Last month, Radhika Madan’s character left social media buzzing when her introductory scene in the web series Saas Bahu Aur Flamingo showed her bringing herself to orgasm (while vaping and wearing a VR headset). It’s 2023 and the days of coy heroines seem to be long gone, but from the internet’s reaction to that scene, it’s evident that women expressing — and acting on — their desire still raises eyebrows and hackles. Positive portrayals of lusty women are far rarer than you’d expect, especially since the rise of streaming has led to women getting a wider range of roles than the vamp, hero’s love interest or mother. While male desire is something we accept as normal, female desire is usually portrayed as sensational and scandalous. Fortunately, there are filmmakers who approach the subject with the nuance and understanding it deserves. Here are four shades of feminine desire that have brought us a whole lot of pleasure.
Few films have been quite as audacious (and fun) as Aiyyaa (2012) in their handling of sensitive and complex subjects like desire, fantasy and femininity. The film was compared to The Dirty Picture (2011) when it was released, but while The Dirty Picture is about the power and shame associated with female sexuality, Aiyyaa is the rare, joyous celebration of feminine desire. Rani Mukerji plays Maharashtrian mulgi, Meenakshi, armed with an overactive imagination, fuelled by Bollywood-flavoured fantasies. When she finds a man she likes – Suriya, played by Prithviraj Sukumaran – her inner world transforms into an inventive fantasy, powered by pure lust. It isn’t cutesy stuff like Suriya’s eyes or his personality that attract Meenakshi, but the physical and primal quality of his scent. Set pieces like “Dreamum Wakeupum” and “Aga Bai” emerge, making complete use of Sukumaran’s abs (which he reportedly got only to play Meenakshi’s “nainsukh” in the film). Of course, there’s more of a social critique about class folded into the idea of smell being the basis of her attraction, but Aiyyaa balances such weighty perspectives with comedy that keeps the film’s tone light-hearted while taking Meenakshi’s desire seriously. (Admittedly, it struggles to find that balance with some of the other characters in the film.)
There are times when Aiyyaa enters strange territories. On one occasion, Meenakshi follows Suriya and his scent all the way to his house. She sneaks into his room and even steals a tshirt, which is downright creepy to watch, but also offers a subtle but pointed contrast to how much more propriety we demand of women. After all, men in cinema haven’t shied away from stalking, lying and generally skirting the edges of criminality while professing their ‘love’ for women. Despite occasional missteps, Aiyyaa manages to get a vital point across: Women’s desires are rarely as chaste as the feminine ideals held up Indian societies. Desire, whether in a man or a woman, is rash and ingenious, spinning full-fledged fantasies out of the glimpse of a flash of skin or a whiff of a musky scent.
Jazmine (Sanjula Sarathi) is listening to “Thendral” (composed, written and sung by Ilaiyaraaja for the film) as Margazhi opens. Music plays a big part in director Akshay Sundher’s segment but in the beginning, Jazmine seems aloof to the song as she waits outside a lawyer’s office. Her parents are getting divorced and Ilaiyaraaja’s pulsating beats, his lyrics about the playfulness of youth are of no use to her. The song’s nostalgia makes it a sonic comfort blanket – she listens to it for the familiarity of a lost time. We get the sense that Jazmine had always been a shy child and the divorce hasn’t helped. Her troubled father enrols her into the church’s youth group. “Only you can help her out,” her father says to the priest.
Within the walls of the church, under the omnipresent watch of Jesus, the boys and girls lock meaningful gazes and intertwine fingers. There is teasing talk of genitals and choir practice is used to sneak away for a quick make-out session in the nearby trees. It is in this world, where the sinful and the saintly are intricately intertwined, that Jazmine spots Milton (Chu Khoy Sheng). At home, she listens to “Thendral” and this time, she is transported to a dream in which lights throb and Milton walks towards Jazmine, shirtless. He takes hold of her face and leans in for a kiss. Suddenly the lyrics of a familiar song take on a new meaning:
A new wind blows..
Are you heedless?
Are you unaware of honey’s sweetness?
