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Review: Lust, Sex and Pleasure: Is There a ‘Female Gaze’ in Tamil Cinema?

a woman with her hair tied back in a ponytail and with a pearl necklace and hoop earrings

Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze has been much discussed in the context of Indian cinema, especially for Bollywood. Introduced in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, the male gaze is set within a psychoanalysis framework and describes the concept of a woman being looked at by a man and a camera, to be watched and associated with by a viewer who is assumed to be male and heterosexual. But is there, heterosexually speaking, an inverse concept, a ‘female gaze’? Where the woman’s gaze, her feelings and her sexual desires are placed at the forefront? Where, for a change, she’s the subject and the man is the object being looked at?

Of course, there can never be a directly inverse concept, given the patriarchal reality we live in. Some writers such as Melissa Silverstein and Janice Loreck believe that the female gaze – or rather, women’s desire – is more likely to be described and depicted through non-gaze formats such as music, erotic scenes and visual aesthetics (warmer tones, use of flowers, etc.) Even as Loreck understands this kind of depiction follows the cliché “that male desire is ‘visual’ while female desire is ‘sensory’”, she argues that men’s inner lives have also been conveyed through music and sensation, such as in films like Rambo (2008) or Casino Royale (2006).

All the same, the reality women live in means that they hardly find depictions of their kind of sexual desire on screen. Don’t women lust after male bodies, don’t women fantasise? While examples abound of women chasing men, it is usually for the latter’s ‘good’ qualities – he’s brave, he’s handsome, he’s strong, he will protect, and yes, by-the-by, and it’s totally not on her mind, he has a sexy body. Sexual desire is never at the forefront, and any expression of female desire is usually from the male perspective again, as it depicts what this desire represents to the hero; it’s expected that the viewer is a man looking at the “heroine” desiring the “hero”. Take, for instance, the song ‘Ooh La La’ from The Dirty Picture (2012) – the woman’s sexuality is out in the open alright, but it’s all presented for a heterosexual, male audience to lap up. It’s sexual objectification of a so-called sexually liberated female character, Silk, played by Vidya Balan, but not in a way she controls it.

Aiyyaa, a 2012 Hindi film starring Rani Mukerji and Prithviraj Sukumaran, is perhaps the closest we can get to pure sexual objectification of a man through a woman’s eyes in Indian cinema. Prithviraj barely speaks throughout the movie while the viewer gets to see in grand detail Mukerji follow Prithviraj, day-dreaming, fantasising sexual positions and thinking of him even when she’s shopping for her wedding with another man. In two songs in the movie, Prithviraj appears shirtless throughout, flaunting his well-toned body as Mukherjee looks at it, mouth partially open, dripping with desire, and runs her hand over his chest.

In a particularly memorable scene in the song Aga Bai’, Mukherjee dreams of Prithviraj at a petrol station that she’s gone to on her moped. He straddles the bike as she stares in thrall, puts the petrol pipe into her moped’s fuel tank, eyes locked with hers, and within moments the petrol gushes out of the tank. She is both the one leading the fantasy – as the person imagining Prithviraj doing this to her – and receiving it – by letting Prithviraj take the lead in the fantasy. All the same, one can be sure that such scenes which place feminine sexual fantasies as the centre, and with her as the owner, are few and far between.

As expected, Aiyyaa wasn’t well-received at the box office. Presumably because the average male movie-goer couldn’t handle watching a woman stalk and fantasise about a man, but neither could the women. Many women I spoke to said they were disgusted with the movie and had walked out mid-way.

So that’s the state of Bollywood, the most famous and biggest film industry of India. How does Kollywood – the Tamil movie industry, the second biggest in terms of size and money – fare?

There’s plenty of female desire alright, but usually still centred on the man. Take Baasha’s (1995) song Azhagu, for instance. The woman (portrayed by Nagma) is fascinated with the hero (Rajnikanth), and believes she sees him everywhere. Except for a scene in a bathtub, there’s hardly any sign of physical desire coming in; even in that scene, it’s her that the camera focuses on, not her desire for Rajni (who, anyway, appears in an unflattering dressing gown – so much for desire!)

Rajni, of course, has been ‘chased’ by women very often in Tamil cinema, although he was never sexualised the way even Kamal Haasan was, on and off. Of note is Ramya Krishnan’s ‘manic’ desire for him in Padaiyappa (1999) – “I like your style, your courage, your wisdom,” she says – and tries her best to get him to like her back. In the song Minsara Poove, she winks at him, sings about how she wants him at her beck and call, and in a dream sequence, pushes him to the bed to show she is unapologetic about seeking pleasure. In another song, she gives him her stole to wipe his sweat and sniffs at it later, perhaps hoping for something pheromone-y to satisfy her desire. Of course, at the end of the movie, she is punished for this desire; no woman must seek to control a man so, says Rajni.

The song Ponmeni Urugudhe from Moondram Pirai (1982) is perhaps one of the few songs that shows the woman’s unapologetic sexual desire with an objectified male who has nothing to say. Kamal Haasan dances quietly to Silk Smitha’s tunes, and both are skimpily clad. However, the movie shows that Silk Smitha – a married woman – is attracted to Haasan who doesn’t reciprocate her feelings. It conveniently leaves extramarital attention to a female actor who’s typecast in sexually objectified roles.

Gautham Vasudev Menon is perhaps one filmmaker who at least tries to talk about the fact that women could have sexual desire too, although it is most often in the convenient framework of marriage. It is joked that Menon’s female protagonists all talk about ‘making love’ at least once! In the song Ondra Renda in his Kaakha..Kaakha: The Police (2003), as Jyothika and Suriya get ready to celebrate their wedding night, she watches him eat, and a grain of rice sticks to his lower lip; for all of two seconds, Jyothika stares at it, turned on, and points to him to push it away (following which, she eats it). In scenes before we get to this point, she tells him she wants to make love with him, have his babies, etc., so one would think she can’t wait to have sex with him. It’s surprising, then, that in the song, when she finally can, she keeps pushing him away whenever he tries to kiss her! The song lyrics are rather insipid, going on about why she likes him, treading on the banal and hardly going into overt physical desire.Why does a woman have to pretend to not want sex even when it’s socially sanctioned?

In contrast, Menon’s Anal Mele Panithuli from the movie Vaaranam Aayiram (2008) shows Ramya, who had already expressed her interest in Suriya, finally getting to spend time with him before they get married. She doesn’t push him away when he hugs or kisses, and sometimes even initiates them herself. Although they go into a hotel and take twin beds (and not a double bed), she isn’t shy: in one scene, when they finally decide to get under the covers, she is shown patiently removing her slippers, running her hand over his bare chest – it is as if she’s not in a mad rush to make love but it’s something she wants that she knew they would get to eventually. Interestingly, the camera shows her hands on his chest, but not her, making him the object. The lyrics of the song talk about her bursting desire for pleasure, and the scenes show her admiring Suriya and his body as he trains or goes to a waterfall topless.

Tamil cinema has a long way to go in depicting the female gaze, or even letting a woman desire sex or lust after a man without being made to repent for it later (for example, Nayanthara crying after she has sex with Simbu in Vallavan (2006), or Sonia Agarwal dying in an accident after she sleeps with the hero while being engaged to another man, in 7/G Rainbow Colony (2004)). Movies tend to show women with a lot of agency in choosing their partners or pursuing a man, but hardly venture into the area of physical intimacy in a way where they are the subjects, not the men. Will we get to see an Aiyyaa-Prithviraj-like doll in Tamil cinema soon?

Thanks to @tharkuri for her inputs!

Cover image: Movie still from Padaiyappa