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Love, sex and the bhadralok

Sudha G Tilak | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on December 16, 2016
Tell tale: A still from Khawto, a 2016 film in which the lead character, essayed by actor Prosenjit Chatterjee, narrates tales of his sexcapades to a newly married couple. Photo: Shree Venkatesh Films

Tell tale: A still from Khawto, a 2016 film in which the lead character, essayed by actor Prosenjit Chatterjee, narrates tales of his sexcapades to a newly married couple. Photo: Shree Venkatesh Films

Birthing a cult: Q’s film Gandu, the story of a listless youth in Kolkata and his sexual arc, was an underground success

Birthing a cult: Q’s film Gandu, the story of a listless youth in Kolkata and his sexual arc, was an underground success

Breaking away Rii, who has several frontal nudity scenes in Q’s films, with a co-actor in Gandu

Breaking away: Rii, who has several frontal nudity scenes in Q’s films, with a co-actor in Gandu

Different strokes Nirbaak, a film by Srijit Mukherji, in which a tree in a Kolkata park is aroused by leading lady Sushmita Sen image courtesy shree venkatesh films

Different strokes: Nirbaak, a film by Srijit Mukherji, in which a tree in a Kolkata park is aroused by leading lady Sushmita Sen. Photo: Shree Venkatesh Films

Spotlight The Central
Board of Film
Certification was
refused to Pratim D
Gupta’s Shaheb Bibi
Golaam for many
months owing to
“savage sexual scenes”

Spotlight: The Central Board of Film Certification refused to clear Pratim D Gupta’s Shaheb Bibi Golaam for many months owing to “savage sexual scenes”

Sex and counterculture lead the way in contemporary Bengali cinema, while Bollywood’s self-styled gurus still have issues about essaying romance, rejection and passion

Many years ago, my Punjabi editor in Delhi had pronounced, “South Indian cinema is all about sex and dirty talk”, and looked at me accusingly. “Now, Bengali cinema is not like that at all,” he continued, dreamily rattling off the names of the masters in Kolkata and their films replete with elegant frisson. He wondered aloud that the “Bongs, who are sexy otherwise”, were not given to vulgar displays, like my country cousins, insinuating an Our Films, Their Films divide on celluloid sexual mores.

Given that said editor has fallen off the map there has been no time to share the news that sex is out in the open in Bengali cinema. And how! Bengali multiplex mainstream films, as well as an eyeball-catching underground cinema currently deal with adult themes and content with aplomb: To shock, to tease, to thrill. And, in the process, make sex — in its various forms — integral to the characterisation and storytelling.

“Sex is a natural aspect of human life, so why hide it in the storytelling?” asks filmmaker Srijit Mukherji, currently the toast of Bengal’s film lovers.

There is the quintessential intense romance, almost always accompanied by the recitation of Bengali poetry, elegant frisson and quivering restraint ( Noukadubi, Chokher Bali among others); sexual disharmony in urban marriages ( Bedroom, Shukno Lanka, Charulata 2011); infidelity ( Dosar, Ekla Akash, Aparajita Tumi); and Oedipal mess ( Icche, Takhan Teish). Then there are characters plunging into breathless self-pleasuring, and even a tree, in a Kolkata park, aroused by Sushmita Sen’s beauty ( The Japanese Wife, Charulata 2011, Bheetu, Nirbaak); couples cuddling and canoodling (oh, so many); absurd adult comedies ( Obhishopto Nighty); aching embraces and passionate make-outs (where do we start, though the recent Khawto is one such); virtual heartache ( Antaheen, Ami Aar Amar Girlfriends); modern casual sex and easy romance ( Aamra, Kolkata Calling, Bong Connection); same-sex love ( Chitrangada, Family Album, Chha-e Chhuti, Arekti Premer Golpo, Memories in March); BDSM ( Shaheb Bibi Golaam); full frontal nudity ( Chatrak, Cosmic Sex, Gandu); a sisterhood of sexual vendetta ( Bishh); politics of sex workers ( Koyekta Meyer Golpo, Rajkahini); body-shaming of a flat-chested heroine ( Shunyo E Buke); a Bengali hubby entreating his haughty wife: “ Ekta blow job debe (Will you give me a blow job)?” ( Maach, Mishti & More); and the ridiculous Thammar Boyfriend (meaning grandmom’s boyfriend). Langto or ‘naked’ claimed to be transgressive and ticked off the boxes in an edgy movie menu — smoked out, loud make-out scenes, penile discussions.

The breathless, lip-smacking promotions and social media glee that accompany a Bollywood release’s onscreen kissing appears infantile when compared to what is unspooling from Tollygunge (Kolkata’s filmmaking hub) today. Love, sex and profanity in the time of Udta Punjab seems “vulgar and unintelligent” in the land that leads in matters of love and lust through cinema.

Of course, this is not to say that this brand of Bengali cinema does not encounter its share of hurdles. Controversy dogged Shaheb Bibi Golaam that saw its producers up in arms against the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), which refused to clear the film owing to “savage sexual scenes”, high erotic content and objectionable dialogues. One of the certifying committee members was the Kolkata-based actor and politician George Baker, who has given able company to Bengali actress Moon Moon Sen in a let’s-scorch-the-sheets scene in Bow Barracks Forever (2004), in which they play middle-aged lovers.

