In the Tamil film Maadathy, Yosana, possibly teenaged, watches a shepherd wash himself near a river and her lips part in a slight smile, not in mirth but in pleasure. The camera takes on her gaze, drinking in his beautiful lean musculature. And when he peels off his clothes and dives in, the camera, like her, is not shy. It goes skinny-dipping with him, and shows him without obscuring his nakedness, a creature of this earth revelling in its elements. The pleasure(s) of the water on his skin are evident on his face, and soon Yosana goes in too, to watch and perhaps share the thrill of submitting to water. Later in Maadathy, we see Yosana following the young man gently, keeping an eye out for him and his donkeys, trailing him rather than stalking.

Still from ’Village ‘Maadathy
Still from ’Village ‘Maadathy

It is a reversal of the scene we know and expect, a young man watching a young woman bathe in a stream and perhaps hiding her clothes. It’s not just Mandakini in Ram Teri Ganga Maili and its various avatars, it is also the stories of Krishna and his dalliances by the Yamuna in the Mahabharat and our folk tales. We see a version of this in our advertisements too, from soaps to bath fittings—it’s the woman we see in glorious bathrooms (Shah Rukh Khan is the notable exception). We, the audience, are Krishna. But Radha and her girlfriends, do they not gaze and desire too?

“That day for the first time, I felt sweat break under my arm," the protagonist Meera says in a voice-over in the Kannada film Gantumoote, released on Amazon Prime in December. Meera had been crushing on her classmate Madhu, who has soft floppy hair like Salman Khan had in Hum Aapke Hain Koun…!, staring at him and making her interest clear. The day sweat breaks under her arm, Madhu’s friend tells her that Madhu likes her too. “The next day, I felt a bit awkward to go to school. I could hear my heartbeat. I was feverish, my stomach was churning. I felt like vomiting and loose motions." Have you heard a more detailed log of a young woman’s thrill at first love, a female edition of the hero falling-in-love songs Tumne Mujhe Dekha and Ek Ladki Ko Dekha—but far more honest and visceral?

In the Assamese film Village Rockstars (recently added to Netflix), India’s entry to the Oscars in 2018, the protagonist Dhunu’s adolescence is marked by being snatched away from the boys who are her childhood playmates when she gets her first period. She is wrapped in a sari, smeared with sindoor and anointed a woman in a coming-of-age ceremony, visibly shrunken by the sari and the rituals. The ceremony separates the friends—the two boys with whom Dhunu formed a rock band with a guitar and synthesizer made of thermocol, are now shy of her. We mostly see Dhunu alone after this. But in one of the loveliest sequences I have ever seen on film, Dhunu’s slight, sari-clad mother walks through the rice fields with a gleaming guitar strapped to her back like a rocker. It is likely a gift for her daughter’s coming-of-age, and Dhunu will strum the dream that gives this film its name after all. Despite the savage restrictions that Indian society places on young women, there is the suggestion that some of us might make room for dreams and desires.

The journey from childhood to adulthood, with the reckoning of sexual desire (and identity) as an important milestone, is known as the coming-of-age story, the Bildungsroman if you want to be fancy and German. It’s a prominent genre in the Western canon, in literature and all forms of storytelling really. The default setting of this story is male—how boy becomes man—Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations (so much of Charles Dickens really), A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, The Catcher In The Rye, the Harry Potter books. There is the odd woman’s story, Little Women, for example. Hollywood largely maintains this male setting—TheKarate Kid, The Graduate, Forrest Gump, The Lion King, Almost Famous, Moonlight, the Spiderman films even. The past decade and a half, there have been a handful of films about the woman’s arc to adulthood, with Juno, Frances Ha, Lady Bird and, of course, the classic Little Women in a number of editions. The latest of these, by the actor-director Greta Gerwig, has six Academy Award nominations this year, including best picture.

In Hindi cinema, we have the song Chocolate Lime Juice Ice Cream Toffiyan, with Madhuri Dixit in her bedroom in Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, perhaps the first explicit reference to a girl’s realization of her changing desires (this is not a coming-of-age story, only a window really). Some might say Kajol in the song Mere Khwabon Mein Jo Aaye a year later serves the same purpose, but it is more of a generic introduction to a dreamy young girl. In the former, we have the specific articulation that chocolates and lime juice are no longer attractions. By using food and taste, director Sooraj Barjatya succeeds in evoking bodily pleasures within his family-friendly canvas.

