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On Bombay Begums' Narrative Sexuality
We are used to seeing sex as separate scenes in films. Then Twitter exploded asking if sex scenes were necessary as if movies were Jenga towers, and we were practicing narrative minimalism.
The first time I saw a kiss on screen that wasn’t a “scene” by itself, but just a sweet peck on the lips, it was between a married couple before the husband sets off to work in Baby’s Day Out. This proved a bit of a logistical issue at our home because a kiss on screen meant the kids had to vacate the room while the scene plays out and come back once it was over. It was an unwritten rule, so if I could intuit a kiss scene coming up, I would go to the kitchen to drink a glass of water, or open the fridge and stand in the presence of its cool, cyclical air and stale light till it was safe to come back. In other households this was more obvious. In my friend’s home, while watching one of the Jurassic Park films, his parents who had pre-vetted the movie, paused it before the kiss and told us to leave the room, and once the scene was over, called us back in.
In this context, the peck in Baby’s Day Out was a bit confusing. If a kiss wasn’t a “scene” by itself and was just a miniscule part of a scene, what do I do? A decade later when in New York Katrina Kaif kisses John Abraham casually before sending him off to work, again a kiss that wasn’t a scene but just a miniscule part of a scene, I realized that something new, and novel was happening in Hindi movies—a kiss no longer had to only be erotic. It could be mundane, like a tum-ghar-kab-aaoge, like a you-forgot-your-dabba, like a bill-bharna-mat-bhoolna.
I am saying “new and novel” because a kiss is usually elevated to an entire scene in movies since its erotic potential needs to be unspooled in its own time. Kisses can, in addition to serving erotic purposes, serve narrative purposes too—in Bachna Ae Haseeno, the manner in which Ranbir Kapoor kisses the three women is supposed to show his growth as he ages. The first one is tepid, and nervous, a peck. The second one is passion, wet, and wild. The third, final one is consummate, secure, and cathartic.
The Logic Of A Sex Scene
The logic of sex “scene” isn’t very different, where it’s mostly for giving the narrative an erotic lift, but can also become the narrative. This is especially true with a lot of queer cinema. One of the first such films I watched was Stranger By The Lake, which I did not, and perhaps still don’t, have the vocabulary to talk about because it felt like a porn film but had the narrative plotting—voyeurism, violence, and chase scenes—of a film-film. Set in a cruising site by a lake where gay men bathe, banter, and fuck, the film suddenly turns violent with the entrance of a cruiser—an attractive, mustachioed man, whose kink is murder. Similarly, in Theo And Hugo the entire courting “scene” happens in an orgy in a sex-club. Even rape, as shown with the queer characters in Loev and I May Destroy You, is so intrinsically tied to the narrative and characters, without feeling like a stand-alone scene solely shot for voyeuristic purposes. So there is a way to congeal sex onto narrative, as opposed to have sex as a distinct (and thus, perhaps, dispensable) but not alien part of the “story”.
But most cinema, alas, isn’t queer cinema, and sex is, thus, still a questionable aspect of a plot. The very fact that Twitter blew up a discussion on how necessary sex scenes are in films is testament to this—that we see films not as a whole but a sum of its parts, like a Jenga tower, and our distinct need for minimalism has now invaded the visual arts; minimalist cinema is the Jenga tower which stands with the least number of blocks. The point is not to have a complete film, but to have a film that uses up the least amount of narrative resources
But just as sex and sexuality are becoming more common, narrativized sex and sexuality too is on the rise. By narrativized sexuality I mean you can pull out a scene that has sex or sexuality in it but still not call it a sex or sexy scene because so much else is going on in it. For example, one summer I was trying to convince my cousin that Mani Ratnam’s Raavan is a great film, and as evidence I was showing her the video for the song ‘Khilli Re’—Aishwarya Rai in Sabyasachi to Rahman’s music, what could go wrong? In the song— and I didn’t realize this till my aunt walked into the room— amidst the Bharatnatyam classes, wine-cooked food, and slow-motion posturing was a scene in a bedroom of infinity mirrors where between dance practice Aishwarya Rai tries to bite the nose off her husband. It’s cute, but also, I guess sexy, and my aunt had an immediate aversion to it as she walked in on that moment. It’s not hard to understand why. The idea of a sexy scene lingering randomly amidst lush, family-friendly dance was not common in 2010, and perhaps still isn’t. That sex, sexuality and life as it is, could share screen-space is a radical new thing. Narrativized sex is that.
Indian films where sex and sexuality is narrativized are rare. Bombay Begums is one such attempt—all the five female characters are dealing with unique contours of sexuality. Rani (Pooja Bhatt), the CEO of the bank is confronted with menopause, while her antagonistic step-daughter Shai (Aadhya Anand) is awaiting her first menstrual cycle. Fatima (Shahana Goswami), a senior member of the bank is jostling with the idea of motherhood and infertility, while Lily (Amruta Subhash) is jostling with the reality of motherhood, staying afloat by performing sex-work. (The show very beautifully brings up the shutter on dance bars in Maharashtra in the mid-2000s. This was done by the government under the guise of imposing morality, but the reality of it was the girls who were dancing were now pushed to do sex-work. The “problem” leaked, and was never solved.) Then there is Ayesha (Plabita Borthakur) who is young and moves to Mumbai from a small-town, a shadow of Rani who herself moved to Mumbai from a small-town when she was young, but bisexual. Each character, as you can see, plays a foil to one another, one exiting a state of mind the other is entering, one’s emotional graph orthogonally working against that of the others. It’s not just a gesture of narrative contrivance, but of female solidarity; that whatever you’re going through, however alone you feel, there will be women out there who went through it too, and whose experience will wedge into yours making it coherent if not whole.
