story to the bosses.

Madhu Jain @1990

It was much the same with an off-the-cuff suggestion for an article on dirty dancing in Hindi films: song sequences were becoming increasingly sexualised, more simulated sex than a portrayal of romantic yearning that it used to be. However after a couple of days in Bombay interviewing choreographers (frontal pelvic thrusts were now ubiquitous in their choreography), I realised that there was a larger story here. It wasn’t just the dancing; the movies themselves were getting down and dirty, with hardly anything left to the imagination.I was asked to stay on in Bombay until I nailed the story. And, so, the proposed two-page story became a cover story about increasing sexuality in cinema. Film director Shashilal Nair had put it succinctly: “Talent has moved below the shoulders.” Echoing him, Madhuri Dixit, then in her prime, lamented: “We now emote with our limbs.” The eyes would have done the job earlier. The camera according to cineaste Aruna Raje began to “zoom in on breasts and hips”. “The focus was on body parts and not the person.”

Change was a keyword while I was with India Today-from 1986 to 2000. A burgeoning middle class was coming into its own. Old hierarchies were being replaced by new ones, just as old money was by the new. The joint family was either breaking up or being redefined. The corporate sector grew more important. The landscape of society was rapidly morphing, with aspirations coming to the fore, and being acted upon. The old adage-the more things change, the more they remain the same- no longer held.

Psychoanalysts and therapists mushroomed, and individuation became a buzz-word to explain what people were going through. In simple-speak: the individual was acquiring an identity apart from the family. It was, increasingly, all about loving the self-and catering to it. Inconvenient taboos were gradually cast aside. Sexuality was a major part of the change. Several articles I wrote attempted to track this change, including Midlife Blues and Cinema Goes Sexy (November 15, 1991).

Cinema served as a good lens to examine societal changes, especially changing sexual behaviour and morality. Just a few decades ago, heroines had to be virgins, or appear to be until the wedding night. Good girls did not wear skirts and dresses. And, even if they did and showed some leg, it was only until the interval. Then, on came the saris or salwar kameezs and short hair suddenly grew into a plait or bun before they-all demure and sweetness personified-could be taken home to meet mama. Dream girl Hema Malini had the kind of face the screen mothers warmed to.

Today, actress Sunny Leone, an Indian-Canadian former porn star, is quite popular, perfectly acceptable and not relegated to C-grade films, or to the shady realm of blue films and cheap videos surreptitiously seen, and the stuff of wet dreams. She has acted in several Hindi films and appeared on television reality show Bigg Boss. Even Indian women find her cute and endearing. Perhaps, the ladies who lunch may even invite her to join them in this ritual of our times. After all, a few reasoned that Leone was only making love in these fairly hard core films with her husband-and not just with any adult film actor. It is not impossible that a hero would take her home to meet his parents.

The lust kingdom

Sometime in the late ’80s the tectonic plates beneath the depiction of sexuality on the silver screen shifted, no doubt influenced by what was going on off it. Romance began to take a backseat and lust took over. The ever-quotable actor-director Shekhar Kapur told me when I was researching sexuality in cinema that the “immediacy and the push of the moment has become important”. “It used to be love at first sighting, and the kiss took one reel. Now, it happens in just seconds … In the ’80s it took several reels for the boys and girls to even touch.”

It speeded up in real life as well. However, the most telling observation was made by the late theatre legend Satyadev Dubey when he was training actresses for a television series: “I can’t get any of these “modern” girls to blush,” he complained when I asked him about young actresses for a story on starlets: Invasion of Starlings (June 30, 1986). “They did not know how to. Nor did it make any sense to them.” The power of the blush had long been a potent factor in the game of seduction, both on screen and off it. The ever so gradual heightening of colour on the cheeks, the lowering of eyelashes and the coy twisting of sari pallavs was enough to conquer the celluloid hero or the man they fancied. Sharam (haven’t been able to find the equivalent word in English) was evidently no longer part of female physiognomy. Guilt was for the birds, especially when you knew all about the birds and bees.

Men were not spared either. Sexualising the male body might have come much later than the objectification of women. But it was almost as aggressively suggestive. Jeans so tight they almost appeared to have been sprayed on, with bulges in appropriate places, replaced the shapeless and loose pants of earlier generations, both on screen and on the streets. Off came the shirts. Salman Khan, the poster boy with pop-up muscles like Popeye, was in the vanguard of the if-you-have-it-flaunt-it brigade. In his wake came Hrithik Roshan and a string of gym-generated Himbos guzzling protein shakes. It was hard work developing six- or eight-pack muscles. But many young men in metropolitan cities and small towns began to emulate their heroes.

