When the towel drops: sexuality, censorship and cinema


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IN November, 2007, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya hiccupped before release: a Censor cut on its much-publicised towel-dropping scene nicked a climactic shot that would have provided a glimpse of the (presumably delectable) derriere of its near-nude debutant hero Ranbir Kapoor. Bhansali agreed to the cut in lieu of an ‘A’ certificate. Incidentally, Ranbir’s father Rishi Kapoor in his debut film Bobby (1973) had dropped his towel successfully; Rahul Bose had dropped his trousers in full gaze of his audience in Split Wide Open (1999). The stylized ‘Jab Se Tere Naina’ song sequence in Saawariya (in which Kapoor, bathed in luminosity, floats sexily around a room partially clad in a diaphanous white towel) remains, despite the Censor Board’s best efforts, an extremely eroticized scene.

In September 2006, Sharmila Tagore, Chairperson of the Indian Censor Board was reported to have announced that the board was asking for an ‘A+’ or ‘X’ rating for films so that there would be no need for censoring scenes for ‘explicit’ language or actions. Tagore also said that while the board under her leadership was not averse to kissing scenes, she did not, unlike her predecessor Vijay Anand, endorse the screening of pornographic content in films, saying: ‘I don’t think society or the Indian people are ready for it. There’s a cultural difference between India and the rest of the world.’1 In the same year, however, a lawyer in Bhopal filed a case against Aishwarya Rai and Hrithik Roshan for obscenity, saying that their kissing scene in Dhoom 2 (2006) lowered the dignity of women for its vulgarity. Though the Censor Board had given Dhoom 2 a ‘parental discretion’ certificate, the case was admitted in the lower court for consideration.2


In June 2005, Tamil film star Khushboo found herself in a huge national controversy for saying at an AIDS awareness meet that she did not think that there was anything wrong with premarital sex as long as it was safe. And while other female actors/celebrities like Sushmita Sen and Sania Mirza publicly supported her comment as well as her right to freedom of speech, Khushboo was finally forced to apologize for offending many sections of the Indian community by her outspokenness. It is interesting that in the same year, at least two popular Hindi films, Salaam Namaste and Neal n Nikki (both 2005), flamboyantly celebrated premarital sex and ‘live-in’ relationships.

Ten years ago, when the sexuality-cinema-censorship debates hit headlines with Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1997), the so-called ‘first Indian lesbian film’, many questions were raised around rights and representations on celluloid, but obviously, none have been successfully resolved in the decade since. The snapshots above, even if they appear innocuous, provide glimpses into our contemporary socio-cultural plight, a plight plagued by confusion and complication even as the worldwide web has insinuated its burgeoning presence into our lives and is fast rendering the very notion of censorship ineffectual.


How did it matter, for example, that the offending Aishwarya Rai-Hrithik Roshan kiss in Dhoom 2 was allegedly ‘cut’ from later screenings of the film, when the delicious snippet was freely available to watch on YouTube? The other ‘kiss controversies’ of the recent past – all involving film star/lets, intriguingly enough, be it Shilpa Shetty/Richard Gere, or Bipasha Basu/Christiano Ronaldo – have been off-screen lip-locks that received the censure of a certain high-moral public brigade, even as kisses and other fairly-explicit sexual gestures and acts in a vast range of films have generally slipped past the censors, unless they inexplicably raised the ire of some noise-making viewer and resulted in a knee-jerk reaction from the board, as in the strange case of Dhoom 2. (This was made stranger by gossip that the banishing of the lip-lock scene was instigated by the Bachchans, the family Rai was to join through marriage with Abhishek, who also starred in the film in question).3

Confusions about sexed/sexy/sexualized images and identities continue to abound, compounded not merely by a divided public opinion but also in equal measure by those in various positions of power in and around the industry: censors, directors, actors, producers and film critics. How is it possible to find a consistent story around cinematic censorship in India, where there is no definite pattern of thought on the creation, production and reception of ‘sexy’ images?


