In the 1979 film Noorie, the strikingly lovely, passionate yet shy heroine played by Poonam Dhillon commits suicide before her wedding because she is raped. It was a brutal assault on her sense of self and safety. But cinematically it was mounted to show the heroine’s inability to face shame and her would-be husband’s social ridicule because she was no longer “chaste". The only way left to protect the husband’s honour was by killing herself. Rape may be an uneasy instance to offset an argument on virginity, a much-valued attribute in Hindi cinema for many decades, but that extremity helps make the point.

Though it is a scientific fact that a woman’s hymen can be ruptured even by a rough horse ride, virginity continued to be sanctified in Hindi cinema. Associated with sacrifice, purity, chastity, idealism, perfection, and an aspect of “Indian values" in a woman, it set a certain bar for the heroine. Authority was asserted through a veneer of romantic respectability, an absurd way to wield power. The virginal mystique of a woman who saves her sexual innocence for her husband was given a haloed status. Never mind if the man didn’t even remember where he had lost his. In other words, in films, a woman’s body was used for narrating stories of love, war, revenge and power, and certainly those of restraint, dignity and conventional Indian femininity. No lust or wantonness. Or as social scientist Shiv Viswanathan says, “The history of the woman in Hindi cinema was only told through her body, never through her desires."

Sharmila Tagore and Rajesh Khanna in Aradhana.

“Popular cinema is a very complex terrain with dual narratives of liberalism and conservatism. Aradhana was a good instance of that. We love Tagore in the film, because that pregnant-before-marriage bit is countered by selfless motherhood, the loss of her virginity is not demonized," points out Shohini Ghosh, professor at AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

Viswanathan agrees, “Virginity is part of a patriarchal socio-contract. It has no use without a patriarch. The woman was just the carrier, an index of what the man wanted. To understand it, you must trace it back to how motherhood was glorified in films as the embodiment of sacrifice and purity."

Virginity has had many bedfellows in cinema. If it got place of pride in the anxious shyness of the red-robed bride fluttering her eyelashes during the deeply romanticized ritual of the suhaag raat (wedding night), it also coloured “pure-minded and pure-bodied" widows. Asha Parekh in the 1970 hit Kati Patang and Padmini Kolhapure in Prem Rog (1982), both don the widow’s white garb. One to keep up a charade, the other to live out her karmic fate till she is rescued by destined love. Both are totally immaculate till they dissolve into the arms of their lovers after every sanction has been acquired.

A woman’s bodily purity had little to do with what she wanted. “Desire emphasizes the self, virginity emphasized repression," says Viswanathan, adding that only after films made virginity incidental, a woman’s autobiography began to be written. But film critic Shubhra Gupta who writes for The Indian Express says she would use the term “agency" instead of “autobiography". “Women are still not writing or telling their own stories. Hindi films still have an overarching male point of view. Though things have shifted in the last 10 years, Bollywood is deeply misogynistic and patriarchal," she says. “It should have been different given the Bhatt brothers’ long time focus on a woman’s sexuality. Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth (1982) gave Shabana Azmi the freedom to say no to Raj Kiran and walk away. She had agency. But Bollywood took a long time to get rid of the kissing swans and nodding flowers," says Gupta. She adds that Rani Mukerji going to bed with Saif Ali Khan in the 2004 film Hum Tum and emerging unscathed was also a turning point in the virginity narrative.

Virginity was not invented as an ideal by Hindi cinema; it was a beloved social virtue in post-independence society, expected from the girl in an arranged marriage. But films intensified its aura by romanticizing it. Madhuri Dixit’s raunchy choli act in Khal Nayak (1993) created a marvellous loophole where a desirous, unmarried woman makes a sexual pass at a man but it stopped short of toppling the balance or swerving the story. Dixit retreated into her dupatta to re-emerge as the avenging Ganga, pure and holy, playing a police officer.

Yet stories would change. The “tension around women’s sexuality has begun to ease and there is a dismantling of myths around virginity," says Ghosh, adding that while sex still is filmed as a tainting experience, as in Ishaqzaade (2012), Hindi films have separated love from sex even for a woman. Gupta, on the other hand, says that the Habib Faizal-written Band Baajaa Baaraat (2010) was a good instance of this change; in it, Anushka Sharma has premarital sex with Ranveer Singh. “It is the culmination of the change seen in the last decade. Now the heroine has sex for its own sake, not because of circumstance, the situation or because it is the last option," she adds. Band Baajaa Baaraat made the point, but softly, as the lead pair still end up together. Unlike Sushant Singh Rajput and Parineeti Chopra in Shuddh Desi Romance (2013), where a live-in-relationship eventually proves to be more attractive than marriage.

If the woman’s sexual curiosities and experiments began to open up between Arth and Hum Tum, then between Hum Tum and Shuddh Desi Romance this pursuit became passionate. Films haven’t shaken off the hero’s ultimate hold over the narration and the plot, or what Gupta calls “two steps forward and two steps backward", but the glorious absurdity around virginity has stopped creating noise. Instead of being hush hush and intense but momentary, it gets reel time. What Ghosh calls “tension around a woman’s sexuality" has got replaced by flagrant erotic tension. In Ghanchakkar (2013), Vidya Balan asks Emraan Hashmi to get a condom, not a wedding ring.

The examples pile up: Mahie Gill takes nude pictures of herself on the phone to send to Abhay Deol in Dev.D (2009) with whom she frolics in the sack; Kareena Kapoor sleeps with the insanely possessive Ajay Devgn in Omkara (2006) before marital commitment could be promised; or Deepika Padukone and Saif Ali Khan, high on sex, music and fun in Love Aaj Kal (2009). Earlier this year in 2 States, Alia Bhatt and Arjun Kapoor were seen having premarital sex in their college hostel as if they were habitually brushing their teeth.

Gupta says she would like to believe that the glass is half full. While she is still waiting for that one film where the agency will be taken totally by a woman, she believes Vishal Bhardwaj’s films do make a feminist point now and then. “However fleeting the references of women with agency, in Maqbool (2003), between Tabu and Irrfan Khan, the heroine has that ‘yes, I want it’ moment. In Haider (2014) again, it is she who looks at Kay Kay Menon with that intent."

By the end of 2014, virginity as the gateway to chastity has been shown the door. Heroines use contraception, unlike Tagore in Aradhana, won’t stand by and lose inheritance rights because of a ruptured hymen and will fight back if raped instead of committing suicide.

Despite that, most films conclude with the girl eventually settling down with the man who first took her to bed (even in Rajkumar Hirani’s PK). In such stories, after a long meandering, it is the first lover who turns out to be the man who unconditionally and genuinely loves her, who stands by her and claps when she succeeds. In its most naked form, Hindi cinema still has a virginity hangover.

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