Sexual initiative in India: A new kind of female agency

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Flamingo India's designer, visual culture, examines a new ad campaign that presents a modern vision of what's sexy: women who act decisively on their desires

MUMBAI — While Bollywood’s relationship with female sexuality has always been strained, there is now an ad campaign that allows Indian female leads to exert some serious power.

I remember an indie Bollywood movie that, in 2009, took Indian audiences by storm. As is often the case with Bollywood, the success was largely attributable to its equal measure of sexual content and sexual insinuation. The movie was called "DevD." One particular scene comes to mind: It involved the female lead who, after cycling to a field near the village canal, lays down a mattress in tall grass so that she and her childhood lover can meet in secret for their sexual congress. Though the most shocking thing in the scene should have been the fact that the boy snubbed the girl with no explanation, the cinema was brimming with catcalls and hoots for the "bold" girl, who, by setting up the clandestine meeting, had acknowledged that she had not only a sex drive but also initiative.

Alas, sex and Bollywood have always had a complicated relationship; more so female sexuality and Bollywood. 

It must have been baffling for many in India at the time to accept an idea like female initiative openly, and it still is today. Few things are different, but we have seen some important changes. Recently, we have been going through a prolonged discourse about the existence and impact of rape culture that is sometimes portrayed in Bollywood films. This awareness has brought about the need for a discussion around, and the normalization of, "consent culture."

Against this backdrop, an ad campaign has come along that cleverly spins off Axe’s age-long hard work at associating scent with sex while building on the common thread — pheromones, of course.

This brave new brand is Wildstone, and it is showing female Indian sexuality in a new, serious and believable way. Where Axe shows consent, insofar as their heroines lose control and want to run after the men, it’s clear that tongue is firmly in cheek. Where the classic "Axe girls" are people whose animal instincts drive them to unleash themselves in throngs on the one poor scented man, the Wildstone girl has an especial gravitas to her, and makes said man’s brow sweat in a whole new way.

Meet the Wildstone girls

First Huma Qureshi, who in the course of this ad instructs her beau over the phone to spray the deodorant onto himself for a party. She then shows up at his house and coquettishly demands that they delay their departure. The ad ends on a suggestive note, with camera emphasis on her undoing her highbrow party hairstyle and then lingering twice on a heart tattoo on her back.

It is significant that the ad takes place in a slightly messy apartment and even shows a glimpse of a not-so-posh elevator outside. (Most elevators in India, even those in very expensive apartment complexes are not so posh, so it’s clear that we’re talking about something that might really happen, not some fantasy never never land.) In this realistic setting, we see an urban couple who may not live together (shocking!). And though the ad shows sexual intent, it’s communicated much more through body language and the facial expression of both the male and female leads — all of this far more real and graspable in the Indian cultural context.

And here is Tapsee Pannu, the other Wildstone girl, in an ad that takes place in a village, or backend-of-a-city context, during what looks to be the kite-flying season. After realizing that she lost her kite to the neighbor boy because she was distracted by the scent of his deodorant, she decides to jump over to his building’s terrace and extract her revenge. It is interesting to note that before doing so, she instructs the child playing on her terrace to go downstairs, as if to say that she, by opening up her hair seductively at the boy next door, is about to do something children shouldn’t watch. Once again, this is not the abandon of the Axe heroine, whose mind has been usurped by animal sexuality; this is a sexually aware woman who’s utterly in control of her mind.

As for the soundtrack, the words "dil baimaan hai" stand out. They mean that the heart is a cheat; the heart, for all its whims and fantasies, can be an unfair player, albeit in a charming way. 

Viewed in the context of the theme "pursuit of love," the music suggests that a certain playfulness must be expected and cautions all parties to be prepared to ‘play’ if they must pursue this love. 

Further, the soundtrack is of a refreshingly Indian ethic that deserves special mention because it adds a certain authenticity and validates the world of desire against the background of traditional, everyday reality.

Where Axe girls ripping off their clothes at the mercy of their animal instincts by necessity become sex objects, and ultimately trophies of male power, here are two female protagonists who seem to be struggling with the best way forward in situations where something much more subtle than animal sexuality is in play. Perhaps we could call it ardency. Both, in so doing, hone tons of personality, weigh their actions and are empowered enough to act on their wishes.

Both men in the ads are left a bit stunned, though also a bit flattered. And in this representation of the male response, their actions are, at least in part, signaled as legitimate.

Screen capture of the slightly flabbergasted Kunal Kapoor when he realizes what's happening.

Qureshi, with her husky, womanly voice and "mature woman" clothing, in contrast to Tapsee Pannu, a "younger" girl with tons of chutzpah, exist against very realistic settings, one urban and one a small town. Once again, the settings instruct us to see these narratives as somewhat real, rather than fantasy. You get the sense that these ads are dealing with ideas that Axe has only ever touched on, but never fully embraced: the idea of doing it in one’s own way. Axe canonized the idea of women losing control and going after the object of desire; what that brand does not seem to have seen is that adding female consent into the equation creates a much headier experience.

This is the first instance in Indian media where female initiative has been used to authenticate male sexual charisma. Moreover, in a country where women are hardly expected to be sexually forward,it means that for the modern gentleman, a woman’s empowered self-expression becomes the new tantalizing sexual fantasy.

Way to go, consent culture.

Mili Sethia is designer, visual culture, with Flamingo India.


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