Amidst all the bewildering confusion, however, there emerges a single ideological consensus: that most strident or shrill demands for censorship around sex and sexuality are focused on women – what they do and say, how they are shown or not shown, how ‘vulgar’ their representations are, with very little attention paid to how the control of women’s speech, bodies and actions – through obscene representations or through censorship – is both instigated and sustained by aged patriarchies.

Indeed, a section on ‘the need for censorship’ in the Report of the Working Group on National Film Policy (1980) is a testament to how oblivious, as well as resistant, institutions of government are to changing social parameters: ‘Particularly in the context of a hyper-conservative society like India, which has rigid social and religious norms of behaviour, where the political consciousness has still not matured and where harsh economic conditions inhibit individual growth, there are bound to be serious limitations on the freedom of expression.

‘In this situation, any system of formal censorship is bound to come under heavy pressure on the one hand from the traditional elements in society who want to preserve status quo and, therefore, demand rigid standards of censorship, and on the other hand from artists and intellectuals who challenge the status quo and, therefore, want maximum liberalization. The latter are ironically supported by market manipulators who demand complete freedom to depict anything which is likely to sell. We feel that if the overall objective of censorship is to safeguard generally accepted standards of morality and decency, in addition to the well recognized interests of the State, the standards of censorship applicable to freedom of expression cannot be very much ahead of the standards of behaviour commonly accepted in the society. Censorship can become liberal only to the extent that society itself becomes genuinely liberal.’4


Censorship of films in India is still governed by The Cinematograph Act of 1952, along with the Cinematograph (Promulgation) Rules of 1983 and the guidelines issued on 6 December 1991. An examination of the guidelines issued by the Central Board of Film Certification reveals an emphasis on a censorship that will uphold the ‘morality’ and ‘decency’ of society, and a constant fear that the ‘film does not deprave the morality of the audience.’5 However, in section 14.25, the report states: ‘We also feel that in granting an "A" certificate, a puritanical approach towards depiction of sex should not be adopted but a stricter view should be taken regarding the depiction of excessive, sadistic and debasing violence.’6

So what, then, is the role of censorship in the contexts of women and cinema in India in this new millennium? The Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act of 1986 that made punishable by law the ‘depiction in any manner of the figure of a woman, her form or body or any part thereof in such a way as to have the effect of being indecent or of being derogatory or denigrating women or is likely to deprave, corrupt or injure public morality or morals’7 sparked a significant feminist anti-censorship movement. As Flavia Agnes argued cogently, the definitions of ‘obscenity’, ‘indecency’ and ‘morality’ in the bill were questionable,8 inferring that female sexuality was not to be recognized or represented, and that ‘upholding the dignity of women’ meant reducing them to asexual beings.

The Indecent Representation Bill, in fact, holds the dubious distinction of very publicly polarizing Indian feminists on the issue of censorship. As with the pornography debates in the West, the secular Indian women’s movement has found itself divided on the issue of the representation of sexualized women/female sexualities, and a section of feminists have repeatedly argued for ‘reasonable restrictions’ (in the form of censorship) to protect women against sexual exploitation through representation.


The clear danger in advocating any kind of censorship is related, of course, to the question of subjective interpretation: What is ‘obscene’ rather than ‘aesthetic’? Does a woman have the right to decide how much she will expose of her body? Does an adult audience have the right to choose what it will view? Whose morality is being imposed as a diktat through the censorship of sexual images? While feminists are obviously agreed on the necessity to protect women from ‘patriarchal’ domination and exploitation which, often enough, is indeed exhibited through sexual harassment, degradation and humiliation, the difference lies in the understanding of ways in which such exploitation and domination may be checked.