A sweet romance unfolds between the two. Jazmine’s gaze transforms from a dull stare to a sparkling, seeking gaze of a young girl in love. Her clothes go from drab olives to happy florals and bright oranges; sudden attention is paid to the braces, the hair, the face. All this is predictable, but what sets Margazhi apart is the religious setting. Sundher makes sure there is a cross, a priest or a glass-painted arch in close sight, thus placing female desire inside one of the most prominent sites of its vilification (from Adam and Eve to Mary’s virginity, Christianity has played a significant role in equating desire — particularly feminine desire — with shame). Margazhi re-fashions lust as not only a natural occurrence, but also a part of the Lord’s grace. When Jazmine is nudged towards the church for spiritual guidance, a crush doesn’t immediately come to mind but Sundher argues that her blooming attraction is just as much a blessing as anything else. As Milton and Jazmine share their first kiss, we cut to Jazmine’s father thanking the priest. “Nothing is in our hands,” says the priest. “It’s all due to the Lord’s mercy.” Amen.
Although Lipstick… is a multi-faceted look at women’s desires through four narratives, it is the oldest protagonist Usha’s story that is the most riveting. Played by Ratna Pathak Shah, Usha is the matriarch of Hawai Manzil, a dilapidated colony that houses some of the survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy. Usha is referred to as ‘Buaji (Aunty)’ by most residents – a tag that renders her both respectable and sexless.
When Usha is involved in a swimming mishap, she is chided by a hunky lifeguard and immediately enrolled into a learner’s class. On being asked her name, she says “Buaji” before the realisation dawns on her face. Her name is a foreign word on her own tongue and so when the lifeguard calls her “Ushaji”, she’s taken aback, suddenly noticing his ripped body and scanty swim trunks. This segment also reveals that it is Usha who is reading the stormy, lustful story — featuring Rosy whose fantasies involve wrapping herself around men on bikes — with which the film opens.
The pool becomes a heady metaphor for Usha’s wet daydreams and for Rosy’s increasingly sensual story. As she puts on her swimming costume, Usha slowly disrobes the layers that were forcibly handed to her – the tags of old, desexualised and unimaginative. She makes her way down a torrid rabbit hole, spending her nights on the phone with the lifeguard and finally finding that elusive pleasure in the safe space of her bathroom. Although director Alankrita Shrivastava drives Lipstick… to its realistic end, with Usha shamed, insulted and ostracised, we would like to think that those moments of courage transform Usha’s life. Lipstick…, like much of Shrivastava’s work, remains memorable for depicting female sexuality in ways that have rarely been seen on screen.
In contrast with Margazhi’s uncomplicated passage into sexual adulthood, Gantumoote shows the uncomfortable chafing of a schoolgirl’s burgeoning sexuality with a society that is terribly ill-equipped to handle it. Meera (an arresting Teju Belawadi) says she has learnt her life through cinema and while that has informed her knowledge of men, women, their relationships and more, she also means it in a literal sense. Meera was nine when she was molested in a theatre. Marked by this terrible experience of being the lone female in a public space – a lived reality for many women — Meera returns years later to another movie theatre, this time to secretly kiss her school boyfriend. In Gantumoote, pleasure nestles next to danger.
Meera is surrounded by the lover boys she sees on-screen: Classmates willing to carve a girl’s initials onto their chest a la Shah Rukh Khan from Darr and boys calling her a slut in the face of her rejection (hello… every other Bollywood hero). The frenzy makes no sense to her but when she watches Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, a sly smile erupts on her face. Later, in a private corner of her house, she kisses a photo of Salman Khan and writes him letters about having his babies. The letters are found by her mother who is a familiar mixture of rage and shock as she reprimands her daughter. This foreshadows the pushback Meera receives for every step she takes in her sexual journey.
Yet writer-director Roopa Rao gives her protagonist ample opportunities to explore her romantic and sexual curiosity – a nod to the thriving private life most teenagers have, despite censorship and denial from grown-ups. Meera finds her first love in the lanky, Salman Khan-esque Madhu (Nischith Korodi) and with him begins her tumultuous descent into the saga of touching and being touched. Her desire is palpable in the camera’s languorous stretch over Madhu’s neck and eyelashes; she finds joy in simply letting their bags touch each other. Rao contains the film in realism, refraining from glossing over the awkwardness of a kiss between two teenagers. Meera and Madhu’s hands are ungraceful as they explore each other bodies and their declarations are cringe-y in a way that can only be understood when one is stupidly in love. The same realism feels stifling when it’s used to show us the consequences of a young woman taking charge of her own sexuality — men at the bus stop call Meera “a sexy babe” and multiple auto drivers gang together to convince her to give their adult friend “a chance”. Gantumoote’s candour can make it an unsettling watch. But the film’s gaze, channelling the experiences of a girl growing into womanhood, is piercing.