Sex is the familiar ‘Kalank’ of Bollywood

Mainstream Hindi cinema’s prudish reluctance to explore sex and sexuality continues to hamper the genres of romance and relationship drama

Vinayak Chakravorty May 03, 2019 13:08:38 IST
Sex is the familiar  ‘Kalank’ of Bollywood
  • Despite exploring new content, Bollywood is still half-baked in its approach towards sex and sexuality

  • Bollywood prudishness over sex hampers the romance genre the most

  • Censorship and prevailing socio-political milieu hinders mature focus on sex

In the elaborately soppy finalé of Kalank, Alia Bhatt and Varun Dhawan play out Bollywood’s tested Railway Platform Climax, set to pattern all those years ago by Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Reversing roles, it is heroine Alia who extends a hand to pull up hero Varun on the train. She is an upper-class Hindu housewife in pre-Partition Pakistan travelling to India while he is her Muslim lover. Aditya Roy Kapoor as the husband looks on haplessly, pretty much like what he does in the entire film.

Man and wife and her lover, cutting across lines of faith and playing out the climax of a forbidden triangle against the backdrop of Partition. The setting would seem just right to spark off irresistible dilemma within her. Will she give up the momentary urge to pull up her lover, and continue her journey towards a loveless marriage with her honourable Hindu husband in post-Partition India? Will she give in to a love that was primarily triggered off by lust, and jump off the train into the arms of her Muslim loverboy — a blacksmith — to stay back in Pakistan? Or, more delectably, what if she manages to pull him up? Could commercial Bollywood be on course to serve us its first ménage à trois?

You know long before the scene ends that loverboy will never board the train. He gets stabbed on the platform the very next second and you stifle a yawn. This is, after all, the climax of a film that has, over nearly three hours, failed to ignite any spark in what could have been a tale of prohibitive passion.

You sense déjà vu. With Kalank, commercial Bollywood has let us down again. When it comes to telling stories of forbidden sex or tackling the uncomfortable side of love, our filmmakers simply won’t take the quantum leap.

In India, the burden of making people happy is on the movies, new-age maverick Anurag Kashyap once said. Kashyap’s observation finds resonance in the fact that even in 2019, the nation’s definition of ‘good cinema’ overwhelmingly adheres to the Barjatya-typified ‘family film’ — one that can be watched with the entire family.

Mainstream Bollywood naturally continues to seek a convenient excuse in audience conservatism while explaining its reluctance to maturely understand and depict love and sex.

Kalank, in this context, would seem like an ideal scope to reorganise things, given its plot is centred on extramarital love. The gala star cast, the monstrous budget (the film is rumoured to have cost producers Karan Johar and Sajid Nadiadwala around Rs150 crore), the extravagant sets, and the hummable tunes would seem like a perfect cushion for the makers to take a calculated risk.

Perhaps the audience, too, expected something out of the box, and not a bloated mess of clichés, which explains the film’s disappointing run.

The scene was barely better when Bollywood tried narrating a lesbian love story. Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, the mainstream industry’s first attempt at an LGBTQ-themed tale in the post-Section 377 era, was applauded for bravura but that fact could not hide the film’s half-hearted approach. If the trailer suggested Bollywood’s progressive perspective, the film itself delved into too many aspects, almost as if to avoid an in-depth focus on its core theme of lesbian romance.

Homosexuality, particularly, continues to be the domain of the offbeat fraternity, lately evidenced by Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh or Shonali Bose’s Margarita With A Straw.

Commercial Bollywood, driven by its need to draw the larger audience, would perhaps quickly point at pervading socio-political milieu, underlined by censor rigidity, as the reason why right now is not the time to candidly discuss sex or sexual love in the movies. Lately, the tendency to be guarded about these subjects is evident in Hollywood, too. In a recent article in The Guardian, Film Editor Catherine Shoard revealed how the number of films classified 18 in Britain for sex has gone down drastically. Shoard accounted studio diktats, the #MeToo aftermath and free availability of online porn as reasons for the West’s new puritanism.

Puritanism, of course, never left India — an irony, if you consider our mainstream films were never really devoid of sleaze. So, while kissing and lovemaking scenes can face hostile censor reception, raunchy dancing — often accompanied by double entendre lyrics — is okay, from the cabaret dances of the seventies to presentday item numbers.

It probably has to do with the fact that, after all these years, sex continues to be a dirty word for the larger audience. So, it is okay to project sex as something raunchy or sleazy, but any mature exploration of the subject is taboo.

The genre affected the most by Bollywood’s aversion to explore sex and sexuality is the human relationship drama. Ironically, one of the earliest new-age filmmakers to recognise this fact was Karan Johar, co-producer of Kalank.

“Sex is a big part of love, but we make such a big deal even out of a kiss. I wish we were allowed to show more sexual love stories,” Johar told Filmfare a while back.

The outcome has been twofold. First, filmmakers have started looking at niche, audience-driven digital platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime to create genre-bending tales of sexuality, such as Lust Stories and Made In Heaven respectively.

Secondly, almost every traditional plot-pusher for the man-woman drama has been exhausted, and nearly every authentic love in recent times — think Jab Harry Met Sejal, Laila Majnu, Kedarnath or Dhadak — has fared below expectation. So, romance has lately clicked only if it rides the crutch of a different genre — such as comedy (Lukka Chuppi) or historical drama (Bajirao Mastani).

For any deeper understanding — no sex please, it’s Bollywood.

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