Bollywood becomes nightmare for Canadian couple

The dust kicked up by the lesbian relationship in "Girlfriend" is only to be expected. Audiences all over the world fear the unknown... or the unfamiliar.

Films about exceptional relationships have found a special niche in mainstream Hindi films.

Years ago in L.V. Prasad's "Sharda", Meena Kumari played Raj Kapoor's stepmother! They never came together as a romantic lead.

Almost four decades later when Mansoor Khan cast Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai as siblings in "Josh", trade experts sniggered that they'd never make a romantic pair again.

But just three years later, Shah Rukh and Aishwarya played two of the most intensely romantic lovers in the history of our literature...Devdas and Paro in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film "Devdas".

Between "Sharda" and "Josh", sexual mores and ethical values had changed beyond recognition.

The sexual revolution hit our social structure in seismic waves. The changing face of sex and society was bound to show up on screen. And it did!

In Deepa Mehta's hugely controversial "Fire", Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das broke every sexual taboo in Hindi cinema to play lesbian sisters-in-law. Though shocked, the nation embraced the outr? sexuality of Mehta's movie.

But that was a film by an outsider. Within Mumbai, it took filmmakers longer to get a hang on the changing reality of sex. Gay jokes surfaced in mainstream films like Arjun Sablok's "Na Tum Jano Na Hum" and Nikhil Advani's "Kal Ho Na Ho" where the two male leads were wrongly perceived to be in compromising positions.

And now director Karan Razdan is on to a film on lesbianism. In "Girlfriend", Isha Koppikar plays a closet lesbian who is over-possessive of her best friend, Amrita Arora.

Though the director claims there's no sensationalism in the treatment, it's fairly obvious that a touch of the salacious does ensure a certain level of audience participation in a non-star- cast film.

Hence in Madhur Bhandarkar's "Page 3", newcomer Jai Karla is cast as a closet homosexual - a secret that the journalist-heroine (Konkona Sen-Sharma) discovers only later in the narration.

In Sanjay Gupta's "Musafir", Sameera Reddy is cast as a married woman who has an affair with a number of men who walk through her life. The film and Sameera's role is inspired by Jennifer Lopez in Oliver Stone's "U Turn".

Some years ago no leading lady in Bollywood would have touched this role with a bargepole.

Today Kareena Kapoor blissfully plays defiantly ambivalent in "Fidaa" while Priyanka Chopra goes gloriously grey in "Aitraaz" where she's cast as a veritable man-eater who wrongfully accuses Akshay Kumar of rape when he turns down her sexual advances. Wanton woman, or the product of contemporary times?

Are Hindi filmmakers finally losing their coyness about sexual mores?

Dino Morea, who's increasingly acquiring a reputation for playing psychologically unconventional characters, plays a wife-beating sadist in Mahesh Manjrekar's "Rakht" and a young man who has an affair with an older woman (Jaya Prada) in the same director's "Deha".

Jaya Prada in such a role? What are the times coming to?

Dino says there was no awkwardness or hesitation in playing such offbeat characters.

"Why should there be? Haven't we opened up our doors to globalisation? And shouldn't mainstream Hindi cinema reflect this reality?"

A few years ago, it would have seemed unimaginable for an actress like Jaya Prada with her staid conventional image to play a woman in love with a man old enough to be her son. In fact two years ago when Dimple Kapadia was approached for "Leela" by Somnath Sen to play a lonely woman who sleeps with her student, the actress reluctantly agreed.

Times have changed and so have attitudes in our films to sexually unconventional behaviour on screen. It is no longer essential to be prim as long as the character is rounded and exciting.