Sexual properness loosens up in India

Published: Saturday, January 18, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 18, 2003 at 1:05 a.m.

NEW DELHI, India - The images, these days, are everywhere: the beer company calendar with Indian models spilling out of bikinis, the Hindi movie with couples wrapped passionately together, the magazine offering frank sexual advice.

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Indian models sashay Indian designers' creations at a fashion show in Bombay, India, on Nov. 23.

(AP Photo)

It's pretty tame stuff, or would be if this were New York or Paris.

But this is India, where kissing remains a seldom-broken movie taboo, Playboy can be found only on the black market and homosexuality remains, for the most part, quietly in the closet. Here, in the chastened land of the Kama Sutra, these hints of flesh reflect an upheaval in sexual attitudes.

``Our references have changed,'' said Mahesh Bhatt, a movie director and self-appointed crusader for more realistic sexual content in films. ``The Indian consumer is being shaped by changes going on by the hour around the world. . . . He is no longer the juvenile who cannot deal with sex.''

Bhatt, who has been making movies for three decades, proudly promises a ``quantum leap'' in sex in his upcoming film, ``The Human Body.'' Most shockingly to audiences of Bollywood movies - where skin is normally limited to ``wet sari'' scenes of women dancing in the rain and sex is sometimes hinted at by showing buzzing bees - his film shows a woman who likes sex.

Her face shows her enjoyment with sex, Bhatt said: ``There's nothing sinful, there's nothing dirty.''

What isn't in the movie, though, says as much about India's shifting sensibilities as what is. There's no outright nudity ``because we understand that embarrasses the Indian viewer,'' Bhatt said, and the kissing was toned down because the government demanded it.

India may be stereotyped in the West as a land of exoticism, sensuality and the Kama Sutra, the ancient book of sexual wisdom, but only in the past few years have sex and nudity become topics for public discussion.

Propelled by the spread of satellite and cable TV and the subsequent onslaught of far more graphic Western images, years of primness began to crumble: The thriving black market in pornography moved more into the open, skirts got shorter, TV shows grew more risque. In urban areas, at least sex came out of the shadows.

There's little agreement, though, on where the primness came from. Some say it's just natural Indian reserve. Others see a holdover of colonial Victorian attitudes, or the post-independence reaction against Western attitudes.

To some, it's simply a prudery that went haywire.

``There is a need to talk about sex, not coyly, not tongue-in-cheek, but openly about sex,'' said Sathya Saran, editor of Femina, a woman's magazine popular among traditional, middle-class Indian women. While Femina has long been known for its recipes and child-rearing advice, it also now offers sexual advice, and even swimsuit pinups for male readers.

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