Nudity In Indian Cinema: Aesthetic Or Exploitative?

Sometimes, the story needs an actor to bare it all. Sometimes, it’s just uncomfortable
Nudity In Indian Cinema: Aesthetic Or Exploitative?

As early as 1941, director Kidar Sharma shot a nude bathing scene with Mehtab for the Hindi historical drama Chitralekha. Mehtab told the director that she would do the scene provided there was nobody else on the sets and there were no retakes. Although Sharma believed it was an aesthetically shot scene, most critics who watched the film called it "vulgar". When he remade the film in 1964 with Meena Kumari, the bathing scene was left out. 

In 2022, nudity is a little more acceptable than it used to be, but the discourse around it is a lot louder. Within days of Ranveer Singh's viral photoshoot, his 'bum' became a national issue that was debated on primetime news. It came soon after Vijay Deverakonda bared it all for the poster of his upcoming Telugu-Hindi sports drama Liger. The actor, who plays a boxer in the film, is seen holding a bouquet of roses strategically placed over his genitals. Opinions were sharply divided on whether the poster was sexy or simply "attention-seeking". Many compared it with Aamir Khan's PK  (2014) poster in which the actor held a radio to his nude body in a similar fashion. 

"The origin of such nude pictures – like Ranveer Singh's – is film magazines like Cineblitz and Stardust that had centrefolds," said filmmaker and writer Paromita Vohra. "In the older editions, we usually saw starlets in these pages – women who did small, vampish roles and posed sexily. The late Jitendra Arya did a lot of glamour photography. In his photo exhibition, there was an entire wall of magazine covers. You could see the 1970s kind of body culture where men were posing in swimming trunks and not wearing very much – Dharmendra, Vinod Khanna, Feroz Khan…so many actors. Such pictures were seen to be freeing, a sign of hedonism, back then." 

Now, what was confined to cinema and film magazines has spilled over to social media and mainstream news. Clickbait headlines on digital portals and YouTube videos with suggestive titles and thumbnails add to the hysteria, especially if it involves a woman actor. Take, for instance, the nude scene in Parthiban's recent Tamil film Iravin Nizhal. Actor Rekha Nair plays a dead woman from whom a baby is breastfeeding. Although the scene is not intended to be sexual and is actually disturbing, it has triggered scores of videos that imply that nudity in itself is vulgar. Since Iravin Nizhal is a single-take film that took multiple attempts to get right, there are also numerous discussions on how many times Nair had to bare her breasts. Several such videos did the rounds when Amala Paul shot the Tamil survival thriller Aadai – in which she plays a naked woman trapped in an empty building – in 2019.

Such reactions may create the impression that going nude before the camera is the most challenging aspect of acting. But, Roshan Mathew who did a nude sequence in Rani, a short in the anthology Malayalam film Aanum Pennum, has a different view. The short, directed by Aashiq Abu, is about a young couple (played by Mathew and Darshana Rajendran) that decides to have sex in a secluded area only to have their clothes stolen. 

"For Rani, nudity was essential to the story. The couple had to be stuck without their clothes. I was working with a team that I could trust. I knew they wouldn't portray it in the wrong way. It was just like any other day of a shoot and there was nothing disconcerting about it. It came from a certain environment that was created on the set. Nobody got awkward. There were no lingering gazes," Mathew said. 

In contrast, Mathew has been part of shoots where there was no nudity involved but he was made to feel uncomfortable on the set when shooting an intimate moment. "I have felt the change in the energy on such sets. I can sense that they find it titillating, and it makes you super conscious as an actor. But when we had to be fully naked in Aanum Pennum, there was none of that," he said. 

Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran in a still from Aanum Pennum
Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran in a still from Aanum Pennum

So, when does a scene – nude or otherwise – become exploitative? Does it have to do with who's behind the camera or how the viewer consumes it? It's a difficult question to answer. In the Malayalam film Thanmatra (2005), Mohanlal played a middle-aged man with Alzheimer's and there is a nude scene where he forgets how to make love to his wife (played by Meera Vasudevan). 

"The scene is done in a blue backdrop with extreme close-up shots of both the actors' bare bodies. It's also a bit hazy. During the middle of the lovemaking (focusing on the female actor's facial expression) the man gets distracted at the sight of a fly and walks out of the bed in the buff. The woman weeps silently. This is an integral scene that shows the various stages of Alzheimer's disease. It's brief and evokes more pain than titillation. But a lot of people were outraged by the scene during the time of its release," said film critic Neelima Menon. 

Mohanlal and Meera Vasudevan in a still from Thanmathra
Mohanlal and Meera Vasudevan in a still from Thanmathra

Depicting nudity becomes all the more complex when telling real-life stories. When Shekar Kapur made Bandit Queen in 1994, writer Arundhati Roy wrote a scathing critique of the film's exploitative gaze. Based on the life of dacoit-turned-politician Phoolan Devi, who was raped and paraded naked in her village, the film had Seema Biswas playing the lead. 

"How does one grade film-rapes on a scale from Exploitative to Non-exploitative? Does it depend on how much skin we see? Or is it a more complex formula that juggles exposed skin, genitalia, and bare breasts? Exploitative I'd say, is when the whole point of the exercise is to stand on high moral ground, and inform us, (as if we didn't know), that rape is about abject humiliation. And, as in the case of this film, when it exploits exploitation. Phoolan has said (Pioneer, August 15 [1994]) that she thinks they're no better shall the men who raped her. This producer/director duo," Roy wrote, detailing how the crew had sidelined Devi from her own story entirely. 

As an actor, Mathew is conscious of the camera's gaze and how it can influence the audience's perceptions of a scene. He has unpleasant memories of people joking about the rape scene that he shot in his debut Malayalam film Puthiya Niyamam (2016). He plays the antagonist who sexually assaults a character played by Nayanthara. There was no nudity involved but Mathew said that he's faced discomfiting comments about it. 

"I had to sit through an interview where statements like, 'Oh you are the guy who got to rape Nayanthara in his very first movie', were passed off as humour. It wasn't funny at all. If my character had committed a murder, they wouldn't be joking about it. When people get the wrong sense of excitement when watching such scenes, you know it wasn't done right," he said. 

It can be argued that much of what we consider aesthetic or vulgar is subjective. For Paromita Vohra, when nudity is full of humanity, it ceases to be exploitative. The Ranveer Singh photoshoot simply shows the actor – known to bend gender norms and present alternative ideas of masculinity – being comfortable in his own skin. "Whom does this harm?" is Vohra's question. 

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