No flavour to savour
Reviewed by Rachna Singh

Sex in Cinema: A History of Female Sexuality in Indian Films
By Fareed Kazmi.
Pages 375. Rs 395.

THE title of Fareed Kazmiís book Sex in Cinema is somewhat misleading. The book offers neither titillation nor an analysis of cinematic images of carnality that the title suggests. Instead, it attempts to unravel the academic implications of the concept of Western feminism in the context of Bollywood cinema. The raison díetre for the book is simple enough. Kazmi avers that "sexuality has not received the kind of attention it deserves from Indian academics or feminists". So, he takes upon himself the onus to remedy such an oversight. Somewhat pompously Kazmi exhorts the readers to "sit back and savour" the "changing contours and dynamics of female sexuality in Indian films down the ages".

Kazmiís invitation to "savour" the book goes haywire at the "aperitif" stage itself. Expecting the warmth of a mature wine, the reader is hit by a cocktail of feminist theories all originating in the West. Ernest Jonesís philosophical question, "Is woman born or made?" becomes mired in a discussion on essentialism and constructionist binarism. Theories of thinkers like Lacan and feminists like Toril Moi are bandied around with mind-boggling frequency. All in the name of locating feminism.

To continue with the metaphor of a feast Kazmi had thrown up in the Introduction, the main course offered by him is more interesting. Here Kazmi has segregated Indian cinema into decade-size chunks and analysed the cinematic ingredients such as characterisation, music dialogue et al to highlight the cinematic portrayal of woman. 

With Awara, and Mother India, the 1950s become a decade of "Man, the awara, woman, his conscience". The 1960s with Bandini and Aradhana depicted "a sudden inversion of identities" and a sexually liberated woman capable of making her own choices.

The female protagonists of the seventies were bonded together by their "uninhibited display of sexuality". Mera Naam Joker, Bobby, Julie all belong to this ilk. The 80s saw a turnaround in the approach to a womanís sexuality. From being an object of eroticism or victimisation, the woman takes up cudgels against the perpetrators. So, Bharti of Insaaf ka Tarazu and Lakshmi of Pratighat become icons of vendetta who break the chains of societal patriarchy. 

The woman of the 1990s was completely shorn of sexuality and became the romantic "other" to the male protagonist. She was, however, more than ever before chained down by societal mores that believed in male domination and the role of a woman as wife and mother. So, we have Nisha of Hum Apke Hain Kaun spouting dialogues like "Main farz ki khatir sab kuch bhula doongi". The woman of the New Millennium becomes a creature of pleasure as reflected in Jism and Salaam Namaste.

Kazmiís cinematic spread, undoubtedly has an interesting variety but it appears to be limited by the authorís own theoretical beliefs. He has picked films to fit the contours of his own feminist theory. Films like Roja, Dil Se, Jab we Met do not receive any mention. Regional films are also ignored, although the book is purported to be about "Indian films". A disappointing read.