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The female gaze
The unapologetically lusting woman, already accepted and endorsed by advertising, is gathering steam in Bollywood as well.
With no intention of bathing, he upturns a pot of water over his broad chest. Soon, a trail of droplets illuminates strategic points of his tapering torso. He is now an invitation, delivered with just the kind of fixed gaze, macho stance and suppressed smile that speak of illicit access to a woman's secrets. She readily responds by sniffing his chest.
In this dream sequence from the just-released Aiyyaa, actor Prithviraj's character is the object of desire - an inverted equation for Bollywood. "I had to be a culmination of all the sexual desires of a woman in those scenes, " he says. This not only meant wearing chokers, earrings and armbands but also folding up lungis to dangerously high levels. In the heroine's dreams, this man does not appear with a sweater around his shoulders or a guitar in his hand but in flowing garments that somehow do justice to his butt.
Aiyyaa is Bollywood's somewhat delayed acknowledegment of the fact that women, too, have eyes and that lust isn't the exclusive, legitimate copyright of men. "It's a social myth that men alone are visual creatures, " says Prithviraj. "Women too ogle at men, and that's completely fine. " There have been hints at male sensuality on the screen for a while now: In Dostana, when John Abraham pulled down his yellow underwear, as if he was preparing for a booster shot, there were whistles inside multiplexes;Ranbir Kapoor too famously made many girls press the DVD pause button at the precise moment he dropped the towel in Saawariya. More recently, Akshay Kumar and John Abraham stripped and danced around poles in bachelorette parties to beat the recession in Desi Boyz.
But the realisation seems to have arrived a tad late in Bollywood. The world of advertising spoke to its female target audience's hormones much earlier, especially with the bevy of deodorant commercials. "In the West, it was women and gay men in advertising and photography who turned our collective gaze on to the male body and its sundry appendages, " says theatre personality Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal, director of the Indian version of The Vagina Monologues, citing the early Marky Mark Calvin Klein underwear ads or the current staple of female and gay male desire, Beckham, in his chaddis all over the place.
Cinema, on the other hand, is largely made for the testosteronally-overdosed male, says Kotwal. Bollywood, in her view, historically and even now, is largely a "misogynistic and patriarchal culture where much of the craft and story-telling and funding has been controlled by men". That could perhaps explain why female characters who dared to lust on screen have either been portrayed as villainous sexual predators (Priyanka Chopra's character in Aitraaz) or the ones that lose the man in the end (Deepika Padukone in Cocktail). In Aiyyaa, though, when Rani Mukerji's character gets away with appreciating the man's smell, complexion and even says things like "I don't like men who wear vests inside their shirts", it is as if an entire species' license to ogle has just been validated.
"Women are not looking for security or protection from men, " says Sachin Kundalkar, director of Aiyyaa, who realised this through conversations with his vocal women friends. "They too seek physical pleasure and things like the 'hot' quotient, looks and smell matter. " Kundalkar adds that when he narrated the script, Rani Mukerji too admitted that her preferences were based on smell. In a recent TV interview, Mukerji even said that a lot of women look at men that way but "it's just that they don't talk openly about it".
In fact, women are far more visual in a sense, feels Mody-Kotwal. "We luxuriate in the sight of beauty, whether natural, a well-crafted piece of jewellery, a work of art or a well-tailored outfit. But we are more subtle and subversive in how we express and celebrate the men who are the objects of our desire. "
Vicky Kalwani, who runs a 'dating consultancy' in Mumbai, has met women with physical preferences for all kinds of men - bald, tall and everything in between. "It's not important to be good-looking, but it's important to look good, " says the 'dating coach' who tells men that "it's critical to smell good, dress classy and not like a hobo". "Put some effort into the details such as manicure, pedicure, hair, nose hair. If you look like you stumbled out of a jungle and off a truck you may as well stick a fork in yourself, " says Kalwani, who believes sex is a greater investment for a woman than a man. Ashmit Patel - host of a show called "Super Stud" on Channel V where he often advises young boys on the art of winning girls over - does not think there's any distinction between men and women when it comes to appreciating physicality.
"Everything from height, shoulder width and jawlines to how snugly a pair of jeans fits matters to women," says Patel, pointing to the increasing instances of shirtless heroes as testimony and adding that emotions figure much later. Another destroyer of the myth that an open shirt button does not impact women as much as a romantic dinner or a chivalrous act comes in the form of radio, where RJs such as Aniruddh play "fantasy lovers" to housewives who volunteer their innermost secrets to this familiar voice. Sighs and heavy breathing are part of this new electromagnetic field. "It was largely true 20 years ago that society refused to endorse a woman's right to feast on male eye-candy but now it is far more out there," feels author and socialite Shobhaa De. "Today's woman ogles, lusts, whistles, gropes and comes on to men minus any inhibitions. " So, men, you all can sing all you want, rescue us from goons and even remember insignificant anniversaries, but it won't have the same effect as unintentional bathing.
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