Gully Boy and the female gaze: Zoya Akhtar leads the way with unapologetic depiction of women's sexual desire
Mainstream Bollywood has always underplayed the female desire due to the near hegemony of male producers, writers and directors, who called the shots for decades. Filmmakers like Zoya Akhtar and Alankrita Srivastava are now leading the change in this regard.
While speaking to the Indian Express during a recent interview, Zoya Akhtar spoke about her strong female gaze. Gully Boy makes a distinctive mark in subtly stating female desires and wishes, making one yearn for more films in Hindi that are imbued with a similarly firm, sensitive female gaze. In fact, films backed by women — both as producers and directors — are the ones that have boldly placed a woman’s desires, carnal and personal, and ambitions in a visible space that is unapologetic and closer to reality.
With this film, Ranveer Singh delivers a performance that will become a reference point and set a benchmark. Beyond his titular role, the women in Gully Boy express their wishes, ambitions and sexuality without inhibitions. The beauty of Akhtar’s treatment is the absence of direct sexual moments. Sky, a privileged but egalitarian minded music producer who studies at Berkeley, United States lets her physical attraction known for Gully Boy without holding back. To her, an artiste and his/her art is all that matters. It rises above social backgrounds and economic status to take the form of potent physical desire and affection. She doesn’t impose, just lives out her impulses. Alia Bhatt’s terrific performance as Safeena, a feisty Muslim medical student from a conservative family is equally unreserved. She kisses her boyfriend when she feels like it. She wears her affections easily on herself, never squeamish about it. In her character’s desire to be like a normal college girl who can go to concerts, parties — and in her ambition to become a surgeon, the character of Safeena feels a desire to seek freedom at all levels. Her love for her boyfriend is part of this scheme, not the whole and soul of her ambitions.
The most direct, impactful expression of a woman’s sexuality in Akhtar’s film is that of Amruta Subhash, the long suffering mother who gives it back to her husband when he takes a second, younger wife. She questions his lack of interest in understanding her physical needs and asks what would be his reaction if she were to bring in a different husband too. It costs her dearly, this simple rebellion of thought. But she expresses it anyway.
Zoya Akhtar’s handling of her women characters’ desires and hopes takes forward a significant shift in presenting a woman’s sexuality in Hindi cinema that has been happening for some time. True, in the '80s, when the parallel cinema movement emerged and peaked, a few films touched upon it. But mainstream cinema has always underplayed the woman’s desire. A key factor in this is selling tickets. And a determining undercurrent to this has been a near hegemony of men as producers, writers and directors. They have called the shots for decades.
Neither a subtle film nor a great one, but Veerey Di Wedding — backed by Rhea Kapoor and Ekta Kapoor (apart from the namesakes from both their families) — showed masturbation without shame. Women do it even as their friends might find it outrageous. Similarly, when a character confesses to not having had sex in marriage for a long period of time, it also gets a reaction out of her friends. This surface level film cracks a simple truth in the popcorn entertainment trope — women talk about sex and discuss their sex lives all the time. It’s perfectly normal to do so. To them, it’s a very important part of a relationship, beyond the established benchmarks of financial security and a decent home life.
Alankrita Srivastava, who directed Lipstick Under My Burkha, the black comedy produced by Prakash Jha and distributed by Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Motion Pictures, treats women’s’ sexual needs with more clarity and honesty. Her women are not rich and posh. They eke out an existence playing by society’s rules and husband’s diktats. But they steal time and opportunity to chase their desires. They dare to step beyond conventional norms of what they should be doing. In her film, all four protagonists unconsciously equate sexual desire with liberation — a common reality for women from less privileged economic strata. This film’s victory is in capturing the restlessness that lies just below the surface for many Indian women stuck in traditional roles for their entire lives. It doesn’t provide concrete resolution but addresses the existence of a woman’s wants and needs without inhibition.
The female gaze has shown up significantly in these films, making an unconscious but powerful statement. The only other film that a man has helmed which handles a woman’s desires from a relationship with unfiltered honesty is Manmarziyaan. Rumi is impulsive, passionate and provocative in her equations with men. Kanika Dhillon’s role as co-writer obviously had a role in determining her personality that emerges forcefully in the film.
So, this change — in representing a woman’s sexuality on film — has come as a welcome surprise in Hindi cinema. The women making and paying for these films clearly power their gaze. And more power to them in future.
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