[Image source: http://www.filmimpressions.com/home/buzz-masaan-at-cannes.html]
One of the best things I read in the reviews of Masaan after watching the movie is the underlying irony of the story: Varanasi, the city which is believed to be the gateway to ultimate liberation of the soul, can entrap the soul just as well. Masaan narrates two storylines depicting the lives of particular individuals who sought to break away from the lines of caste, class and gender that divided small-town Varanasi.
Except for a couple of aspects, I found the movie absolutely fascinating with subtle and insightful portrayals of new versus the old, illustrating the many ways in which technology is seeping into homes and families, lives and its loves, attempting to break age old barriers as traditional institutions battle it out against this unstoppable force whose victims are the people of this tragic generation, forever stuck in the middle.
But the facet of the movie that I wish to touch upon is Devi’s storyline, who checks into a hotel room along with her boyfriend and then proceeds to have sex out of curiosity. Trouble strikes as police barges into the room, intimidating the couple as a result of which Devi’s boyfriend locks himself into the bathroom and slits his wrists, as the police threatens to call his parents. The police also clicks a photograph of Devi while she is naked in bed, which they will later use to threaten and blackmail her- the Great Fear of the Scandal.
There are two striking features at this volcanic start: a woman in a small town watching porn on the internet, who then goes to have sex with her boyfriend, admitting that she didn’t want to do it under the so-called pressure to ‘put out’ but because she was also a human being who had sexual urges and a curious mind. What? A woman who wants to have sex?! Out of choice?! How blasphemous!
This is the reason why Masaan, despite its confused storyline and untapped potential, still managed to win my heart because it not just acknowledges female sexuality and natural carnal needs, but is also accepting and unapologetic of it. When her boyfriend commits suicide out of fear of his parents, she doesn’t die of despair- one could even say she was just plain disappointed. Despite the threats of ‘an MMS scandal’ that the cop blackmails her with, she goes back home to face her father, taking his anger, and telling him after a while that she did nothing wrong. Her eagerness to pay off the blackmail money is her desire to put this nasty episode behind herself and start anew not by marrying and settling, but by bravely visiting her deceased boyfriend’s family, in spite of knowing they would blame her for his death. She even moves out of her ageing, lonely father’s home in Varanasi to Allahabad, because, as she says, ‘jitni chhoti jagah, utni chhoti soch’, an action which is particularly laudable in the Indian setup.
Taking the issues that Masaan raised, we, as a society, need to ask ourselves why are we so uncomfortable with sexuality? Why are we so prepped up against any kind of sex that is not legitimized by a heterosexual marriage? What is so wrong with pre-marital sex, with marrying a person you love while disregarding his or her caste, that it drives parents to murder their own children, and children killing themselves out of terror of their parents’ wrath? Why is it a crime at all if a grown man or woman chooses to sexually engage with someone of their age in a private hotel room, a crime that a police can arrest you for, socially, if not legally? At a time when the Indian government decides to ban porn, this is certainly a very important question to ask. What is it that makes us so very, very afraid of the most biological eventuality in the world?
And when I say we, I do not just imply Indian society- most major societies in the world are intolerant of, or atleast once were, any sex outside of marriage. There are also many societies in the world which are even more intolerant than ours; but because I have grown up in this particular society and can form the most informed opinion on this one, I choose to question my Indian society.
Any discussion about ‘unnatural sex’ is always guised by two constructs: that it is a ‘western’ import and a development of these ‘modern’ times that does not understand culture or tradition. Both these arguments are doomed from the start, as neither of these have any concrete basis, and are actually themselves constructs created by certain groups. It would be foolhardy of me to cite history, for neither am I learned student of history, and nor are there enough resources even in the deepest recess of the web to capture the multitude of traditions and cultures that have existed in the world over the ages. So I decided to go over a couple of examples that general knowledge and the elusive ‘common sense’ provide us.
Everybody has heard about the Kama Sutra, the ancient Hindu treatise on sex, which describes the many ways of pleasuring your partner. We have even heard about the Khajuraho temples, and similar temples in the south, which show carvings of men and women engaging in all kinds of sex, be it homo or heterosexual, be it with a single partner or multiple. We know how Draupadi was forced to accept five husbands, and it is a known fact how the princely, dynastic families used to practice polyandry and polygamy to ensure succession. The ruling classes, just like the present times, were known to lead hedonistic lives which were quite different from the simple morality of the lower and middle classes, and again just like the present times, the lower and the middle classes allowed themselves certain freedoms and liberations of which the upper classes remained scathing.
The point is, ancient attitudes towards marriage-less sex were as ambivalent they are today; while there were communities who condoned it, there were groups who condemned it. While sex was considered the lawful dharma of any husband and wife, sex without a higher, righteous purpose was akin to sin. Such codes were respected by some and dismissed by the others- while the brahmanical classes maintained tight rules by the word of the Vedas and the Upnishads, there were many,many other whose lifestyles were quite different.
One good example for this is the Muria tribe, an adivasi tribe in the Bastar distric of Chhatisgarh. Muria are known for their open and embracing attitudes towards sexuality- from the onset of puberty as young teenagers, Muria girls and boys are sent to ghotuls, which are mixed-sex dormitories and are encouraged to make love to their partners. While some are told to go ahead with monogamous relationships, many of these teenagers are told to adopt multiple sexual partners in the course of their lifetime.
This is not an ideal, nor a debasement: it is simply an example of the variance in sexual practices not just all over the world which are many, but within India itself. The key here remains in sex education and acceptance, rather than imposition of one particular morality over others. We have a huge world with so many traditions and cultures that a lifetime is not enough to even study them- then how can we, insignificant, pathetic human beings that we are, living for a measly, little time period, even attempt to tell someone else that this is how it should because it is written in this book or because it’s done that way in one society, when we are nothing but dots in the cosmic infinity of space and time?