Much before the release of sex-positive films like Vicky Donor (2012), and Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017), came the implementation of the 1952 Cinematograph Act, which regulated what was portrayed in films with the intention of ‘protecting’ traditional Indian values. Not that Indian cinema was flying in the face of convention with its depictions of romance — though we did have the occasional kiss, like Seeta Devi and Charu Roy’s lip lock in the silent film A Throw of Dice (1929) — but the law had a lot to do with how sex and sexuality in Hindi cinema morphed into metaphors. Often taking the imagery from sensual lyrics literally, sometimes relying upon pointed suggestion and yet always present, desire was camouflaged in plain sight. Here are some of our favourites from the long list of shuddh Bollywood hideouts for sex and desire.
Rain, particularly monsoon showers, has long been the setting for lovers meeting and finding, ahem, fulfilment in one another in classical Indian poetry. Unsurprisingly, rain has continued to be romanticised within the edge of its life in our movies as well. Who can forget ‘Pyar Hua Iqrar Hua’ from Shree 420 (1955), which seems suitably chaste but the song radiates longing as Raj (Raj Kapoor) and Vidya (Nargis) look into each other’s eyes and he urges her to throw caution to the wind as it starts raining. Under an umbrella that shields them from prying eyes, they find room to canoodle and fantasise. Decades and thousands of rain dances later, Mohit Suri’s Aashiqui 2 (2013) had Rahul (Aditya Roy Kapur) and Arohi (Shraddha Kapoor) arguing and then making up by (presumably) making out when instead of the umbrella, Rahul uses his jacket to protect them from the rain.
If you’re looking for an everyday item that absorbs our general anxieties around sexuality and feminine desire in particular, look no further than jewellery. On one hand, there are sexist pearls of wisdom like when Devika (Jiah Khan) from Housefull (2010) says, “Sharam aur laaj toh aurat ka gehna hota hai (Shame and modesty are a woman’s treasures)”? And then there are the scenes from Girish Karnad’s Utsav (1984), in which the idea of sringaar (dressing up) is explored with spectacular sensuality. One of the most pulse-fluttering moments in the film is when Vasantsena (Rekha) asks Charudatta (Shekhar Suman) to keep her jewellery for safekeeping and needs his help to take the gold ornaments off. It’s a mischievous move on the part of the experienced courtesan, who clearly enjoys Charudatta’s nervousness as he tries to take off the golden chains adorning her shoulders and then her waist. The jewellery in Utsav becomes a symbol of desire — golden, glittering and precious.
In Shekhar Kapur’s Mr India (1987), sparks fly between Seema (Sridevi) and Arun (Anil Kapoor), who owns an invisibility cloak. This contraption comes in handy when they want to be intimate. During “Kate Nahin Kat Te”, sung by Kishore Kumar and Alisha Chinai, the audience is left to imagine how Arun seduces Seema because the invisibility cloak means the camera is trained upon Seema’s expressions. What could have been a creepily voyeuristic example of objectifying women is redeemed by a fantastic performance by Sridevi, whose Seema shows a confident woman who delights in her own pleasure. Seema is shown being teased by wind, water and hay, all of which is Hindi cinema’s favourites when it comes to ‘setting the mood’. Even in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), Raj (Shah Rukh Khan) and Simran (Kajol) find shelter in a barn where Simran gets drunk and abandons her inhibitions.
Since 2000, Preity Zinta and Saif Ali Khan have told cautionary tales about pre-marital sex and unplanned pregnancies, first in Kya Kehna (2000) and later, in Salaam Namaste (2005). Kya Kehna takes a more ‘Yash Chopra meets Mills & Boon’ approach with a trail of clothes and a shot of clasped hands dangled before us to let us know Priya (Zinta) and Rahul (Khan) have made love (in a field, no less). Even in Laila (1984), we see Deshraj (Anil Kapoor) and the titular Laila (Poonam Dhillon) frolic in meadows. Not only is the video interspersed with stills of them in poses from an Eighties wedding photoshoot, but they also have to share ample screen time with an assortment of flowers. Especially when they are about to lock lips and the scene cuts to stills of roses.
Strewn clothes, along with curtains that shut on their own, show up in Julie (1975) too. They also make an appearance in Rajkumar Hirani’s PK (2014), when the alien PK (Aamir Khan) nicks a couple’s discarded clothes to cover up (he’s arrived on Earth naked). PK comes across a “dancing car” from which can be heard sounds suggestive of sex — which, of course, he ignores in favour of the clothes he finds.
A film that not only puts a woman’s desire at the forefront but also employs the female gaze to explore it, Aiyyaa (2012) had a hilarious dream sequence in which Meenakshi (Rani Mukerji), lusting after Surya (Prithviraj Sukumaran), dreams of Surya as a petrol pump attendant. He’s in overalls, filling the tank of her two-wheeler. The camera focuses on the gas pump as it moves in and out of the vehicle’s filler, leaving very little to the imagination. The scene is played out till the end where Surya removes the pump, which splashes droplets of fuel onto Meenakshi’s face.
Adi (Dulquer Salmaan) and Tara (Nithya Menen), the young couple in Mani Ratnam’s OK Kanmani (2015), have snuck into Tara’s room in the middle of a working day. Earlier, when they were on a local train, Adi promised to ravish her and here, at the door, he follows through with his promise. Next thing you know, the blurry reflection (because god forbid we look sex directly in the eye) of a frenzied jumble of limbs is on your screen. Granting them privacy, the camera slowly pans over Tara’s dresser, lingering upon the window where raindrops are seen trickling (try not to waggle your eyebrows). Watching them are Tara’s two goldfish, whose bowl seems to have one helluva view. Perhaps goldfishes’s alleged three-second memory span make them a safer, non-controversial audience.
Before there was social media, Bollywood found waterfalls to set up what can only be called the OG thirst trap. From Zeenat Aman bathing under a waterfall in a translucent white dress in Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978) to Mandakini in Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985), and Vasu (Kamal Haasan) cradling Sapna (Rati Agnihotri) near a waterfall in Ek Duuje Ke Liye (1981), Hindi cinema has consistently turned to H2O to heat things up. In Mani Ratnam’s Guru (2007), Sujata (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) croons ‘Barso Re’ to welcome the monsoon. While she dances in the rain, the shots of her swimming in waterfalls and running in fields symbolise her coming of age. Soon after this, she gets married to Guru (Abhishek Bachchan). Even in Ratnam’s Raavan (2010), the real-life couple is seen tussling under a waterfall, and the line between combating and caressing soon gets blurred.