bare truth

When actresses shed their inhibitions, it does add a bang to commercial Hindi cinema’s buck. But the act is rarely allowed to go beyond the point of no return, writes Saibal Chatterjee

All-out nudity is a strict no-no in mainstream Hindi cinema. That is how it has always been. Mumbai filmmakers have no qualms about getting a lead actress to slip into a two-piece bikini or a micro-mini to inveigle the masses but they still draw a clear line between resorting to ‘harmless’ titillation and going the whole hog in the dare-bare department.

It is in the context of Bollywood’s established puritanical code that Ketan Mehta’s Rang Rasiya is a bit of a breakthrough. In a crucial scene in this film about 19th century Travancore painter Raja Ravi Varma and his muse and mistress Sugandha, actress Nandana Sen sheds her clothes and inhibitions.

But, then, Rang Rasiya isn’t an average sexploitative Bollywood flick — it is a sensitive and tasteful re-enactment of a chapter in the history of Indian art. The nudity in the film isn’t in-your-face. Being an integral part of the storyline, it does not look out of place.

At the other end of the spectrum is a new Bollywood release, ChitkabreyShades of Grey. Touted as the boldest Hindi film ever made, it is no great shakes as cinema. But it has generated a bit of a buzz on account of its softcore sequences involving little-known actresses like Akshara Gowda and Ukrainian Svetlana Manyolo. The film peddles nudity as a rather laboured means to pull in the crowds.

Last year’s Love Sex Aur Dhokha, directed by Dibakar Banerjee and produced by Ekta Kapoor, also had two non-stars stripping for a love scene but it wasn’t designed to titillate. However, screenshots of the scene were leaked in the run-up to the release of the film — it generated a huge amount of publicity. At that point, the sequence was projected by the publicists as the most daring sex scene ever in a commercial Hindi film.

Sex and sleaze do work big time on the big screen, but given the unwritten principles of morality that govern popular Hindi cinema, no frontline actress ever goes beyond a limit. Over the years, actresses like Zeenat Aman and Mandakini have appeared on the big screen in varying states of undress, but they have done it only for a filmmaker of the stature of Raj Kapoor.

Zeenat went topless for Satyam Shivam Sundaram while Mandakini, in her first role, drenched herself under a waterfall wearing a flimsy, see-through sari in Ram Teri Ganga Maili. Neither of the two scenes was, however, obscene.

The only other top actress who allowed herself to be filmed topless, if only for a split second, was Dimple Kapadia in Ramesh Sippy’s Sagar. Smita Patil, playing a slum woman in the 1981 arthouse film Chakra, bathed under an open tap — a scene that was replicated by Bollywood starlet Neetu Chandra in Jag Mundhra’s The Apartment nearly three decades later.

Mundhra, whose oeuvre includes socially relevant films like Kamla and Bawander, returned to Bollywood a few years ago after a long Hollywood stint as a maker of erotic thrillers. During this phase of his career, he directed a film called Monsoon (2001), which saw Indian model-turned-actress Helen Brodie baring all for the camera.

Many years earlier, in 1972 to be precise, Simi Garewal did pretty much the same for Conrad Rooks’ English-language film, Siddhartha, adapted from a novel by Nobel Prize-winning German writer Herman Hesse.

With mainstream Indian cinema shunning nudity, such dare-bare acts have been confined largely to small offbeat films and productions with an international connect. One of the most talked about films in the latter category is Mira Nair’s sensual and visually ravishing Kamasutra — A Tale of Love.

While the title was taken from ancient Indian sex treatise, the film’s narrative was adapted from a Wajeda Tabassum story about two girlhood friends, who become bitter sexual rivals when they grow up. Kamasutra features the stunning Indira Verma as the servant-girl, who seduces the debauched nobleman that her princess-friend is betrothed to. The film has several erotically charged scenes in which Verma and Naveen Andrews throw caution to the winds.

But caution is the name of the game in Mumbai when it comes to depicting sex on the big screen. In Anurag Kashyap’s about-to-be-released That Girl in Yellow Boots, Kalki Koechlin plays a half-British girl, who works in a seedy massage parlour in Mumbai and lives by her wits. Her clients, aware of her vulnerabilities, demand more than just a massage when they drop by at the parlour.

But That Girl in Yellow Boots does not contain any graphic representation of the unmentionable acts that the girl must indulge in because, as Kashyap told this writer after the film’s premiere at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, the moral susceptibilities of the audience and the censors back home had to be kept in mind.

The unwritten "this-far-and-no-further" philosophy underscores the portrayal of nudity in Hindi cinema. So, we have to make do with coy sexual innuendoes, suggestive musical numbers and stray shots at eroticism (as in films like Murder and Murder 2).