Sex Slowly Coming Into the Open in India
In the chastened land of the Kama Sutra, hints of flesh in movies and magazines reflect an upheaval in sexual attitudes.
BY: The Associated Press
New Delhi, India, Jan 17--(AP) - The images, these days, are everywhere: the beer company calendar with Indian models spilling out of bikinis, the Hindi movie with couples wrapped passionately together, the magazine offering frank sexual advice.
It's pretty tame stuff, or would be if this were New York or Paris. But this is India, where kissing remains a seldom-broken movie taboo, Playboy can only be found on the black market and homosexuality remains, for the most part, quietly in the closet. Here, in the chastened land of the Kama Sutra, these hints of flesh reflect an upheaval in sexual attitudes. "Our references have changed," said Mahesh Bhatt, a movie director and self-appointed crusader for more realistic sexual content in films. "The Indian consumer is being shaped by changes going on by the hour around the world ... He is no longer the juvenile who cannot deal with sex."
Bhatt, who has been making movies for three decades, proudly promises a "quantum leap" in sex in his upcoming film, "The Human Body." Most shockingly to audiences of Bollywood movies - where skin is normally limited to "wet sari" scenes of women dancing in the rain and sex is sometimes hinted at by showing buzzing bees - his film shows a woman who likes sex.
Her face shows her enjoyment with sex, Bhatt said: "There's nothing sinful, there's nothing dirty."
What isn't in the movie, though, says as much about India's shifting sensibilities as what is. There's no outright nudity "because we understand that embarrasses the Indian viewer," Bhatt said, and the kissing was toned down because the government demanded it."Don't let her push her tongue into his mouth," Bhatt said censors told him.
India may be stereotyped in the West as a land of exoticism, sensuality and the Kama Sutra, the ancient book of sexual wisdom, but only in the past few years have sex and nudity become topics for public discussion.
Propelled by the spread of satellite and cable TV and the subsequent onslaught of far more graphic Western images, years of primness began to crumble: The thriving black market in pornography moved more into the open, skirts got shorter, TV shows grew more risque. In urban areas, at least - change comes much slower to rural India - sex came out of the shadows.
There's little agreement, though, on where the primness came from. Some say it's just natural Indian reserve. Others see a holdover of colonial Victorian attitudes, or the post-independence reaction against Western attitudes.
To some, it's simply a prudery that went haywire. "There is a need to talk about sex, not coyly, not tongue-in-cheek, but openly about sex," said Sathya Saran, editor of Femina, a woman's magazine popular among traditional, middle-class Indian women. While Femina has long been known for its recipes and child-rearing advice, it also now offers sexual advice, and even swimsuit pinups for male readers.
There's a generational shift, Saran said, that is visible anywhere young people are found. "Women are flaunting their bodies now - not in a negative way, but in an I-dress-for-myself way," she said.
Still, Saran says she had complaints about a recent edition that showed the cover model in her underwear. And even she won't go the route of India's edition of Cosmopolitan, which includes advice on exactly what a man should do to maximize a woman's pleasure.
Instead, it's sex without explicitness. "We keep the romance in," she said. "That's how we make it a little more, well, palatable."
If India is becoming more open about sex and nudity, it's hardly freewheeling. Start asking questions about sex and even some adults will laugh nervously. Some here are simply infuriated by the changes.
A toothpaste advertisement was banned from television in 2001 because it showed a kiss between a condemned prisoner and a uniformed woman prison officer. "I'm not a cultural policeman," Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj told journalists at the time. "But kissing is obscene."
Most people, though, find their own middle ground in the changing attitudes - accepting some increased openness, but uncomfortable with the unrelenting sexuality of the West. "Somehow, it is taking us away from the softer notions of Indian sexuality," said one New Delhi woman who asked that her name not be used, and who noted that Indian cinema and fashion were once famous for creating eroticism with just glimpses of bare skin. "That is a loss I think."