(This article by Anna MM Vetticad was first published in the Hindustan Times’ Brunch Bollywood Special Collectors’ Edition in the summer of 2013)
LOOK WHO’S WATCHING
BOLLYWOOD HAS FINALLY DISCOVERED THE FEMALE GAZE. ABOUT TIME TOO!
A feminist’s grateful nod to John Abraham, Hrithik Roshan, Salman, Shah Rukh and the rest of their shirtless colleagues for acknowledging the female eye.
By Anna MM Vetticad
It’s amazing how many sensible men are convinced that women don’t have hormones. Maybe this conviction arises from a fear of discovering that their mothers might sometimes be driven by unmentionable female body parts; and worse, that their mothers might, just might, have had sex to procreate.
But the reason lies largely in another possibility: that few of these men source their information about women from women. What follows are blanket assumptions: that women are not sexual beings and therefore, that men could never be objects of heterosexual female longing.
The truth is far from it, and for a change the Hindi film industry has made – and acknowledged – this discovery ahead of most of our society.
Never before was Bollywood’s bow to the female gaze more evident than in Vicky Donor in 2012. Making a guest appearance in the song Rum whiskey, actor-turned-producer John Abraham went beyond the by-now-common scenario of a leading male star going shirtless to reveal a fabulous body. There was John dancing when suddenly, for no apparent reason except that we were expecting him to oblige us, he stood still and two ladies stripped him topless. Other women hosed his bare torso, while he stretched out both arms as if to say: ladies, do as you please with me.
Bless him! Up to the 1980s, female sexuality rarely found overt expression in mainstream Hindi cinema beyond the “cabaret girl”. Unlike the usually asexual or apologetically sexual heroine of those times, the cabaret girl wore skimpy clothes, danced raunchy dances and even had sex. The flipside was that she was always a supporting actress playing the male villain’s sidekick or making a one-dance appearance; and while she provided eye candy to male viewers, there was no male equivalent catering to a female audience.
Though a sprinkling of heroes had taken off their shirts on screen in previous decades, Sanjay Dutt and Sunny Deol in the 1980s were among the earliest to be consistently body proud. It was their junior Salman Khan though who pioneered persistent shirtlessness.
If the initial goal was admiration from male viewers, these heroes got an unexpected bonus as many Indian women – conditioned to be reticent about their appreciation of male good looks – began to air their hormones in public.
The change was driven by economics. The number of women in the workforce had been rising; this meant more women making their own film-viewing decisions instead of depending on fathers, boyfriends and husbands; it also meant more women confident enough to openly cheer at great-looking, bare-bodied heroes.
And so by the turn of the century, when fitness-conscious leading ladies became the norm, leading men followed suit. Cabaret girls of the pre-1990s gave way to “item girls” and gradually, “item boys”. Though male viewers remain Bollywood’s priority, women are now less ignored.
So why has the male gaze historically ruled global cinema? Simple. In a male-dominated society, it is assumed that a human being is a man unless specified otherwise. In a film world led by male producers and directors (all heterosexual or closet homosexual), it is similarly assumed that the audience is male and heterosexual unless specified otherwise. Films therefore have not presented men as objects of heterosexual female desire, the assumption being that women are not keen on such visuals since the creators of these films are not.
Today’s Hindi film heroes seem to disagree. Cameras now embrace their every rippling muscle as lovingly as those lingering shots that were once devoted to the female body. The female gaze on heroes is even more pronounced in films by Bollywood’s handful of mainstream women directors. Remember, it took a Farah Khan to put the national spotlight on SRK’s abs in 2007’s Om Shanti Om.
Sadly, the bodylicious hero’s success with women has not yet led Bollywood’s production majors to realise that there’s a vast female audience out there yearning for well-made women-themed mass entertainers produced as lavishly as male-centric projects.
For today though, let’s just see our glass as half full. For today, let’s bask in the pleasure that our modern-day male Helens give us.
In fact, well-meaning activists unwittingly perpetuate a new double standard when they lobby the Central Board of Film Certification to clamp down on female-centric item numbers while ignoring the “item”-isation of heroes. Objectification – whether of men or women – should not be objectionable if the goal is to inoffensively please the gazer while celebrating the sexuality of the gazee. It’s only when the “object” is degraded and demeaned (as when Kareena Kapoor is equated with a “tandoori murgi” in Fevicol se), that it becomes our responsibility to disapprove.
The equitable objectification of both genders today is that rare ray of hope for women actors and audiences in an otherwise male-focused industry. This egalitarianism is epitomised by 2008’s Dostana which featured a bikini-clad Shilpa Shetty while John Abraham posed in golden trunks and later absent-mindedly scratched his bottom as he wandered around in briefs. In 2012, Rani Mukerji spent the entire film Aiyyaa fantasising about the delectable Prithviraj.
Women, you see, do have hormones after all. Just ask our boys in Bollywood.
(Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. She is on Twitter as )
Photograph courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/BeingSalmanKhan
Note: This poster of Jai Ho was not published in the magazine. For the record, this article was written several months before the release of that film.