Love, Sex and the "Dhokha" of Pushing the Bollywood Envelope

Love, Sex and the "Dhokha" of Pushing the Bollywood Envelope

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GOA, India -- Bengali actress Paoli Dam has stripped naked to do a full frontal oral sex scene for an upcoming movie, Chatrak. And she’s not claiming that’s a body double.

Is Indian cinema finally becoming adult? As in growing up?

“The audience is ready,” insists indie filmmaker Qaushiq Mukherjee aka Q (of Gandu notoriety) to an audience at the Thinkfest in Goa. “But the middleman is a scared f***er. Our cinema ends up being for 12 year olds.”

Explicit Scenes Not Released

Of course Q has done very well for himself by not releasing Gandu with its explicit sex and raw gutter-smart raps in India (no nod-nod, wink-wink here in the style of D.K. Bose). It’s made Q quite the bad boy of underground cinema, sitting on stage in his cool, oversized white-rimmed sunglasses, thumbing his nose at the antiquated Indian censor board.

“The film was made out of a challenge because of situations in India that don’t allow me to make the films I want to make,” says Q.

“But you need the resistance,” adman and scriptwriter Prasoon Joshi tells Q. “If a film like this had just been accepted it would have passed like a ship in the night. You cannot have a placid society where no matter what you say, there’s no resistance.”

Resistance has become all about sex. Marital. Premarital. Extramarital. Solo. Abusive. Consensual. There’s a lot more sex in Indian cinema these days.

Once we had the cut away to the entwined nodding flowers. Then came the smeared bindi, [the traditional Hindu mark] on the forehead. Now the covers are coming off sex. Jism. Murder 2. Dirty Picture. “Pushing the envelope seems to be just about jumping off the window nude,” complains Joshi.

“Sex is a non-issue. Get over it. It’s all over the net. My problem with this country is not about sex,” says filmmaker Anurag Kashyap. “It’s about politics and religion. Can I make a film that’s a simple conversation piece where two guys talk about the UPA and NDA governments and name names?”

Kashyap says the only reason his political film Black Friday was made so realistically using actual locales was because Midday, which financed it, didn’t know better. “It will never be made again,” he says bluntly.

“We Live on the Edge”

Fellow filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee agrees. “The unkindest cut in Love, Sex aur Dhoka  was a scene that talked about caste, not sex,” says Banerjee. He says he went with the cuts because he wanted the film to reach theaters.

“Filmmakers like us survive like guerilla rats. We live on the edge trying to garner prestige from the elite media.”

But it’s getting pretty crowded on that cutting-room edge. After all, Banerjee and Kashyap and fellow panelists Kiran Rao and Prakash Jha are not exactly out of work. They are getting to make their Dhobi Ghats and Aarakshans. But it’s easier to blame the suits for stifling all creativity in Bollywood.

“People won’t sit and read a script for merit,” complains actor Imran Khan. “They just look at the numbers. Delhi Belly was rejected by every studio. So was Wednesday.”

“The film industry is not about taking chances,” says Kiran Rao. “We need to invest in public space that promotes arts and culture. The multiplex is not the answer. The arts need encouragement. We need art houses and affordable, people-friendly spaces.”

In other words, build it and they will come.

True Rule Breakers

At a conference where there were true rule breakers, the filmmakers struck a bit of a whiny note. For instance, there was Dayamani Barla, the real-life domestic workers from Jharkhand, who took on the India’s largest steel plant. Another was Kopa Kunjam, the youth leader, who spent 22 months in jail after being falsely incarcerated for the murder of a sarpanch, or village leader, he tried to save.

The filmakers were rebels without much of a cause. Their films were being made and released. They were being feted for them, even if they weren’t necessarily getting rich.

But there was that nagging sense of someone who wanted it both ways – they sneered at the suits and their number-crunching pettiness and yet pined for their attention and generosity.

In fact, as Banerjee admits, sometimes big corporations and studios do invest the leftovers from their big budget masala blockbusters into edgier smaller films like a Dev D. “They also want to go to cocktail parties and talk about a Delhi Belly,” says Banerjee.

Everything that is wrong with Indian cinema is apparently because of someone else – the money-grubbing fat cats, the claustrophobic studio system, the gutless distributor, the out-of-touch censor board, the opportunistic politicians, the breathy tabloids, the all-powerful Khans.

“We have no community. Look at the French new wave,” laments Abhay Deol.

“The government makes us pay sales tax and entertainment tax,” complains Kiran Rao. “We have a lot of audience,” says Kashyap. “They are just not paying. My audience is the non-paying bit torrent downloading educated audience.”

It’s never about the director.

Prakash Jha comes the closest to taking responsibility as a filmmaker when he says, “My cinema is very compromised. I try to make them entertaining. It will also try to give a message. Most of the time it doesn’t.”

Mature By Rating, Not Sensibility

Yet in 2011 we want to feel grown up. And that includes our popular culture.

That’s why it makes perfect sense that we are seeing a lot more sex on screen these days. It’s adult by rating, not necessarily by sensibility. It allows us to confuse “a film for mature audiences” with an audience that is mature enough to embrace a film that’s thought provoking, nuanced, even disturbing.

So we look at Paoli Dam writhing on screen and pat ourselves on how far we have come. Look, we say, we are practically like the French now. Meanwhile around us the nanny state keeps expanding. No drinking until you are 25. No dancing in the pubs. No commentary on gods and goddesses in your art. No talking about anything that can upset anybody, subjects from Dalits [the “untouchables”] to Sonia Gandhi.

“Sex is now our guilty pleasure,” says Imran Khan. Watching it on screen gives us the comforting illusion that our taboos are shrinking as if liberation was all about libido. “But people’s personal freedoms are being eroded around them,” Khan adds. “And they just don’t notice.”