The sexuality moves the story along, and so does sex, but the thing is while I found the sex emotionally charged, and narratively apt, it was erotically lacking.
Male characters, like that played by Rahul Bose and Ayesha’s ex, are introduced through sex. Other male characters like the pasty white man Fatima cheats on her husband with, are entirely defined by the act itself. (There is a wonderful moment when in bed Fatima cozies up to cuddle with him, and he pulls his leg up to then wrap it around her. It’s such an intimate gesture of pulling someone towards you, entirely.) What this does is answer the question, “What would Bombay Begums look like without sex?” with “Without men, mostly”.
The Female Gaze
“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” — John Berger
Meiko Kawakami’s Breasts And Eggs is a book entirely centered around women and women’s desire. Kawakami in an interview notes a playground prank from elementary school, “The boys would run around and flip up the skirts of certain girls to catch a glimpse of their underwear. That was mortifying enough. Yet it was just as shameful for the girls whose skirts didn’t get flipped. “It meant you weren’t popular,” said Kawakami.”
Kawakami herself is famous for noting how in Murakami’s novels, his female characters “exist solely to fulfil a sexual function”, and how “[i]t’s not possible for these women to exist on their own”. So in Breasts And Eggs, men have no function, not even a sexual one. Natsuko, the main protagonist almost has an asexual disposition towards men, and despite that she has this odd, inexplicable need to be a mother. This axes that tether between sexuality and reproduction.
Her sister, Makiko, too is fixated on getting her breasts enhanced but there is nothing masculine-facing or masculine-acquiescent about this desire. Murakami gave a glowing blurb for this book.
This book opened a new way for me to think about desire. Often, in literature as in life, there is a person feeling and a person being felt for. The hetero-male gaze reduces the women, the person being felt for, to the object of a man’s desire giving them no life beyond this. Sometimes in films they try to get around this by giving the woman a fancy profession like a chocolatier or a psychologist but it’s so badly done it might as well have not been attempted. The female, and more specifically the female-feminist gaze is the opposite, where it places front and center women, and relegates the men to objects of women’s desire. Alankrita Shrivastava, who created Bombay Begums, has an oeuvre that is a distinct assault on the male gaze. Her films are entirely about women, by women. She noted this in an interview.
The stories I am telling are from the POV of the female characters. I don’t have the space to tell the stories of the men in their lives independently. So you only see the men in relation to the women. It is definitely a conscious thing. It is a female universe.
This is an acknowledgement of a lacunae, a self-awareness which itself is so rare in film-making. It's also a rebuttal to the idea that feminist cinema will somehow be more complete and rounded taking all positions into account. It's not a silver bullet, but a corrective, a reorientation that isn't designed to make the picture straight and symmetric but to flip it on its head.
It is true that a series can’t do everything you want it to, and so to tell a story about women in all their complexity, must necessarily involve men becoming blurred props. This is thus that kind of show that is more fixated on a woman mundanely washing her underwear every morning than telling us what her husband did with the cum stains on that expensive Parsi ghara sari he was masturbating with. (As a friend noted, “You know a man isn’t handwashing a delicate sari like that.”)
I couldn’t help but wonder if this was why I found Bombay Begums so erotically unappealing, like a Four More Shots-lite. I am neither a woman nor, so far ever been attracted to one. Pooja Bhatt looked great getting laid, but that’s the extent of my aesthetic and erotic relation to the scenes. Shrivastava has a distinct way of filming sex, even seen in the red-lit last episode of Made In Heaven, where she chose to keep it aesthetic and emotional over erotic and sexy. It’s a choice that feels adjacent to Andrea Dworkin’s anti-sex, anti-pornography stance. It’s my gripe with Shrivastava’s work—there’s a lot of sex, but really where is the eroticism? Axing the pornographic appeal of sex in cinema is, I think, a disservice to it.
Sex As A Monument
One of the ecstatic things about sex is, for that moment, it allows a complete revocation of past and future. It makes infidelity and its consequences a blurry insignificance in the moment of heat, and it makes your conservative homophobic upbringing an ignorant footnote. It is a celebration of the present even as it wrecks a future and ignores a past.
Andre Aciman, author of Call My By Your Name christened the “grammarian of desire” by the New Yorker, in a talk made a very interesting distinction between ritual and rehearsal. Ritual is the repetition of something that has already occurred in your life. Rehearsal is when you repeat what is about to occur. So much of life is just these two, and the problem is that between these two, one sprung from the past, one whose eye is on the future, the present moment is somewhat lost. It is desire and its manifestation in sex, in some sense, which roots us to the present moment in a way few other things do. It’s the knowledge of this moment never coming back that creates the heightened expressions of sex—moans and screams. It’s also the desire to create a monument of that moment, so even if desire doesn’t leak into the next day, at least its aftermath does, which calls for scratches and crimson hickeys. Aciman notes, sex is “an act of possession in which we possess nothing at all”.
So when in Bombay Begums we see women indulging in sex—homosexual, heterosexual, within and outside of marriage, for commerce, for pleasure— it’s narrative but it’s also an ultimate monument to the self’s capacity to be in the moment. A celebration of women, yes. But it’s also a celebration of the present moment.
“How much of now’s
a touch of never,
a gasp of vastness
like the end of was.”
— Christian Wiman