Hot and bothered: India’s answer to Sex and the City stirs debate

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A film that is being dubbed as India’s answer to Sex and the City is attracting criticism for its explicit content and stirring debate about the meaning of feminism and sexuality.

Veere Di Wedding, or My Friend’s Wedding, is a two-hour comedy that was banned in neighbouring Pakistan because of curse words and scenes of a sexual nature but survived a boycott call in India.

Released on June 1, it has already made around $12m, according to the film’s producers.

Unlike most Bollywood buddy comedy films, which centre on the lives of male characters, Veere Di Wedding features four rich female friends who drink, smoke cannabis, curse their partners and families, and discuss the challenges of marriage and sexuality.

Set in south New Delhi, the main characters are played by high-profile actors Kareena Kapoor, Sonam Kapoor Abuja and Swara Bhaskar, and the lesser known Shikha Talsania.

Right-wing, ultra-conservative sections of Hindu society, which had backed the boycott call, have taken to the internet to vent their frustrations, deploring the film on social media for its open sexuality – something they claim is not compatible with Indian culture and values.

Many took offence at one scene in particular in which Bhaskar’s married character, Sakshi Soni, masturbates, and made their feelings clear in tweets to the actor.

On Wednesday, Bhaskar defended the scene, writing on Twitter: “In a culture that largely silences or ignores or shames female sexuality showing a girl gratifying herself in a film in a non-judgemental way is empowering.”

Kalindi, left, played by Kareena Kapoor, is unsure she wants to marry her boyfriend [Courtesy: Raindrop Media]

Produced by Rhea Kapoor and Ekta Kapoor and directed by Shashanka Ghosh, Veere Di Wedding’s main (wedding) event – a mainstay of Indian cinema – becomes a device that allows its protagonists to reveal the hypocrisies and complexities associated with relationships.

“[The masturbation scene] was entirely Rhea’s idea. She’s 31 and so didn’t want to show any conventional cheating. She said let her moment of shame be dysfunctional too,” director Ghosh told Al Jazeera. “The film does not judge any of its characters for their choices, and I am proud of that.

“I had been toying with the idea of friends as family for years, and wanted to make a film about it. But I wanted the friends to be dysfunctional, like people normally are. I could have told the same story with four boys too.”

While bride to be, Kalindi (Kapoor), battles class issues and is unsure if she wants to marry her boyfriend Rishabh (Sumeet Vyas), her three bridesmaids are grappling with their own difficulties. 

Avni’s (Kapoor Ahuja) nagging mother is desperate to marry her off, Sakshi is in the middle of a messy divorce, and homemaker Meera (Talsania) is married to a white American with a two-year-old son, a life which has led to a lack of intimacy.

Although some critics have hailed Veere Di Wedding as a feminist feat, others have questioned the message the film sends out to ordinary Indian women, the overwhelming majority of whom are not as privileged as the lead characters. 

Ruhi Tewari, an associate editor at The Print, a Delhi-based outlet, said the film lacks nuance.

“Women do not need to be shown to be drinking, smoking, using cuss words and talking about sex in every single frame to sell us the idea of liberation. 

“Sure, it is a woman’s absolute choice to do so, but to make it seem like these are the real parameters of modernity while skirting more real issues, is a bit rich. The biggest problem in the movie is how forced all this seems, aimed merely at shocking audiences,” she wrote in a review.

Veere Di Wedding, a buddy comedy, depicts four female friends with messy lives [Courtesy: Raindrop Media]

Paromita Vohra, a Mumbai-based writer, filmmaker and the founder of Agents of Ishq (love), a popular website on love and sexuality, said the film suffers from a loose plot and was “carelessly made”, but was ultimately a feminist success.

“Feminism is a journey of letting go our conditioning and arriving at a new version of ourselves through the path of desire. There is an entire universe of human desire in the film,” she told Al Jazeera.

Anupama Kapse, professor of film studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said: “A lot of feminists think sexuality is not a part of the feminist project, that sexual pleasure is not feminist, while female pleasure is at the heart of the film.

“It’s an unusual film despite its conventional structure. The film is about a wedding. But within that structure of a Bollywood mainstream film, it manages to puncture a lot of notions around an Indian wedding.”

The masturbation scene is an apparent first in Hindi cinema, and the start-to-finish raucous critique of traditional relationships from a female perspective is rare.

“Everybody is pretty ambivalent about marriage. Even [Kapoor Ahuja’s] character is trying to conform to her mother’s desire and feels a pressure from the world. She is thinking ‘Maybe I should be married, I don’t know.’ Her heart is not in it,” said Vohra.

For Kapse, whose work has focused on the notions of pleasure and suffering in Indian cinema, Veere Di Wedding is subversive because it delinks female characters from the predominance of motherhood in Indian cinema by emphasising female appetites over domesticity.

“For example, [when Kapoor Ahuja’s] character wakes up after her one-night stand and sees the mother of the man outside the window, or when her prospective groom objects to her kissing on his cheek, she calls him a ‘mother lover’ and asks him to marry his mother instead,” she said. “Humour allows for easy subversion.”

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