How a Bollywood masturbation scene is answer to India’s rape culture

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Breaking news: Indian women masturbate. As a wife pleasures herself with a vibrator in a sexless marriage, her husband walks in on her. Eventually, it ends in divorce. This sub-plot in a mainstream Bollywood movie, Veere Di Wedding (“Friend’s Wedding”), has led to The Great Indian Masturbation Debate. 

The actress who plays the wife, Swara Bhaskar, has received a flood of angry messages on Twitter. You have shamed India, some say, and others question whether showing a woman masturbating in a movie is “empowerment.” 

Until recently, Bollywood producers felt only a male lead could bring commercial success to a film. There are very few female producers and directors in Bollywood. Men are paid more than women, make more money in advertising contracts and dominate the industry just as they dominate society at large. 

Yet a slew of recent films with women playing the lead role have challenged prevailing perceptions. The turning point was the 2014 movie Queen in which a Delhi girl is dumped by her fiancé a day before her wedding. She decides to go alone on their planned honeymoon, discovering herself along the way.

In one scene, she walks into a sex-toy store in Europe and wonders what a vibrator is supposed to do. Four years later, Bollywood gives us Veere Di Wedding, in which a woman is actually using one. 

To some it may not seem like a big deal to see a Bollywood version of Sex and the City, but a big deal it is, for the simple reason that this has not been done before. Women in Indian society are not supposed to display sexual desire. Veere Di Wedding has four female friends “adulting” as they navigate love, sex, marriage and patriarchy. 

From beginning to end, the film is about female desire. The four friends discuss orgasm, multiple orgasms, orgasm in Hindi and even penis sizes. Indian men have never felt this threatened watching a Bollywood film before. They are trying to reclaim their masculinity, one abusive tweet after another. 

When a woman asks for it

At the center of The Great Indian Masturbation Debate is Swara Bhaskar, a rare Bollywood actor who is outspoken about her progressive politics. She has colleagues much more senior who openly deny being feminist – it wouldn’t go with their screen image. 

In 2013, Bhaskar found herself in a different kind of controversy. In the movie Raanjhana (“Beloved”), she played a young small-town woman whose best friend woos another woman in a manner that the law defines as “stalking.” It has a scene where the lover is advised by a friend that the trick to winning over a woman’s affection is to follow her everywhere, from morning to evening, and tire her out so she eventually gives in. And that’s exactly what happens. 

Some wondered how Swara Bhaskar could act in a film that glorified stalking given her progressive politics. The list of Bollywood films that show stalking as legitimate courtship is a very long one. 

At best, Bollywood cinema has historically only alluded to female desire. Women who dare to express their sexuality are mostly punished, transformed, or slut-shamed. 

“When a woman says no, she means yes,” goes the popular stereotype in rape culture, one that even Bollywood perpetuates. After the infamous gang rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi in December 2012, many Indian men expressed similar views. Such statements continue to be made today, if only a little less openly. 

Starting in 2013, a researcher went around India interviewing 100 convicted rapists to understand why they did what they did. She came to the conclusion that the root cause was the patriarchy ingrained in them from their very childhood. 

To get men to stop committing sexual violence against women requires teaching them equality. That includes the idea that just like men, women have sexual desires.  

“No means no,” we often hear. We rarely ever hear “yes means yes.” 

Feminism is freedom

Veere Di Wedding could change how Bollywood portrays the man-woman relationship. At one point in the film, a conservative man rejects a woman because she tries to kiss him before marriage. “I am looking for a wife, not a hooker,” he says. The woman proceeds to have a drunken one-night stand with a man whose first name she does not know. The film does not portray her as a “slut” for that. 

In 2016, the film Lipstick under My Burkha also showed female desire, in fact much more poignantly. But it was arthouse cinema with far less reach than a mainstream production like Veere Di Wedding, which is being watched by millions. 

Many have criticized the film for giving people a wrong idea of what feminism is. Drinking and smoking, swearing and using sex toys is not feminism, they argue. But isn’t feminism about the freedom to do what you like and to not be judged for it?  

The women in the film are flawed, the critics complain. They are classist, they do fat-shaming, and they are all fairytale rich. They are so privileged they go on a foreign holiday to tide over relationship issues.

The critics don’t appreciate being told that rich, independent women also have problems. They may not be perfect, but the film shows them winning their freedom to be whatever they want to be. They don’t always need the men in their lives – fathers, lovers, husbands – to validate that freedom. In the end they make their own choices even if they are not the right choices. 

Veere Di Wedding is an important film. It tells women there is nothing wrong with having sexual desire – and it tells men to deal with that. 

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