Two of the most recognizable Indian exports to the world are Kama Sutra (Kamasutra) and Bollywood movies. The former gives guidelines for sexual fulfilment and the latter sells sex to the masses in many ways without being explicit about it. People may not know diddly-squat about India but they are aware of Kama Sutra, at least in the West. I originally come from the old country. So, it always warms my heart to encounter people from China, Russia, and East European Countries who know about old-timey Indian movie actors like Raj Kapoor and Nargis. Some can even hum Hindi songs or sing them with words that closely resemble Hindi. These days, Uber drivers tend to talk about Bollywood movies. They always ask “Why don’t they kiss in Indian movies?”
I decided not to answer that question superficially but to poke around and go deep to get some satisfactory answer. The simple answer is that Bollywood movies show sex the way they do to get past the Central Board of Film Certification (aka Indian Censor Board), an Indian Government organization that issues certificates for showing the movies in theaters. Two most important certificates are “U” and “A” that correspond to “Unrestricted” and “Restricted to Adults” categories. Obviously, a movie (or film if you prefer) with an “A certificate” has limited audience. So, the movie makers in India try not get an “A” while showing as much sexual stuff as possible. Don’t go thinking that a movie with an “A” can show everything. Far from it. A typical Indian movie with an “A certificate” has probably has less graphic sex than an R-rated Hollywood movie.
My analysis will focus on “Bollywood” which is a lame ass term derived from combining Bombay and Hollywood. Now that Bombay is called Mumbai, perhaps the word should be Mollywood or Mullywood. The Mumbai film industry (Bollywood) produces Hindi movies which are widely known around the world. Apparently there used to be actual kissing in Hindi movies back in the day, like in the 1930s. It vanished from the screen until the 1990s which is when India entered the global market. India got its independence from the British in 1947 but remained a protectionist economy for the next four decades. When the Indian economy opened up, Bollywood became slightly bolder. Even now, in the so-called “liberated” era, Bollywood movies shown in theaters don’t show full lip-on-lip kissing. Forget French-kissing or tongue action. We can blame the Indian censor board for lack of proper kissing in Bollywood movies. But I think the producers also try not to show explicit intimacy because it might offend mass audiences.
Ancient Indians had such a healthy and liberal attitude about sex. Kama Sutra gives details about courtship, amorous advances, and sexual congress (copulation). It also describes oral sex performed by men on men and women on women. But then, the British came to India and stayed for more than 300 years. Indians absorbed a whole bunch of prudish British attitudes about sex. In addition, middle-class morality, which dictates matters of love and sex for many Indians, probably evolved on its own before and after India’s independence. So, Bollywood, in playing safe to avoid upsetting a large number of paying movie-goers, comes up with numerous ways to stay within the perceived boundary lines.
How does Bollywood go about showing matters described in Kama Sutra? Courtship usually begins with the leading man and leading woman (hero and heroine) running around trees or doing a vigorous workout for a dance number. Given that there are minimally five or six songs in a movie, this gives ample opportunity for showing amorous interactions between a man and a woman and to thrill the audiences without provoking the censor board to delete the scenes or enraging the bearers of morality in society. During one of the songs, suddenly it rains and the wet sari clings to the curves of the woman and the man and the woman bring their lips close and the camera looks discreetly away. In another song, when the man and the woman are dancing, the woman shakes her butt, gyrates her waist and makes thrusting motions with her hips like a man does during sex. What is the idea behind a woman imitating a man’s intimate movements? I grew up on a farm and so I understand this logic. When a heifer is in heat, she would mount another animal (cow or bull) in the herd to indicate that she is ready to be mounted.
Bollywood delivers sex through other characters as well. Usually there is a vamp (a term for a seductive woman) in the villain’s den. She dances for the visiting bad guys and the hero in disguise (which didn’t use to fool anybody, so now the hero goes as himself). Because she is a slutty woman to begin with, she is not bound by the same rules as the heroine. She can lip-synch and dance to a song with words full of sexual innuendos and make risqué gestures. In a lively dance by Katrina Kaif for a song called Chikni Chameli, towards the end of the song she says “This is just a trailer, I’ve come here to show you the whole film,” and rhythmically jerks her hip sideways and makes a gesture with her forefingers and thumbs as if she is stretching a piece of film where her thighs meet her hip. No red-blooded human male would have any confusion about what she’s talking about.
In the bedroom scenes, nowadays Bollywood movies show more than what they used to. Previously, the hero would lift the part of sari covering the heroine’s head on their wedding night while singing a song about what he is up to, and the heroine would coyly smile and avert her gaze. These days, the woman in the sex scenes bares a lot and the man is usually shown naked from waist up (maybe because nobody wants to see what’s below). The man tugs at her clothes, bites, smooches all around her neck and still doesn’t kiss on lips. The man even goes on top of the woman sometimes but without any explicit hip movements. But apparently, woman-on-top scenes are taken out by the censor board. Sometimes the man and the woman are in a shower or a pool which also is a great way for Bollywood to showcase a hot woman’s body.
Curiously, all Bollywood’s efforts to purvey sex seemed to be aimed at males. Is it because middle-class morality in India needs the women in society to be pure and innocent? What Bollywood cannot (yet) exploit and society wouldn’t admit to, is the report that Indian women watch porn and more of them do than their counterparts in other countries. Can Bollywood deliver soft-porn to women like it has been delivering it to men all these years?