Bollywood’s recent sensation ‘Gehraiyaan’ has caused quite a stir. No matter how much I tried to avoid it, I was forced to hear my parents and their friends discuss Deepika Padukone’s steaming hot body, and the movie’s risqué portrayal of a modern love affair. An Indian child’s worst nightmare is probably having to talk to their parents about sex but there was so much to talk about. Stemming from the movie’s themes of intergenerational trauma, I decided to have a conversation with my mother and grandmother about sex, sensuality, and sensationalism.
My grandmother avoided the conversation for 3 days before I could dive right into the deep waters of ‘Gehraiyaan’. I asked what made them watch the movie and what they liked about it. My grandmother curiously said that the buzz had reached her circle. She was scared to answer my questions because with her house-help always around she had to forward through too many intimate scenes and didn’t grasp the plot. My mother’s reasons were similar, with the addition of social media hype. She liked the modernness and aesthetics of the movie, and more importantly Deepika Padukone’s acting, her real reason for watching it. The trailer piqued my curiosity for how dangerous it felt – a mainstream film about infidelity that isn’t a comedy? I was sold. There was a lot to like about Gehraiyaan, but perhaps my favourite thing was how much it left me to think about. I was expecting a film packed with sex and hadn’t anticipated the real conversations the film attempted to start. From intergenerational trauma to strained family dynamics to feeling stuck in the banality of life, there was something for everyone.
My grandmother believed that Gehraiyaan’s portrayal of intimacy on screen strongly goes against Indian values. When asked why it’s okay for Hollywood to do the same thing she retorted “but we aren’t sitting in Hollywood”. What she meant was that the masses that don’t understand consent will not appreciate the movie for what it is but rather take the portrayal of sex in the mainstream as an excuse to do as they please. In some ways, she changed my opinion. At times I feel largely disconnected from the majority of the country. While I’m not saying that ‘Indian values’ are universally shared or should censor our media, I do believe we have to be cognizant of how this media will be received across all sectors of society. Yet I hope that normalising sex and intimacy will do more good than harm. The idea of watching two Indian adults embracing at will feels both freeing and unfathomable. Showing a live-in relationship in itself felt revolutionary in a country where arranged marriages take place without the bride and groom ever seeing each other. My mother agreed that the portrayal of intimacy is definitely a step forward but some things will just never fit in. While she is used to watching intimacy in western media, she acknowledged that the majority does not have access to the same information and resources as us when it comes to sex education.
My grandmother said that intimate scenes like these were never shown in the past. My mother instantly disagreed saying that from as early as the 50s and 60s, song and dance have been a stand-in for sexual acts. Whether it is the use of item songs, innuendos such as ‘choli ke peeche kya hain’ or rain and blossoming flowers to sanitise the portrayal of sexual desire, it has always been here. Only now it isn’t happening behind closed doors. My grandmother still felt that these examples were modern and compared them to the classical Indian music of Lata Mangeshkar. To her, Gehraiyaan felt more scandalous than a little bit of dancing in an item song or any sexual acts that were merely implied and not shown. I believe a large reason for disapproval amongst the Indian audience comes from the fact that Gehraiyaan didn’t simply have a palatable item song where the woman exists for the pleasure of men watching her. Here, Deepika’s character Alisha had agency and made decisions for her own pleasure.
I could barely remember the sex scenes because of how nuanced the subplots were and because the West has desensitised me to portrayals of sex on screen. The internet also allows me to have all the answers I need right at my fingertips and the idea of watching a barely sexual scene just doesn’t feel as salacious. My mother has faced similar desensitisation but her media consumption begins and ends with what she watches on Netflix. The addition of a few odd sex scenes was enough to provide her a mild distraction from the rest of the movie. To my grandmother, it became a barrier in watching the movie entirely.
The one thing we all could agree on was that sex sells, and hypersexualisation for the purpose of making a profit was not a great motive for portraying intimacy. My grandmother was convinced that just like item songs, all instances of sex in media are to sell more units. However, I didn’t believe that director Shakun Batra’s motives aligned with this complaint. The intimate scenes didn’t serve the singular purpose of shock value and were an integral part of the plot, without which certain storylines would not work. I do think that the trailer intentionally sensationalised the movie to generate public interest and it worked! The movie was a big risk and if that’s what we need to get an Indian audience to tune in then so be it.
My grandmother thought that openly talking about sex to younger generations is very important. She also said that awareness is required but only of the ‘right things.’ I’m not entirely sure what falls within the boundaries of right and wrong, but I was surprised at her agreement. This is also a good time to mention that in our half an hour-long conversation, my grandmother never once used the word ‘sex’ and only referred to it as ‘those scenes.’ My mother asked her why she never gave her a sex talk and she replied that she was told all that was required and if her children ever had questions she would answer them. To be fair, my mother never had the talk with me either but as I get older it feels comforting knowing I can go to her to have these conversations.
It’s ironic how Indians love a good romance but will squirm at the portrayal of intimacy. While shying away from sex in media will always feel like a safer option, at many levels, it feels like hindering progress. Luckily, OTT platforms are allowing creative freedom and more diverse narratives, including the portrayal of sex and intimacy, that traditional cinema would not have allowed. Given how influenced we are by Bollywood. I wonder if our country would be more progressive today if our censor board didn’t exist 50 years ago.
Reya Daya is a third-year student, studying psychology and media studies at Ashoka University. Her other interests include writing, photography and music.
Picture Credits: Amazon Prime Video
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