“What if I get pregnant?"Aishwarya Rai asks Salman Khan after they kiss in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. Do you remember a heroine explicitly hesitating about physical intimacy before this? In the handful of Hindi films that permitted the heroine premarital sex before the age of the internet, she looks free of nervousness when the fire crackles and the hour to touch bases arrives. Later in the film, Rai falls for both Khan and another man, her husband, with whom she has shared no physical intimacy.

Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam is like a novel in the arcs it draws for its three characters, the two young lovers and the mature husband. But Rai gets the most mileage in her story—from a girl who doesn’t know what a kiss is, to a woman who can understand what the heart wants. The source material of the story is the Bengali Na Hanyate by Maitreyi Devi, perhaps the first non-fiction account of sexual desire by a woman in India.

Then, in 2014 we have Queen, Kangana Ranaut’s full-fledged exploration of a girl coming into her own as a woman, sexually and emotionally, after being abandoned at her wedding. After she travels around Europe by herself, kisses an Italian chef and shares a hostel dorm with people from across the world, she realizes she enjoys being single.

The superb Hindi film Haraamkhor (2017) visits the life of a 15-year-old girl whose only confidant is the married schoolteacher with whom she is having an affair. I saw it as a story of her loneliness, which is perhaps what adolescence is defined by, even more than the hormones and sex, which doesn’t look very pleasurable for her. In fact, I liked the unsexiness of it, because much of adult life is unsexy, isn’t it? The reckoning with yourself, the confusion, the search for finding someone who “understands" you—the desires that shape coming-of-age questions are beautifully done. And there is actually one moment when you know she has come of age—her lover tells her their tryst is over, they should return to being student and teacher, and Shweta Tripathi says “okay" and turns around without asking for an explanation.

This is pretty much it. Consider, on the other hand, the number of boys-becoming-men Hindi films, and especially since the 2000s. Aside from Devdas in all its avatars, there is Dil Chahta Hai, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Lakshya, Udaan, Gully Boy, Bharat, the forthcoming Forrest Gump remake Laal Singh Chaddha and much of Ranbir Kapoor’s filmography, particularly Wake Up Sid, Rockstar, Tamasha, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, even Sanju, to name the prominent ones.

They are all about the same thing, aren’t they? Sorting out the confusion about sex and love, coming to terms with their parents and themselves, and almost always learning to behave less selfishly. Often, it is women who help them on their way—Konkona Sensharma teaches Ranbir Kapoor how to clean up after himself in Wake Up Sid, Deepika Padukone informs Arjun Kapoor in Finding Fanny that his moves in bed need improvement. Even in Dil Chahta Hai, it is Dimple Kapadia who gently helps Akshaye Khanna accept that every relationship need not fit a template.

How is it that the women in Hindi film are so sorted? Over the past decade in particular, we see women, like Taapsee Pannu’s Rumi in Manmarziyaan, Huma Qureshi’s Mohsina in Gangs Of Wasseypur and Parineeti Chopra’s Gayatri in Shuddh Desi Romance, who are sexually assertive, opinionated, non-coy, but we don’t see how they got to this confident place. Are they born princesses who were never frogs? How does Huma Qureshi have the presence of mind to tell Nawazuddin Siddiqui to ask “permission" to hold her hand? How are Rumi and Gayatri so blasé about sex? How did Bhumi Pednekar get so much action that she says sex is her hobby in Pati Patni Aur Woh?

Perhaps these questions were less important earlier, but with the specifics offered by internet porn, it is hard not to be anxious. How do we women, socialized in the economy of shame in South Asia, measure up to the calisthenics streamed online? How, when we lead ourselves from prudishness to adventure, how do we also keep ourselves from slipping out of safety?

It is the directness of the recent non-Hindi films that is charming, the way they unselfconsciously address the physicality of girls becoming women. In comparison, the Hindi film, with the odd exception of a Haraamkhor, feels somehow bashful even when it is telling compelling stories of women today. For some reason, they feel the need to dress it up in slick scenes of sex or songs about chocolates, or trips around Europe.

Sohini Chattopadhyay is a Kolkata-based journalist.

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