Those who advocate a ‘reasonable’ censorship of sexualized representations believe that the purity – and thereby, the safety – of women may be protected by an erasure of such images from the public domain. For those of us who are opposed to censorship of any kind for the adult, consenting viewer, the protection of an inviolate female chastity lies on a continuum with the oppression of women into silent, acquiescent, domestic roles that satisfy the hungering for that very domination that we are looking to eradicate.

Sexual identities for women within a conservative, traditional understanding have always attempted to confine them within certain well-demarcated normative roles. As Ratna Kapur has pointed out, ‘In India, motherhood, wifehood, domesticity, marriage, chastity, purity, and self-sacrifice constitute the primary features of normative sexuality.’9 Kapur goes on to argue that over the past two decades, sexual subalterns have begun to challenge normative sexuality in new ways, and contemporary controversies around sex/sexuality are proof that sex is no longer seen solely as a negative, contaminating force that needs to be contained, while the re-conceptualization of sexual speech and expression as a right has simultaneously posed a cultural challenge as well.

Through the nineties, the emergence and consolidation of the Hindu Right witnessed the assertion of a neo-nationalism that the increasing assertion of new, bold sexualities have constantly attempted to derail, and this tussle became most visible, perhaps, in the cultural sphere.


Certainly, the eruption of sexual images on the film screen and in other media such as television and print over the last two decades has crystallized feminist battles around sexuality. There can be little doubt that economic liberalization, and the onslaught of (a much overworked) globalization, have had their explicit as well as insidious effects upon imaging in the country, both indigenously as well as through foreign programmes flying across open skies. This has also, as Shohini Ghosh has argued, resulted in the creation of new anxieties around the efficacy of censorship in the light of other options by which the censored images may be accessed.10

From the early 1990s, the BJP and the Shiv Sena began a concerted attack on what they saw as the ‘deterioration of cinema culture’ which amounted to an ‘insult to the Hindu faith’, by the ‘promotion of anti-national elements’ or ‘body exposure’. As Ghosh comments, ‘The Hindu Right was perhaps quicker to sense the subversive potential of popular cinema.’11 One of the first major controversies erupted in 1993, with the song and dance sequence ‘Choli ke peechey kya hai?’ (‘What is behind the blouse?’) in Khalnayak (1993). For right-wing nationalists, skirmishes over identity are played out for great measure in the arena of sexuality in general and the female body in particular, and a ‘Hindu’ morality imposed as censorship has been a tested method for attempting to control transgressive inclinations.


Monika Mehta has read the ‘Choli ke peechey’ controversy as one that throws light on the ways in which censorship debates in post-liberalisation India produce sexuality in as much as they control it, thereby contributing to the making of new meanings and inferences: ‘When a controversial text enters the public domain, it becomes a marketable property due to its lure as a forbidden object. Its status as a forbidden object is constructed by the known act of censorship (Kuhn 1988). Censorship in this case is fuelled desire. An effect of this desire was an increase in profits for the film producer and the music industry.’12

Mehta analyzes the long pre-film release publicity campaign for the film that includes the release of this song on audio-cassette, which contributes to both the fuelling of desire as well as a marketable controversy around the effects of its overtly-suggestive lyrics; the fact that the controversy was focused on the first rendition of the song in the film when it was sung/enacted by female singers/characters, Ganga and her dancing partner (Madhuri Dixit and Neena Gupta) – as opposed to its second rendition, when it was reproduced by Ballu, the male villain, and his gang – problematises it as ‘both the repression of female sexuality and the commodification of female sexuality in the name of Indian tradition – and what needs to be explored further is the possibility of women’s sexual agency,’ says Mehta (2006, 183).

Mehta sees the failure of the men to perform as ‘good’ lures as well as Ganga’s failure to be a ‘good’ voyeur as the performance of social convention supporting a patriarchal status quo, in which only women can be (sexually) alluring, while men remain desiring subjects who cannot be sexual objects (2006, 181). I will interrogate this formulation later, in what may perhaps be considered a shifting politics in the representation of desire one-and-a-half decades after the Khalnayak debates raged, with the male-hero-focused towel-dropping ‘Jab se Tere Naina’ song sequence in Saawariya (2007).


