Sex, lies and erotic desire

17 July 2013
Scene from the 1995 romantic comedy, Dilwale dulhaniya Le Jayenge - the longest running film in Indian history


Bolder television content made at home has helped change the way Indians view sex and challenge traditional gender roles, reports BELINDA CRANSTON.

When satellite television arrived in India in 1991, bolder content came with it.

Western produced programs like Bay Watch, featuring a voluptuous Pamela Anderson squeezed into a skimpy red swimsuit emerged. There was also the angst ridden, morally questionable story lines of The Bold and the Beautiful.

But audiences quickly tired of shows depicting life in Western countries, says professor of gender studies Purnima Mankekar.

"The novelty wore off. That's when (owners of) a lot of satellite companies realised that they would have to produce programs that were locally made," Mankekar, co-author of a new book, Media, Erotics and Transnational Asia explains.

Mankekar is in Canberra this week to give a lecture at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific on the same topic. The native-born Indian, who is now based at UCLA, has examined the portrayal of women in the Indian media since 1992.

She says locally made television soaps of the early 1990s were "fairly conservative in their depiction of erotic scenes”.

And yet, there was a demand for shows about women who not only fantasied about illicit sex, but who also went out of their way to fulfil their desires, mostly through extramarital and premarital relationships.

"It was more powerful than showing people having sex," Mankekar says of the resulting programs.

"It showed women who were heroines – they weren't wayward or bad women – they were like normal regular women.

"In fact, some of them were very courageous women. Their courage was depicted in terms of how they pursued erotic desire."

She makes it clear Western programs such as The Bold and the Beautiful did not pave the way for such content. Instead, Bollywood films shown at cinemas had always featured "very strong erotic content", but erotic plots on television were a novelty.

Television commercials were similarly racy, with the screening of condom advertisements that focused on the pleasure of women, rather than on family planning practices.

According to Mankekar, in one such advertisement, a woman was shown “in near orgasmic ecstasy”.

“It was unprecedented,” says Mankekar

However, there was a backlash against the saucy material – around the mid to the late 1990s, family friendly television shows started dominating program guides.

By the early years of the 21st century, programming was "fairly conservative" – nowadays, it was "sort of mixed,” says Mankekar.

"There is an emphasis on family unity," she says.

Indians living abroad, once portrayed as people who had betrayed their mother land, were also seen in a new light from the mid-1990s, through films portraying Indian women living in other lands as sexually and morally pure.

One such film, the 1995 romantic comedy, Dilwale dulhaniya Le Jayenge (The brave hearted will take away the bride), still plays to packed theatre houses – as at January this year, it had been playing at the Maratha Mandir theatre, Mumbai for 900 weeks.

Despite the passing of 20 years, the early 1990s period remains critical, Mankekar says.

"It created a space, an opening for certain types of discussions to take place, which had not happened, in the public sphere."

The period also challenged a common misconception that transnational media was content produced in the West, that was then distributed to Asia and other destinations.

As is evident in Mankekar’s book, a collection of essays co-authored by mostly US based anthropologists, Asia is not just the site of reception, but also an important part of production.

Mankekar is giving her presentation on Erotics, Media and Sociality in Transnational Asia at Lecture Theatre 1, Hedley Bull Centre, ANU from 6pm on Wednesday 17 July. Her talk is hosted by the College’s School of Culture, History and Language and supported by the ANU Gender Institute.



 

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