In 1970, when I was 11, a Bollywood movie called Chetna was released in Bombay. All its poster showed of the heroine, Rehana Sultan, was her naked legs. The hero, framed in this inverted V, gazed up as she stood, feet firmly planted apart on a bed. The implication was that Rehana, who played a prostitute, was nude. One had to buy a ticket to find out just how much she revealed.
The film caused a furor. How could the censors allow a nude scene when actors weren’t even permitted to kiss onscreen? Had they forgotten this was India, the last bastion of Victorian prudishness? Outraged denouncements started appearing in the papers, each adding another few weeks to the movie’s wildly successful run.
The effect on a boy my age was predictable: I was desperate to see the film. Whispers about its sensational scenes whipped me into a frenzy. I’d been raised on Hindi movies, where bosoms were always safely (if provocatively) packed into blouses, and even Helen the vamp danced with a flesh-colored cloth covering her midriff. Just once, I wanted to gaze at the female body in its natural state—as, apparently, did crowds of my repressed fellow countrymen.
Because Chetna was rated “A,” for adults only, it meant I couldn’t get in until I was 18. This A rating became essential advertising for the spate of Chetna knockoffs that followed. In the posters scantily clad actresses were shown draped over outsize, luridly colored letter As, leaning seductively against a side, straddling the central stroke. Each time I glanced at a film poster, it seemed, an A jumped out to taunt me.
At 14, when Chetna was rereleased, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer. I stuffed pads of cardboard into my shoes and smudged my mother’s eyebrow pencil over my upper lip to give the illusion of stubble. I put on a pair of sunglasses for good measure. Then, trying not to wobble on my uncomfortable pads, I set out for my tryst with Rehana.
The ticket collector waved me in, without the slightest interest in the pains I’d taken with my getup. Rehana came on, nude on the bed as promised, but her long black tresses cascaded over her breasts, meeting up at the waist to obscure everything below as well. I left the theater feeling cheated, disillusioned. The next day at school, however, I was a hero for venturing beyond the A sign. In the smoldering version I related to my classmates, Rehana exposed every inch.
A year later came Gupt Gyan, in which the censors did permit everything to be revealed. But it was a sex education film, and body parts were bared to exhibit venereal diseases. Still, it didn’t matter—wide-eyed audiences flocked to ogle anyway. I sneaked in as well, and the experience was traumatic. Although very much a virgin, I checked myself for weeks afterward to make sure I hadn’t contracted anything.
It wasn’t until 1978 that India got a glimpse of disease-free near nudity on the Bollywood screen. The movie was Satyam Shivam Sundaram, and director Raj Kapoor not only took advantage of the relaxation on the ban on kissing but also kept drenching his heroine, so that little beneath her sari was left to the imagination. The reaction was fierce: Groups of housewives banded together to denounce the movie for exploiting women. The film was not a hit.
Three decades later Indian sensibilities can be as inflammable as ever. Last year playful kisses Richard Gere planted on the cheek of Indian actress Shilpa Shetty at an AIDS awareness event resulted in widespread protests and arrest warrants for both on charges of public obscenity (later dismissed). Although reactions such as these are politically engineered, many Indians took genuine offense. And yet the country is no longer the pressure cooker of repressed curiosity it was once. Since VCRs came on the scene, the availability of uncensored Hollywood films on video has provided a safety valve. DVDs, satellite TV, and the Internet have further broadened this access.
While the younger middle class may be quite progressive, conservative sections of society remain. It is to the latter that the censor board still caters. Although Bollywood is allowed to tackle bolder themes, scenes of sex and nudity are trimmed as ruthlessly as before. Perhaps this is the way to keep everyone happy—no questions asked about what’s on home TVs or computers, as long as it’s not available in public. In India, today’s confrontation gives rise to tomorrow’s unspoken accommodation, as always.
Manil Suri is the author of The Death of Vishnu, a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist. His latest novel is The Age of Shiva.