A full-bodied treatment of a story of physical passion – and such stories, great ones even, are not lacking in our literature – is unthinkable on the Indian screen … The scenes of lovemaking in Indian films have therefore been reduced to a formula of clasping hands, longing looks, and vapid, supposedly amorous verbal exchanges – not to speak of love duets sung against artificial romantic backdrops. It is the dead weight of ultra-Victorian moral conventions which reduces the best of directors to taking refuge in these devices.
– Satyajit Ray, “The Odds against Us”, Our Films, Their Films
To Ray’s catalogue of those techniques used by Indian film directors to portray “physical passion”, one may add a recent inclusion: the fetish for lingering on the woman’s uncovered back. Women have long had an indirect relation to culture, as the Muse has traditionally been female. “Men are erotically stimulated by the opposite sex; painting was male; the nude became a female nude,” noted feminist scholar Shulamith Firestone, while talking about the representation of heterosexual desire in art. Such sentiment is echoed by the British art critic John Berger: “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at … The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female.”
The obsession with images of women’s bodies, in Southasia in general and in India in particular, can be construed as a form of voyeurism in which women are distanced, even kept powerless. But why this tendency of the camera in Indian films and television commercials to focus on the woman’s back? Quite simply, the back is the front’s other. While the woman’s front, with all its various devices of mothering, is exactly what males lack, the back is everything that the front is not. With its apparent unisexuality, the back would appear to be a most unlikely place for ‘provocation’. Nonetheless, as plenty of evidence on the ground can attest to, this is exactly what has taken place in India.
“The presence of woman,” says the feminist theorist Laura Mulvey, “is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story-line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.” In popular Indian culture, particularly in Hindi films, this attitude is particularly apparent. In the film Beta, for instance, a passionate Madhuri Dixit coos “Dhak dhak karne laga” (Dhak dhak goes my heart), dhak being the aural mimicry of a heart in passionate turmoil. While doing so, Dixit shows the audience her back. With its outward thrusts, an apparent mimicry of the beating heart, the back stands in for what cannot be seen – and particularly for what cannot be shown. The back becomes the uncovered front, and in the ensuing politics of representation, becomes the camera’s voyeuristic ally. Significantly, this fetishism exists outside the linear time of the narrative, during the songs and so-called item numbers.
Imagery of the female body has become so uni-dimensional that it can barely be shown without the temptations of desire and the implications of abuse. This is nowhere more evident than in the “Choli ke peeche kya hai” number from the film Khalnayak. With the implicit fear that the woman has been abused hovering about, one woman asks another the titular question, which translates to “What is there behind your blouse?” The camera, meanwhile, has to remain content with watching the thrusts of the woman’s back muscles.
In Indian cinema, the woman’s back has become an equivalent of the “half-open lips … an affirmative expression” that, according to the French cultural theorist Luce Irigaray, was a marker of the “women-goddesses” of “prehistory”. As with the women in Hindi films, these goddesses were considered divine not because they could be mothers, but because of their female identity. Similarly, the women showing their backs to the camera make no claim to motherhood – the biology of the back does not allow that. As such, while the desire remains the same, its actual location changes. The sex of the goddesses to which Irigaray refers was marked by a triangle, hiding but simultaneously drawing attention to the female genitalia. A woman’s back in modern representation works in a manner similar to this ancient figure of the triangle.
The trajectory of the use of this triangle, moving between cultures and times, shows how the signposts of erotica have evolved, how they have essentially moved from the reproductive organs to a ‘sexless’ fragment of the body. This cannot be seen as a sign of the attitude of the 21st-century middle-class Indian towards sex, where the easy accessibility of sex is said to have killed interest in the ‘real’ thing. Nor, as some social historians have suggested, can it be seen as a turn towards an increasingly androgynous world. If the rise of the obsession with the female back says anything about the people of the Subcontinent – both producers and consumers – it is to their continuing discomfort with the female sexuality. This manifests itself in the tendency to decentre a woman’s body by portraying her in fragments (breasts, lips, hips, back), and in the process ‘desexualises’ her.
For women, the back dissolves all boundaries. Unlike the front, with its obvious breasts, stomach, navel, pelvis and genitalia, the back is unique in that one cannot specify where it begins or ends. (Interestingly, a man’s back in mass media is generally described not through eroticism, but through machismo and masculinity. In stark contrast, the site of acceptable male eroticism is not the back, but the chest.) Focus on the back also makes fewer demands on women, as there is no particular template of size or colour to which one needs to conform. This can perhaps explain the apparent absence of unease among female performers regarding exposing their backs.