It is hardly likely, however, that one can reprise the trajectory of sexuality-censorship-cinema debates in contemporary India without a significant halt at the signpost of Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1997). A lesbian ‘coming-out’ film of sorts with two unlikely protagonists in the form of middle class North Indian sisters-in-law belonging to a humdrum traditional-with-its-usual-quirks joint family system in the heart of New Delhi, Fire ignited Hindu wrath and transformed itself into a cultural watershed event in the capital in the winter of 1998, whose spreading flames then threatened to conflagrate across the country. Disputes erupted about inherent traditions of Indian culture and the sudden necessity of finding a place for homosexual identity within it, and the Shiv Sena perceived a threat to the very basis of the Hindu family in Fire’s defiance of heterosexual normative codes.

As Ratna Kapur suggests, the film’s assertion that homosexuality has always been a part of Indian culture complicates usefully ‘the notion of culture, treating it as something that is constantly negotiated and constructed. And it is this process that has been used to create space for the subaltern, including, in this instance, the sexual subaltern: the lesbian subject.’13 The controversies generated by Fire – stoked deliberately by the Hindu Right then in governance – were continued proof that cultural texts were inherently bound to geopolitical markers, and that the significance of local ‘sites of reading’ actually overran the globalized project of transporting meanings across borders.


According to Sujata Moorti, ‘The contested terrain of national identity is the focus of the debates promoted by the two sets of discourses set in motion by the opposers and supporters of the film. Many of the concerns are developed precisely because Fire was made by a non-resident Indian (NRI). In all aspects of its production and reception Fire represents a global film… it is the specificity of Mehta’s western locus of enunciation that has evoked the ire of the religious right. Rather than present a nostalgia for home, Mehta raises issues that criticize tradition.’14 Moorti alleges that ‘it is not the presence of the queer subject that appears threatening to national identity formation, it is the decentering of the heterosexual family that is contested. The discourses surrounding Fire reaffirm the centrality of woman to the heterosexual family.’

One would think, however, that it is the transformation of the (heterosexual) female subject into a (transgressive) lesbian subject that is perceived to be instrumental in dismantling the normative family unit which in turn is believed to sustain the larger community of the nation. One of Fire’s major contributions to contemporary debates and discourses on sexuality and representation at the turn of the millennium has been, in fact, the ingression of queer subjectivity and its now-palpable threat into the national polity, changing the sexual landscape in irretrievable ways.15


A decade after Fire and its inflammatory repercussions, however, the heat and dust can hardly be said to have settled. While ever-increasing access to the internet, as well as the ease and speed with which both genuine and pirated film videos are available freely in the market for purchase and rent, make state censorship machinery almost surreally irrelevant in some ways, it is a combination of politically, religiously or socially motivated moral panic about ‘obscenity’ and historically outdated quasi-legal provisions and prohibitions that continue to create a confusion of cosmic proportions for film censorship in India.

The censor’s hawk-eyed surveillance of the female body on celluloid has not, however, faltered. Kissing is the one ‘sexual’ activity that still unfailingly throws both the censor and the high moral public into a spiral of panic, identified, as M. Madhava Prasad has pointed out, as challenging the ‘Indianness’ of Indian culture; what this attempted prohibition has long tried to achieve (despite the official lifting of the ‘ban’ on screen kisses upon the recommendation of the Khosla Committee in 1969) is the reining in of the ‘forces of democratic transformation’ in the cultural sphere, to ‘regulate the public circulation of images as an obligation of the contract between new and traditional elites. Its tangible result in cinema… is a blocking of the representation of the private.’16

Though recent popular cinema has increasingly begun to sneak kissing sequences past the censors as Dhoom 2 proved (parallel cinema in India has always been able to get away with a far greater permissiveness in the name of high aestheticism and higher intellect), censorship processes in India are not merely restricted to state regulatory institutions, as the controversy over the Rai-Roshan kiss in Dhoom 2 has also proved.


