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Sex in Cinema: A History of Female Sexuality in Indian Films by Fareed Kazmi

Rupa Publications
Pages 375
Rs 395

'Isak ki baat to besua jaane/ hum bahu beti hain, hum ka jaanein'

(The art of making love is known only to the prostitute/ we women of the household, what do we know of it.)

A book that starts with a quote like that plucked from the back of a truck has to be great. First 100 pages are filled with quotes after quotes after quotes after quotes from every 'thinking' man or woman (but mostly man) ever born, right from Xenophon to our own Tarun Tejpal, with Derridas, Foucaults,  Sartres, Mae Wests, Enslers thrown somewhere in between and even our own Gandhi ji drops in a line or two. Basically anyone who ever thought about sex and  wrote about it, pictured it and then wrote about it, is present in this book all to make a case for 'A History of Female Sexuality in Indian Films'. So by page 103 you tell yourself it would have been just as fine if the writer (a professor of  Political Science at Allahabad University) had written a one page short note about Misraji of Bhojpur who thinks Madhubala was an angel and that all these new girls dancing on screen are gustakh laundiyas polluting the screen and the naujawaan nasal. He could have claimed Misraji is being simple, that the truth of women on Indian screen is more complex, and then to drive home his point he could have posted 99 photographs of Helen (this book on cinema has only 9 disappointing photographs, including just one of Helen). All this would have been fine because all this time based on the cover of the book and its title a beguiled reader is expecting a (long over due) short concise Indian version of MrSkins in print. Ah the subtle art of selling a book on female sexuality using female sexuality. Judge a book by its acknowledgement:
"From Mehtab to Madhuri, Dimple to Zeenat, Madhubala to Aishwarya, this book owes its genesis, to all those divas whom we have ogled at, lusted for, 'slept with'. however, if it lacks the lustre and the passion these names evoke, the fault is entirely mine."

Wasting ink is a crime if the subject is drawn from Indian Cinema because even if one writes with all the expediency in the world something substantial is bound to get left behind because of the sheer size of Indian silver screen. The fallout of the writer's crime becomes obvious after page 100 when one realizes that the writer has tried to cover the 'The History' by sorting his subject matter by decades starting 1950s and ending somewhere into 2000s. For each decade he picks a few obvious films and dissects them to offer a picture of woman as was carved (intentionally or unintentionally) on the screen in these decade. For 50s we have analysis of word games played by Nargis and Raj Kapoor in 'Awara' and 'Shree 420'. Then we have a truly brutal and brilliant  denouncement of  'Mother India' in which son Briju seems to be the real rebel and Mother India just another Pavitra Nari. For 1960s, we are offered 'Mughal-e-Azam' , 'Sahib, Biwi, Aur Gulam', 'Guide', 'Aradhana' and 'Bandini'. The analysis of choices made by Kalyani in Bandni makes for an engrossing read, we see the woman become a mix of rebel and a conformist. The book is worth the money if only for the essay on 'Mother India' and 'Bandini'. Because Fareed Kazmi does his dissection with a deftness, a reader does wish he had written some more on some more films. How can just 'Mera Naam Joker', 'Bobby', 'Hare Rama Hare Krishna', 'Julie' and 'Kabhi Kabhi' be used to define a decade of movies, a decade in which more and more woman, like never before were seen on screen? When you see the line-up for 80s: 'Insaf Ka Tarazu', 'Pratighat' and 'Arth', you know which direction the writer is driving you, the changing image of woman he is crafting?  You know 'Hum Aap Kay Hai Kaun' is up, soon followed by 'Murder'. You know how it will end. You know writer has taken an easy route. You feel like a disappointed Misraji from Bilaspur. You put down the book wishing that the writer had written a word or two about Saudagar (1973), the film based on a story by Narendranath Mitra, which could have been a brilliant topic for enquiry into politics of female sexuality. Next you wish to see Padma Khanna burn some gur. Then you watch her and notice the delighted young peeping tom woman in the song. Then you are reminded of those fancy Indian art painting drawn by ancient men. And then a sudden laugh drops on your face as you think about all the mad men who made cinema in India. And then you wait for a fsad ancy post-modern interpretation of the song and how it was charged with overt female homoeroticism and how it was a path-breaking event in Indian Cinema.

Basohli Art



  1. Another song worthy of a post-modern deconstruction of female homoeroticism would be, "Jalta hai badan..." from Kamal Amrohi's Razia Sultan. You have to see it to read between the lines.

  2. 'Jalta hai badan' was lyrical eroticism...I think you meant Hema Malini and Parveen Babi boat song 'Khwab Ban Kar Koi Aayega toh neen aaye gi' from Razia Sultan (1983). It would be an interesting study to see how we arrived at Sheila Ji singing: 'Ab dil karta hai haule haule se, main toh khud ko gale lagaun
    Kisi aur ki mujhko zaroorat kya, main toh khud se pyaar jataun'.

  3. Thanks for the correction, brother. "Lyrical eroticism," her is another penned by Sahir Sb no less, AAJ SAJAN MOHE ANG LAGA LO... from Pyaasa.


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