The open peeth
Most of the other parts of the body (the hair, face, eyes, lips, legs) have long been glorified in ‘filmi’ songs and ghazals. But there is hardly any musical ode to the back; perhaps the back’s Hindostani equivalent, peeth, sounds too unpoetic. Unlike the much-mythologised hair, eyes, feet or navel, the back has never been significantly portrayed or written about with any element of signification. The back, therefore, was only to be spoken about by the unspoken; the aural had to give way to the visual. That has all changed with the modern mass media. Exploring a few examples of this proliferation can give a sense of the camera’s newfound affair with the female back, as well as the situations in which it generally makes its appearance.
Take, for instance, the immensely popular routine surrounding the song “Didi tera dewar deewana” (Sister, your brother-in-law is crazy) in the film Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. The song begins with the entire screen filled with a woman’s back. As the camera moves away, that back is hit by a stone from the un-shown hands of the crazy brother-in-law himself. Having been denied entry to an all-woman pregnancy-celebration party, he has found his stone-throwing to be the only means of ‘touching’ the central female character.
The importance of a woman – and her back – as a visual element is somewhat definitively revealed in the music video for a 2003 song by Babul Supriyo called “Sochta hoon” (I imagine). This song is entirely based on this dynamic of the ‘unsaid’ finding representation in the imagery of a woman’s back. The video includes a lingering shot of the captivated lover as the lone spectator in a theatre hall, watching with smiling eyes a woman sitting onstage with her back turned towards him.
The sense that a viewer gets from the “Sochta hoon” video is that of the female back as a kind of tabula rasa, on which the language of desire can be scripted. Such a conclusion is echoed in a painting by the contemporary Bengali artist Subroto Gangopadhyay. His “Winged Goddess” deals specifically with the female back (see image). Apart from the obvious bare-backed woman in both the video and the painting, there is another similarity between these two works – a bird motif. In the painting, the wings are perched on the woman’s back, while in the “Sochta hoon” video, the tattoo on the woman’s back is that of a winged woman. The camera lingers on the surface of the back, before descending onto the tattoo in an action reminiscent of digging a path through the woman’s back to her heart. Throughout the course of the shot, the woman’s face is never shown – she is simply a faceless woman in a backless dress.
The inexplicable relationship of the imagination to the bare female back is also seen in the song “Kaise Piya Se”, from the Hindi film Bewafaa. Here, the actress Kareena Kapoor is thinking about her lover, her thoughts coloured by her imagination as she gets up from the bubble bath, drapes herself in a towel and shows her back to the camera. She was subsequently quoted in an Indian tabloid as saying that her bare back in the song “is very aesthetically shot”, and that there was no “obscenity” in it.
Feminist scholars have long argued that a female performer cannot wear a ‘neutral costume’, that every garment she wears is inherently imbued with feminine and class specificity. In India specifically, however, the contours, the colour of the back, and therefore the cut of the draping fabric has a value that often defies analysis. Since the culture of fashion has been such that emphasis has been placed on covering the organs associated with reproduction (from the fig leaf to the bikini), the back has been able to elude culture’s censorious scissors.
The semantics of ‘looking’ at the back rather than ‘peeking’ at the front is indicative of how the bra – not a new concept in India’s tradition of dressing – has become a symbol of the ‘back holding the front’. The bra is subsequently threaded with masculine fantasy, for it is a garment that is completely missing in the male wardrobe. Similarly, the different cuts of the choli, and the use of henna to paint the back, both point to the space of the back as being one of negotiation and power struggle between the masculine and feminine.
Physically, the back is a space that is beyond one’s own touch – by the hands or anything else. As such, the identity of the back has, of necessity, been based on sight. The emphasis on the back is also patriarchy’s means of avoiding the woman’s image of her own body – that based on a woman’s biology, of menstruation and reproduction. By avoiding the ‘female mystery’, the camera creates a woman’s image from the outside, from the other side. The back, without the problematic elements of fissures and broken surfaces, the orifices and the tears with which the female body has traditionally posed challenges to patriarchy’s notion of the ‘classical form’, becomes a safe zone for the camera.
This sub-cultural discourse regarding the back, so prevalent in the Subcontinent, makes explicit a social contract in which the complex interrelatedness between gender and the politics of representation become evident. Interestingly, the words ‘explicit’ and ‘explicate’ both stem from the Latin explicare, meaning ‘to unfold’. The explicit back thus becomes a site of social markings that delineate the hierarchies inherent in the way society constructs gender relations of privilege and sexuality. The camera’s affair with women’s bare backs explicates the many ways in which our individual bodies and the body politic overlap. Just as Matisse (in his works “Back I” to “Back IV”) explored the contours of the woman’s back in his sculptures, Indian filmmakers continue to repeat images of the female performer’s back in the tone of an insistence – as if to constantly remind us that something precious remains hidden, a ‘secret’ that needs to be ‘exposed’, a secret that is, at once, filled with pleasure and distrust.
~ Sumana Roy teaches English at Darjeeling Government College. She is currently on research leave in Poland and Germany