Significant change, I would suggest, has stolen in through an unlikely, unexpected back door: the male body. Even as the Censor Board continues to wage a lonely, losing battle to ‘protect’ women from ‘obscene’ exposure and ‘degradation’, six-pack (masculine) abs and towel-draping, towel-dropping male bodies have usurped the position of the sexual object on the silver screen, while the desiring gaze (one may presume) has shifted, to be shared by the female/or and the queer subject. What Fire really achieved a decade ago is perhaps only beginning to reveal itself now, in liberating female and queer libidinal desire from tepid back burners.


* Brinda Bose is the editor of Translating Desire (2003) and Gender and Censorship (2006), and co-editor of The Phobic and the Erotic (2007).



1. Sharmila Tagore allegedly made these comments in an interview with Karan Thapar on the television channel CNN-IBN. This report can be found at http://www.ibnlive.com/news/kissing-okay-but-no-pornography-on-screen/21069-8.html

2. ‘Hrithik Roshan Aishwarya Rai Kiss in Dhoom 2 Sparks Court Action’, posted on 3 December 2006, on http://news.sawf.org/Bollywood/29080.aspx

3. Report posted on 21 January 2007, on http://www.apunkachoice.com/scoop/bollywood/20070121-3.html

4. Chapter 14: Censorship, in the Report of the Working Group on National Film Policy, published by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1980. Reprinted in Gender and Censorship edited by Brinda Bose, Women Unlimited, New Delhi, 2006, p. 3.

5. Guidelines (Section 5(b)2, of The Cinematograph Act, formulated by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), available at http://www.cbfcindia.tn.nic.in/guidelinespage1.htm

6. Report, in Gender and Censorship (2006), p. 13.

7. The Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Bill, 1986, reprinted in Gender and Censorship (2006), p. 101.

8. Flavia Agnes, ‘Indecent Representation of Women’, published in State, Gender and the Rhetoric of Law Reform, RCWS Gender Series, SNDT Women’s University, Bombay, 1995; reprinted in Gender and Censorship (2006), pp. 138-143.

9. Ratna Kapur has argued that these features of normative sexuality were deeply implicated in the construction of a national identity, as they were used as markers to distinguish between the colonial power and the colonial subject, in Erotic Justice: Law and the New Politics of Postcolonialism, Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2005, p. 56.

10. Shohini Ghosh has traced the transitions that the Indian feminist movement has undergone in its engagement with issues of sexuality and censorship through the last decade of the 20th century in ‘The Troubled Existence of Sex and Sexuality: Feminists Engage with Censorship’, first published in Christina Brosius and Melissa Butcher (eds.), Image Journeys: Audiovisual and Cultural Themes in India, Sage, New Delhi, 1999; reprinted in Gender and Censorship (2006), pp. 255-285.

11. Ibid., p. 260.

12. Monika Mehta, ‘What is Behind Film Censorship? The Khalnayak Debates’, Jouvert 5:3 (2001); reprinted in Gender and Censorship (2006), p. 179.

13. Ratna Kapur, Erotic Justice (2005), p. 87.

14. Sujata Moorti, ‘Inflamed Passions: Fire, the Woman Question, and the Policing of Cultural Borders’, Genders 32, 2000. Available at http://www.genders.org/g32/g32moorti.html

15. Ashwini Sukhthankar’s well-circulated article, ‘For People Like Us’, that chronicled a sexual revolution in the making following the Fire controversy offers a sense of the kind of changes that the film wrought in India, New Internationalist 328, 2000.

16. M. Madhava Prasad, Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Construction, OUP, New Delhi, 1998; reprinted in Gender and Censorship (2006), p. 253.