Bollywood has often found itself tiptoeing on the fine line drawn by our cultural norms — a tightrope act of desire and decency.
Think back to the recent lovefest that was Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani (RRKPK, 2023). Entwined in the magnetic pull of old Hindi movie love songs and Delhi downpour, Rocky (Ranveer Singh) and Rani (Alia Bhatt) find themselves unable to resist the temptation each one poses to the other in this story of opposites attracting. They kiss for the first time in the film, drenched in desire and rain.
The photogenic charm of the wet body is one that’s been celebrated across art forms (and frequently used to objectify women subjects), but it’s fascinating how rain in mainstream Hindi cinema turns the regular world into one that allows desire to strip down inhibitions and social restraints. Think of rain in films, and the visual spectacle of Zeenat Aman in Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978) during the enchanting ‘Bhor Bhaye Panghat Pe,’ or Mandakini's iconic ‘Tujhe Bulayen Yeh Meri Bahen’ from Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985) is among many scenes that are etched in our memories.
Women's desire finds a sanctuary in the rain, providing a space for the unapologetic expression of feminine longing and a defiance against the boundaries of conventional expectations. For these women the expression of their desire becomes their source of power. In a world where the hero's desire is often perceived as a sign of weakness, by embracing her longing and expressing it boldly, a woman’s awareness of her pleasure is a sign of strength. When she desires a man, it becomes a symbol of power and boldness — an assertion of her agency.
In ‘Hai Hai Yeh Majboori' from Roti Kapda Aur Makaan (1974), Aman seductively gyrates in the rain, hoping this will tempt the reluctant Manoj Kumar who stands under a gazebo, unwilling to step out in the rain while Aman openly celebrates her desires. “Kitne sawan beet gaye, baithi hoon aas lagaye (I’ve been waiting for so many monsoons),” she sings, before adding, “Madhur milan ka yeh sawan haathon se nikla jaye (the season of our union is about to end).” Kumar, playing a pillar of traditional virtue, refuses her invitation. Aman even provokes him by singing, “Teri do takiyan di naukari re mera lakhon ka sawan jaye (I'm losing my precious monsoon because of your worthless job).” Here is a woman unapologetically expressing herself, dismissing conventions with every move she makes. It’s almost as though the rain is what makes it possible for her to throw caution to the wind in this way and flout social norms.
One of the reasons that rain has been one of Indian cinema’s beloved tropes is undoubtedly the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), the protector of our tender sensibilities. The rating system in India has served to curtain expressions of desire — most recently, OMG 2 (2023) was given an A-rating despite not having a single romantic or sexual moment on screen. All because the film discussed sex and masturbation — but the silver screen found a rain-drenched loophole.
Our society may frown upon overt expressions of desire, particularly when it’s expressed by women, but in the world of movies, these feelings are celebrated. Flowers in hand, our heroes and heroines danced around trees, leaving the audience to imagine what was concealed behind the foliage. Lyrical innuendos were inserted into songs where the heroines chose to get wet in the rain. Every contour of the woman’s body is on display in many song sequences, and the weather became the excuse for the CBFC to turn a blind eye to the obvious subtext.
If there is a Bollywood goddess of rain, then it has to be Sridevi, whose rain dances are an electric combination of desire, feminine joy and pleasure that manages to feel innocent despite the unabashed sensuality in the actor’s performance. Think of Chandni (1989), where Sridevi seduces the audience in 'Parbat Se Kali Ghata Takrai’ singing, "Paani ne kaisi ye aag lagayi (What kind of fire has this water started)" — a refrain that finds echoes in the timeless 'Tip Tip Barsa Paani’ which became the most iconic, unapologetic song of female desire. In Lamhe (1991), she’s the picture of graceful abandon in the rain-soaked ecstasy of 'Megha Re Megha.' Similarly, in 'Kate Nahin Kat Te' from 'Mr. India' (1987), she stands in rain that makes her desire as transparent as her blue chiffon sari, proclaiming her love uninhibitedly. In ChaalBaaz (1989), she’s a charmer, steadfast in her refusal to lower her standards for any man, asserting, "Kisi ke haath na aayegi ye ladki (No one will be able to flatter this girl)." It's not an overtly erotic dance of desire, yet the rain serves as the conduit through which the woman unabashedly expresses her genuine desires.