And, women finally got to have eye candy, too.

Even Shah Rukh Khan was made into an object of sexual desire. The actor, whose eight packs were still a few years into the future, wore see-through shirts (the equivalent of the ubiquitous wet sari heroines were made to wear) in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. The camera almost appeared to caress him in the song ‘Suraj Hua Madham’: it lingered over his white and blue shirts through which his nipples stood out. Almost a decade later (2007) he morphed into a He-man in Om Shanti Om during the pulsating ‘Dard-e-Disco’ number. No longer pleasingly plump, the shirtless actor flaunted his eight packs and washboard stomach.

And women became even more objectified; heroines usurped the roles of vamps and “bad” girls and sent them packing. Apparently, in the years leading up to the millennium actresses would expose according to the amount they were paid. Less definitely meant more. The era of a more muscular sexuality was around the corner: the item girls were showing the way.

The adult child

Firmly entrenched taboos, the boundaries reigning in sexual impulses began to fall like nine pins in the ’80s, and even more so after liberalism kicked in and made itself at home. Children weren’t immune from the strong winds of change blowing in from small screens and computers. Images of sex and violence invaded the world of children: sexually explicit films, MTV and American television series and their copycat versions in India. Television became the babysitter and the new raconteur, replacing the stories and folk tales heard while sitting in the comfy laps of grandparents. Parents busy with increasingly whirlwind lives ceded some of their parenting role to the small screen.

Childhood shrank. This was a trend I explored in a few articles, including The Adult Child (April 15, 1996). Children began to look like miniature adults, often mimicking them. It was near-impossible to find shoes without heels for little girls. A shopkeeper looked at me as if I had dropped in from some other planet: “This is the fashion,” he said, dismissing me as he turned to another customer. The clothing of girls as young as six became sexualised: spaghetti straps were in vogue for a while, as they were for their mothers. Perhaps, an inadvertent eroticisation of children had begun.

The little men and little women also began to take their dancing cues from Bollywood and MTV. Their moves became more suggestive, perhaps ignorant about what the pelvis thrusts inspired by Michael Jackson, Anil Kapoor, Govinda and many others were simulating. Nor did they understand the words of the ribald lyrics studded with double-entendres. In Raja Babu (1994) the song ‘Sarkai Lo Khatiya’ enacted by Govinda and Karisma Kapoor, one of the lines is: ‘Suyi chubhe koyi shola sa bhadke’. These lyrics now seem like nursery rhymes compared to those in films today: forget double-entendres, they are now served to you neat and direct, accompanied by sound effects and blush-making four-letter words.

Children grew up faster, even biologically. Girls began to reach puberty at a much young-er age. The uncorking of the libido began earlier for both sexes. While adolescent sexuality began to move from fantasy to flesh, young couples became increasingly fearless. Public display of affection, even holding hands, once forbidden, was no longer such a taboo. Dating became more physical, far less moony. Couples were no longer content with staring into each other’s eyes over cups of coffee, or talking endlessly at bus stops.

Young couples canoodled-and still do- wherever there was a bit of space: Marine Drive, under rooftop water tanks, and back rows of darkened cinema halls in Bombay. Love on the rocks has long been a specialty of this metropolis: the black rocks between land and the sea became a haven for those who wanted to do much more than hold hands. Delhi’s parks are known for furtive lovers, initially behind or in the bushes but increasingly in front of them. The new openness was prompted by the information explosion. Video was a great leveller, allowing easy access to American films for people from different backgrounds. Even Hindi films provided the inspiration and social sanction, as did the kiss and tell school of journalism.

Weakening the already crumbling citadels of social traditions was the rapidly growing number of working women. Economic freedom brought with it other kinds of freedom- including opportunity and alibi. Self restraint started to give way to self-expression. The late ’80s witnessed the coming of age of the Indian middle-class woman’s sexuality, largely due to media blitz. Women wanted more: no longer content to lie back and think of Bharat they wanted satisfaction. Many consulted therapists in an attempt to bridge the gaps between their fantasies and what was really going on in their bedrooms.