An irate Pratim D Gupta, the director of Shaheb..., clarified that the film was a thriller and not a take on the Bimal Mitra classic, and defiantly opted for an international release at the New York Indian Film Festival in May. The film — starring Tollywood’s enfant terrible Swastika Mukherjee, the award-winning Ritwick Chakraborty and Anjan Dutt — finally released in August this year after six months of wrangling with the CBFC.

A long-time film critic himself, Gupta has seen Bengali cinema open up to erotic content in recent decades and is, therefore, appalled by the adverse reaction to his film.

Swastika Mukherjee says, “Actors like me have made a conscious decision to make movies that explore different aspects of life, including sexuality, and censorship battles are a part of the challenge to bring sex into the mainstream and demystify it.”

Rituparna Sengupta has said in the past, of her film Charulata 2011, that the scenes of her sliding down her panties or self-pleasuring depict the character’s sexual fulfilment and void respectively. Intimate scenes are dictated by the story, and innuendoes can make it seem vulgar, she emphasised.

In June, there was an uproar over the halting of the screening of Amitabh Chakraborty’s Cosmic Sex at Kolkata’s haloed art venue Nandan. Filmmakers Bedabrata Pain and National Award winner Buddhadeb Dasgupta condemned the disruption, citing creative freedom. The film has a youth fleeing home after committing patricide over Oedipal jealousy. He finds solace in the company of a group of free-spirited bauls, itinerant mystic folk musicians of Bengal, and especially a mother figure, with whom he has sex.

The Shaheb Bibi Golaam censorship battle and the disrupted screening of Cosmic Sex come across as a knee-jerk reaction in an industry that has been quite blasé about its adult content in recent times. As Srijit says, “Bengal’s been battling ahead of Bollywood’s censor troubles.” His last Bengali film, Rajkahini, about a bunch of spunky sex workers who take on the violence during the Partition in East Bengal, “was a censorship milestone”. The film is being remade in Hindi with Vidya Balan playing the feisty Madame.

Right now, award-winning Bengali heroes and heroines are displaying their skills in self-love at the altar of Onan in mainstream films; Bangla swearing, at once indelicate and gross for genteel bhadralok ears, are spouted as part of street lingo in the movies; transgender love, indie films, underground material that push the limits of porn, and steeped in Bengali storytelling — even that evergreen muse, Rabindranath Tagore’s verses are set to hip-hop and risqué storytelling and filmmaking. There’s nothing too sacred to be held down on screen, including sex.

Cult filmmaker Q courted controversy with Gandu (2010). A film about a listless youth in Kolkata and his sexual arc, it became an underground success. His next, Tasher Desh (2012) — described as “a trippy adaptation” of a Tagore classic about a prince seeking freedom and revolution — again shocked the bhadralok with its disruptive fantasy.

Q (“Qaushik Mukherjee is dead. Don’t call me that. You don’t call Snoop Dogg, Cordozar Calvin Broadus, do you?”) takes the resistance to his brand of filmmaking and its edgy sexuality on the chin. However, he is quick to point out that sexuality in Bengali society, and now in films, is only a natural progression as history showed a tendency towards paganism and fecund goddess worship. Westernisation, which arrived early in Bengal, helped to articulate it in art — be it literature, painting and, later on, cinema, he says.

A thought echoed by actor Paoli Dam. Chatrak (2011), an Indo-Sri Lankan production, had raised eyebrows, especially the scene showing Dam receiving oral sex from her co-star. Now a mainstay in Bengali mainstream productions, she recalls that her frontal nudity had halted regular projects coming her way for a while.

“My attitude to nudity or sex scenes is no different from my approach to other emotional scenes,” says Dam. She finds it easier working on such movies in Bengali (her Bollywood foray Hate Story sank despite her naked back on posters) given the “liberal atmosphere that prevails. It’s a part of the culture even in middle-class homes to be surrounded by European art, nudes or otherwise, movies, poetry that made the erotic accessible.”

Srijit concurs, saying that “having middle-class parents introduce French cinema early on in one’s boyhood” and a permissive culture that adopts the arts early on into bourgeois life helps. Chakraborty has said in an interview that he found it easier to act in “real” scenes that show him as a self-pleasuring neighbourhood creep, for instance, than “running around trees” in song sequences.

Actor Rii, who has pushed the envelope with frontal nudity in Q’s films, had likewise said in an interview that “Sexuality is about woman power” and she feels that her naked body is as much a tool for cinematic purposes as her face.

She is not wrong. Strong female leads and filmmakers who have always been sensitive to the female position in relationships have put sex out there on screens from early on. Satyajit Ray’s Ghaire Baire spoke of emancipation from the zenana and seeking new experiences, sexual and intellectual. Actor and director Aparna Sen’s Parama had intimate scenes as the leading lady struggled with loneliness and self-realisation in her marital home.

The general ease with which adult content and sexual intimacy are introduced in Bengali cinema is also ascribed to “the new possibilities that have emerged for bringing such content to forums of public discussion and to art in urban India. For Bengali cinema, however, an additional factor is the withdrawal of cinema into a closed urban middle-class enclave, which, perhaps, permits a certain thematic licence, albeit being limited in scope”, points out Prof Moinak Biswas, department of film studies, Jadavpur University.

As Bollywood heaves over its item numbers and south Indian cinema still holds misogyny as its mainstay, Bengali cinema is busy sexing it up.

Sudha G Tilak is a Delhi-based journalist

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Published on December 16, 2016
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