These performances are technically staged for spectators and the hero, but Sridevi makes this more about her character, adding an interioirity to these frivolous numbers. Academic and author Rachel Dwyer observed these songs defied a singular focus on the "erotic aspects of the wet and the rain," presenting a sensual experience that transcended mere titillation. An unabashed articulation of female desire, these songs also celebrated freedom. In 'Megha Re Megha,' Sridevi declares, "mera kajra dhula re, mera gajra khula re (my kajal has washed away, the flowers in my hair have unfurled)," symbolising the shedding of inhibitions, a transformative moment where the heroine seeks not just physical, but emotional liberation in the downpour.
Perhaps what has long unsettled audiences — of women and men alike — is that in the rain, exposing her body and her desires, the lines blur between the virtuous heroine and the transgressive vamp. Fortunately, the word ‘vamp’ doesn’t carry the connotations of promiscuity and negativity that they did at one point, but for decades, this character was a device inserted mostly to titillate. It’s only because actors like Nadira and Helen were such charismatic performers that we were eventually able to see more facets to the roles they played. Limited as the scope of the vamp might have been, what quickly emerged was that these were women who had a mind of their own. Often, as cabaret performers, they’re working women and this choice reveals they aren’t browbeaten by moral policing. The songs written for them were often some of the most memorable of a soundtrack, which added to their charisma. Through the prism of cinema and its actors, a marginalised and exploited group commanded attention and (eventually) respect.
What vamps could do in bars, heroines did in the rain: Exercise agency and celebrate pleasure. The rain, in its passionate embrace, frequently becomes the catalyst for the virginal heroine’s awakening. The good girl, conventionally shielded from overt displays of desire, steps into the rain and it’s a form of rebellion. While others seek refuge, she seeks revelation. It's a subtle defiance — a small act of running into the rain when society demands she stay dry. Consider Raja Hindustani (1996), where Karisma Kapoor, a rich girl, embraces Aamir Khan, a man from a different social strata, and kisses him in the rain. This audacious act breaks societal barriers with Kapoor dressed in pristine white, symbolising purity even as she commits an act of transgression.
The kiss from Raja Hindustani felt like a watershed moment (pun intended) because it had been decades since a heroine and hero had consensually and elaborately kissed each other on the lips. By the late Nineties with Ghulam (1998), Sarfarosh (1999) and Taal (1999) among others, the "rain song” had evolved into a standardised format — a quintessential moment for expressing female desire.
In Fanaa (2006), as Rehan (Aamir Khan) runs from the rain, Zooni (Kajol) stands amidst the downpour, relishing the raindrops on her face. It's undeniably her moment. She sings, "Yeh saazish hain boondon ki, koi khwahish hain chup chup si…(The raindrops are conspiring, they have a secret wish)," inviting Rehan to explore her body. She urges him to observe, understand, and caress.
During ‘Hum Tum’, Rhea (Rani Mukerji) stands imagining her life with Karan (Saif Ali Khan). She stands in the rain with an umbrella protecting her. Cute couple fantasies gradually intensify with burgeoning desire, it is only when Mukerji is fully drenched that she sings, "Chhu lo badan magar is tarah, jaise surila saaz ho (Touch my body, but in such a way as if it is a melodious musical instrument)." This insistence that she be touched is an unabashed expression of consent that is still refreshing.
Desire is most potent when met with enthusiastic consent, and in Bollywood, rain songs become the ideal canvas to explore and revel in this expression of passion.