Bollywood is getting ready to bedazzle Toronto.
IIFA and Toronto are becoming buzzwords among Bollywood twitterati as Indian film celebs confirm their attendance for the 2011 International Indian Film Academy Awards on June 25. Among the heartthrobs set to sizzle on the red carpet is easy-on-the-eyes Ranveer Singh, who's been sparring onscreen with feisty fresh face Anushka Sharma in Band Baaja Baaraat, a recent offering from the house of Bollywood designer romance, Yash Raj Films.
Nominated in eight categories, including best film, Band Baaja Baaraat is not your traditional Bollywood love story. Typically, the most risqué scene in a Yash Raj romance goes like this: The heroine, dressed in a pastel chiffon sari runs across a meadow of tulips and into the arms of the hero, who proceeds to breathe heavily onto her neck. Instead, Singh and Sharma, who play business partners in a wedding-planning business, and have sworn not to mix business with pleasure, get drunk after completing a major assignment and wind up having a one-night stand.
Tame by Hollywood standards, their love-making scene typifies a paradigm shift in Bollywood movies.
Although romance has always been a major component of commercial Hindi cinema's three-hour narratives, the subject of sex has long been taboo. Sexual intimacy was depicted by time-honoured botanical metaphors - time-lapsed blossoming flowers, mating birds, or the occasional shaking bush. Even kissing was a no-no; instead, the smugly smiling hero would lean toward the coy heroine, only to unfurl an umbrella at an opportune moment. And woe befell the woman who engaged in premarital sex. Suddenly pregnant, she was inevitably shunned by family and society.
In recent years, however, sexuality has begun tiptoeing out of the Bollywood closet. A new generation of filmgoers has grown up with the diverse programming offered on satellite TV, including voyeuristic reality shows that leave less and less to the imagination. At the same time, attitudes in India have generally relaxed when it comes to things sexual: In a country where public displays of affection were long frowned upon, live-in relationships aren't unheard of these days.
In the forties and fifties, the Indian film industry saw its job as making movies with strong social themes, says Paromita Vohra, a documentary-maker and writer, speaking over the phone from Mumbai. "It was a momentous time. The whole idea of Hindi cinema got tied up with the idea of what kind of nation was being built. And within that nation, the idea of the virtuous woman was quite strong," she explains. "By the time frothy romance plots came about in the sixties, where one could expect to see kissing or sex, the social codes had become established."
Bollywood never completely shied away from sensuousness, notes Vohra. In fact, the first kiss in Indian cinema occurred in the 1929 silent Indo-German film Prapancha Pash ( A Throw of Dice). But references to sex itself were always implicit.
Some were subtle gestures: lead actress Waheeda Rehman playing a prostitute, pining for the embrace of her poet-lover in Pyaasa (1957); or Mughal prince Salim caressing the cheek of courtesan Anarkali with a feather in Mughal-E-Azam (1960). Other imagery was more daring, such as the appearance of a sultry, barely clad Zeenat Aman in the 1978 film Satyam Shivam Sundaram: Love Sublime.
Today's films take a far more literal approach, as in another recent release, Luv Ka The End. Featuring emerging starlet Shraddha Kapoor and hunky Taaha Shah, the title plays on the hero's name and the movie's anti-rom-com attitude. The trailer shows Rhea (Kapoor) planning the perfect 18th birthday - whose itinerary includes her losing her virginity. But when she finds out that her sweetheart is a philanderer, she decides she is "going to have [Luv's]balls."
Luv Ka The End is produced by Y Films, a recently formed subsidiary of Yash Raj Films that is specifically aiming to cater to a younger audience looking for more spice from Bollywood. "The problem with Hindi films is that they tend to whitewash material; they wash it with soap and dry clean it until it's sparkly white," says Luv Ka producer Ashish Patil, who is also the brains behind Y Films.
Y Films' target audience has no time for obliqueness, says Patil. Whether they watch reality TV or Internet porn, sex is increasingly a part of their vernacular. "The language we've used, that's how kids talk," he says. "The F-word is not a cuss word any more. It's an emoticon. That whole idea of saving yourself for marriage, girls see it as old-school and overrated. ... We are not making mythological movies. These are movies for teens with raging hormones. We're just trying to keep it real."
So, she says, is Ekta Kapoor. The daughter of Bollywood sixties superstar Jeetendra (he went by one name), Kapoor was the queen of TV soaps before she launched her movie-production company, Alt Entertainment. While she received flak for her soaps' ubertraditional worldview - centred on feuding mothers and daughters-in-law - Kapoor has been making headlines for the sexual themes of her movies, including 2010's Love, Sex Aur Dhoka ( Love, Sex and Deceit)and this year's Ragini MMS.
Both movies deal with voyeurism. Love, Sex Aur Dhoka, commonly referred to as LSD, delivers a critique on an increasingly voyeuristic society; all three episodes that make up its narrative are formulated as real stories captured by hidden cameras. Although the Indian censor board asked director Dibakar Banerjee to trim and blur out the movie's only lovemaking scene - which he reluctantly agreed to do - Indian film critics praised LSD for its authenticity. Ragini MMS, meanwhile, which includes elements of the paranormal and has been described as "voyeuristic horror" by Kapoor, includes the tagline: They don't know it yet - It's a threesome.
"There is lovemaking, but there is no sex in our films," Kapoor told the Indo-Asian News Service in an interview - in other words, lots of steamy foreplay, and that's where it ends. "But in none of these films do we run away from sex. They have just been labelled titillating."
Perhaps. But it seems titillation has become de rigueur in an industry once famous for its prudishness. Until not long ago, lead actresses were portrayed as the picture of modesty, while the cabaret numbers, featuring decidedly vamp characters, represented sexuality. Today, major actresses are willing to kiss onscreen and dance suggestive "item numbers"- scenes that are often extraneous to the plot but that serve up eye candy in the form of scantily clad actresses, or the odd six-pack actor, shaking their money-makers.
It's all part of the evolution of onscreen ethics following the media boom of the nineties, says documentary-maker Vohra. The arrival of satellite TV in India, allowing foreign and local broadcasters to mushroom in a market once limited to two state-run channels, rendered kissing and making out ordinary. Censorship rules governing TV are more lax than in the film world, allowing shows such as Bigg Boss and Emotional Atyachaar (Indian versions of Big Brother and Cheaters, respectively) to push the envelope.
"If you watch TV in India today, you will faint. There's no pretence there," says Vohra. "Bollywood is like cricket, it's all about nationhood. Television is small-scale; you can get away with more. But more people are watching TV, ironically. It's right there, in your drawing room."
And films are increasingly mirroring that chalta-hai (go with the flow) outlook. Whether full-on sex scenes will eventually become a part of the Bollywood vocabulary remains to be seen. Vohra takes pains to note that there's no reason to add one in just for the sake of it. "For a majority of Indians, feelings of sex and romance have come from movies first," she says. "There is an erotic code in those films which awakens your senses. It's not a sex-ed manual, fine, and we may have very complicated notions of how babies are made.
"But to insist that there is only one way of depicting [sex]is a kind of oppression in my opinion."