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In a recent lecture, radical leftist Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek cited examples from Hollywood because, as he said, popular culture helps us gauge where we are. To illustrate the commoditisation of the individual by structures of liberal capitalism, Zizek demonstrated how sex has been on the wane in recent Hollywood films. The latest James Bond movie, for instance, does not end with a sex scene, he noted, a great departure from tradition. “Since when has Hollywood shied away from sex,” he asked.
Something of this thought had occurred to me when I watched a slew of Bollywood indie films recently: Dhobi Ghat, Delhi Belly, Shaitan and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (ZNMD). What struck me about these films was the way sex had been almost edited out of the popular discourse.
According to Zizek, something as ungovernable, messy and unruly as sex appears threatening to the modern individual and thus is being airbrushed out of his anodyne, antiseptic life in the way that intellectual debate, holistic education and individualities have no place in modern society.
In Dhobi Ghat, the only sex scene that occurs between Aamir Khan and Monica Dogra is implied.
Shaitan dispenses with sex (and even love) altogether, alluding to it in passing as a minuscule component of the plot.
Delhi Belly further diminishes the importance of sex by caricaturising it in the scene where Imran and Poorna fake an orgasm for the benefit of a hapless American couple. Far from using the scene to titillate audiences as would have been the practice in old Bollywood (swathes of which still exist in the Bhandarkar-Ram Gopal Varma-Bhatt offerings, mind you) in this brave new world of Indie films the sex is often in the intra-diegetic gaze of the characters, with the audience playing along. (Significant is the fact that Imran, one of the participants in the scene, has a tumescent erection that is unattended to.)
But it is Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti’s ZNMD which most illustrates the point of sex being an endangered commodity in popular culture — and modern lives. ZNMD is a textbook example of the female gaze: a big female star like Katrina’s entrance, for instance, is not objectified in the way that we would have expected, with the camera clinging lasciviously to her curves; in fact the mandatory scene of her emerging like Venus from the water (she’s a diving instructor, for God’s sake) is so pointedly omitted that its absence itself is a presence.
Characteristics of the female gaze are subsumed in ZNMD’s script: two of the protagonists have absent fathers; Abhay buys a diamond ring for his mum; (!) Farhan’s cathartic moment is when he tells his mother that he loves her; the heroes are the vulnerable ones; there is a marked absence of sexist humour on the road trip, etc. But it is in its depiction of men and women connecting on a deeper emotional and spiritual level as opposed to full blown sexual engagement which is most interesting.
So here’s my question: is sex being airbrushed out of our movies because of the prevalence and increasing acceptance of the female gaze (only two of these films are female-directed but that’s a technicality) or because of what Zizek calls the commoditisation of the individual?
In his latest avatar of the “What an idea! Sirji” campaign Abhishek Bachchan advocates the employment of technology as a welcome replacement for sex.
I think he’s onto something there.
Malavika Sangghvi is a Mumbai-based writer