Bollywood directors discover sex sells

CINEMA audiences in India are in for a shock: a string of films featuring previously taboo story lines, explicit dialogue and sex scenes are hitting the country’s silver screen this summer.

Young film-makers have thrown away the mould of self-censorship that meant even passionless kissing rarely appeared on screen.

Bollywood studios have been stung after a series of flops attributed to the audience’s growing boredom with predictable plots and action. The industry is banking on the new films to break its losing streak.

But the new wave is more than just about making money. Bollywood’s departure signals a change in social attitudes that makes it acceptable to audiences who would once have shunned such erotic fare.

Economic liberalisation and satellite television with its Baywatch images changed all that. Even the Hindu Right, defenders of India’s traditional family values, has remained silent on Bollywood’s new wave.

By Western standards, Bollywood’s latest incarnation is still tame, but the lusty kissing, raunchy dialogue and no-holds-barred story lines are a refreshing eye-opener for Indian viewers.

Until now, sex was only hinted at - cut to flowers bumping in the breeze or birds necking. Sex was entirely absent from the mainstream Indian cinema.

Instead, the low-budget potboilers awarded adult certificates by censors would be screened for an exclusively male clientle in provincial morning shows. Their directors habitually spiced up the bland version that won censorship approval by re-inserting saucier scenes for distribution.

Yet the new mainstream films have been crafted for middle-class metropolitan viewers raised on MTV. Nudity is still out in what directors maintain are family films, but a lot of kissing, condoms and rampant female sexuality takes them a world away from the coy, fluttering eyelashes of yesteryear.

The film Jism, "body" in Hindi, broke the mould with a strong lead woman who unashamedly uses her body and her sexuality to get the men in her life to do as she wants.

Mahesh Bhatt, its director, knew the makers were taking a risk, but the film proved a huge success at the box office. Its achievement, and the rash of followers, prove India is shedding its Victorian attitudes to sex, a lingering hangover from the British.

"Sex is no longer a dirty word in Hindi cinema," said Mr Bhatt. "Earlier, good guys fell in love and bad guys fell in lust, but now, even good guys can have sex in our films."

Oops, which is out next month, will also push the boundaries. With two versions, one English and one Hindi, which might once have played to more conservative tastes - the movie tells of two male strippers trying to get rich quick - the film includes lots of smooching and a sex scene featuring a melting ice cube.

"Bollywood is finally growing up," said Deepak Tijori, the director of Oops. "It’s not just about boys chasing girls round trees any more. It had to end sometime. and I’m glad it’s finally happening. There are many such films on the stocks hoping to cross over to the international market, so they need universal themes."

With 17 lingering kisses - the critics counted - and lines from the breathless starlet such as: "I’m so horny", Khwahish also follows the pattern. "Before, that would have been unthinkable in a Hindi film," said its director, Govind Menon.

"India’s ultimate male fantasy is the shy woman who’s innocent and virginal. Somehow we’d never been able to divorce ourselves from that in film."

Amod Mehra, a film trade analyst, believes the changes are as much about commerce as art. He said: "It’s partly movies’ desperation to make money, but these are lower-budget films that can’t afford big-name stars, so they need something else to bring in the audiences. That’s sex."

It might be too soon to declare that Bollywood’s new wave signals the death of Indian conservatism. A Delhi-based sociologist, Patricia Uberoi, points to the split between what is acceptable to many people on a screen and the reality of their daily lives.

"There’s a great deal more tolerance to the visual display over what would have been expected a generation ago," she said.

"But the change is glacial. What happens on screen is compartmentalised. For most, it doesn’t belong to their lives. They still expect segregation of the sexes, arranged marriages and virgin brides."