The landscape of marriage also began to change. Undoubtedly the engine of change was the changing woman. Working wives were also rewriting the equations. Moreover, women in positions of power find it increasingly difficult to be subservient at home. Women’s sexual needs are also a stress factor in marriages. In 1996, when I was researching an article on marriage (Intimacy in Marriage, December 31, 1996), sex therapist Dr Narayana Reddy, then with the Dega Institute and a consultant at Apollo Hospital, Chennai, told me that women were no longer “inhibited”. “Over 50 per cent initiate sex and in not just the missionary position-25 per cent of my case studies have women on top.”

Sugar mommys and desi Mrs Robinsons

Great expectations are often followed by great disappointments. Women compared notes on the performances of their respective husbands in bed according to Dr Reddy. “The same partner, same cot, posture all these years. Then begins the fantasy about an actor, a colleague… The thoughts come and they don’t feel bad.” Infidelity is collateral damage. What might have traditionally been a given for men was now becoming a woman’s, often surreptitious, prerogative. Sugar Mommys and desi versions of Mrs Robinson surfaced. Many women now no longer needed protectors and providers but companions, some of whom were younger.

Sexual glasnost also blew through small town India. Sex clinics mushroomed, as did hotels on highways enabling clandestine encounters and adultery. Apparently, wife swapping alleviated boredom. Harinder Baweja and Amit Agarwal tracked spouse swapping in small towns in their article, Playing Mixed Doubles (June 15, 1994). Several sex magazines (Fantasy, Fun, Playway) enticed and allowed married couples to hook up with others in different cities-far from home.

Hooking up these days, now a totally different ball game, takes place increasingly in the virtual world. New mobile apps keep sprouting. Snapchat, for instance, puts you in touch instantly, allowing users to send pictures and videos that self-destruct after a few seconds. A young friend tells me: “With the recently launched Fling app you can have virtual fling with anybody in the world. You can connect to five people at random, and protect your identity. They are making apps more hacker-free and user-friendly to reduce the fear factor. People, essentially teenagers, share graphic content.”

It is now possible for you to be a master or mistress of your virtual world where fantasies can play out. The TrulyMadly app allows women to check out cute men. Some of the apps, however, move into the real world, like Tinder which offers encounters in which sex doesn’t necessarily involve romance, what author Erica Jong so memorably described as the “zipless fuck“. Apparently, the highest number of women registered on an international cheating website for adultery was from India.

Ironically, as taboos about sex disappear, young working couples appear to be having less of it. Leading treadmill lives-long working hours and commutes-many burn out, and are always tired. The weekend is usually the only time for ambitious men and women, leaving hardly any time for preludes or foreplay. They are probably in bed thinking of the next move up the ladder. Or, how to elbow out rival and trip the one clambering up the ladder below.

Sex in the age of the selfie and blossoming self-love is also being redefined. Human beings appear to be written out of the equation: for a man it could be a sexy-looking car and for women the state of the earth. An advertisement for slinky bathroom fixtures almost has an actress making love to a glistening shower.

EXCERPT

March 31, 1989

Mid-life blues

It is the most disturbing of all seasons in a man’s life: the mid-life crisis. The decade between 40 and 50 is a time of transition, of intense questioning-when fantasy collides with reality. For almost every man it is the time to stop and take a look back at life from the middle of the journey. “You realise your past is greater than your future,” says psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar. “More years now lie behind you than ahead.”

One never talked about the mid-life crisis in India. It was something which only happened in the West. To executives on the fast track, wanting too-much-too-soon. To a society captive to the tyranny of youth, where every new wrinkle was regarded as a visiting card of death. It didn’t bother India-the old traditional ways took care of age. But now, with western values coming in a rush, for the first time the crisis is becoming a reality for men in their 40s. The 40s are a turning point in a man’s life. By this time he is at his peak, as far ahead as he’s likely to be. It is a heady, intoxicating time. The 40-year-old man probably has everything going for him-power, money, status. Then comes the question: what next?

The crisis begins with private, low-key self-questioning and usually peaks in great emotional turmoil. It is the time when you realise that you can no longer dream-that the time before you is limited. You do not ask: “What am I going to do?”, but “What have I achieved? Am I happy, successful? Is this what I want to do and be?” Explains psychoanalyst Sailesh Kapadia: “The mid-life feeling is one of terrible, painful loneliness. It is full of anxiety, desolation, nostalgia. Many psychotic breakdowns occur at this time.”