Waheeda Rehmans Gulabo gazed longingly at Vijay the poet (Guru Dutt) in the song Aaj sajan mohe ang laga lo from the 1957 classic Pyaasa. That was as close as Bollywood got to gratifying the voyeuristic female 50 years ago.
In 2008, we see more, much more. Now, womens eyes can graze over Shah Rukh Khans glistening six-pack abs, rippling muscles and waxed chest, beckoning from the screen to take more than a second look.
Though our media is undoubtedly still a feast for male eyes, the female spectator is gradually gaining visibility. On the streets too, at least on our city streets, women are coming out of the closet, checking out men, more openly than furtively.
The female gaze has come out from behind its purdah.
We are a group of eight girls and we dont think twice before stopping to admire a good-looking man in public. We even rate men randomly. Its great fun, confesses graphic designer Trisha Chatterjee. She makes no apologies, and does not hesitate to appreciate a cute guy even when she is in the company of her boyfriend.
If I come across a good-looking man, I do cast an appreciative glance. In fact, I swerve 180 degrees at times! says Tanu Anand, a Bangalore-based public relations professional.
Economic independence, education and media have combined to free the female to look where she chooses, when she chooses, how she chooses. It is the broadminded environment in which we work and socialise and the kind of openness we share with our male friends, even to the point of talking about sex with them, that has caused this change, feels marketing professional Akshita Sharma. If men can, then so can women. It is a lot like smoking, adds Pallavi Banerjee, web content writer.
Technology, too, is doing its bit. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Orkut allow women to watch discreetly, browsing through photo albums and checking out profiles of potentially dishy men. One has the freedom to see photographs at leisure without anyone being the wiser, smiles 25-year-old Sanjukta Chatterjee.
There are differences, however, in how women look, and what women look for. While most men dont try to hide the fact that they are looking at a woman, at least we do it a little respectfully and dont hang our tongues out, points out copywriter Sanjana Bhattacharya.
SRKs abs notwithstanding, women typically arent looking for the most built body. A good-looking man does invite stares, but it is his entire persona — the way he dresses and the manner in which he conducts himself and his behaviour towards women — that really turns a woman on, says Priyanka Chaudhury, Mumbai-based advertising professional.
There is only so far purely visual stimulation will go for the average gal. Thats why the trashy romance novel has always been as good as porn for women.
If Bollywood has always been — and still is — obsessed with the woman in the wet sari, think back to 1991, to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, where Marian (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) watches Robin Hood (Kevin Costner) as he bathes under a water fall. And then think ahead to Jodhaa Akbar, where Jodhaa (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) steals glances from behind a curtain as Akbar (Hrithik Roshan) practises sword fighting.
Bollywood has started to feed the female gaze. Just about every John Abraham film makes the most of his body beautiful: case in point, the recent No Smoking, where he spent much of the film in a towel. In Race, the camera lingers on the new, improved Saif Ali Khans bare torso.
Deepika Padukone and Kareena Kapoor are there for sure, but you cant for a moment ignore Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan, glistening, moving like magic, performing for us all. Shah Rukhs Dard-e-disco act from Om Shanti Om brought the male item number into sharp focus. If these, including Hrithik Roshans Break Free from Krazzy 4, are more about a display of dancing skills and star power that appeals to the women as much as the men, they are also about admiring eyes. You will have to be both Shah Rukh and Shakira, is what director Farah Khan told Shah Rukh before he shot Dard-e-disco. And that is what we got.
The male form, exemplified by Michelangelos David, has been celebrated through the ages. Now, the male body has become more saleable, says Sagar Banerjee, M. Phil student.
Wed like to make a special mention of Alisha Chinais Made In India, the 1996 video for which had Milind Soman in nothing but a dhoti. She was well before her time.
Advertising, which has made money off the male gaze for decades, is throwing something in for the girls as well. Aside from products like innerwear, newer categories are now vying for the female attention. Soap ads, which may have previously stuck a woman under a waterfall or a shower (with the notable exception of the wholesome Lifebuoy), now feature Shah Rukh Khan soaking in a bathtub surrounded by a bevy of Bollywood beauties for Lux. Hrithiks sculpted form was the focus of a recent Cinthol ad.
This has a spillover effect in the real world. A woman who trains at my gym goaded her husband to join so he could have a body like Hrithik! says media professional Mita Acharya.
It may not be a conscious move on the part of most advertisers, but one can say that the male body is in focus in advertising now more than ever before. But the trend is definitely category driven, says Anurag Hira, executive creative director, Bates David Enterprise.
Elsewhere on the small screen, too, eye candy in male form is catching on. SET Max, which once changed the rules of the cricket viewing game by introducing Mandira noodle strap Bedi as anchor, has chosen male models Shiv Pandit and Samir Kochhar to anchor IPLs pre- and post-match shows. Just like Mandira Bedi was introduced to cricket to sex up the game, many women are now tuning in to catch a glimpse of the good looking Shiv Pandit, says college student Shweta Singhania.
If the female gaze is coming into prominence now, who knows, the next edition of the IPL may have the women cheerleaders replaced by men baring their six-pack abs, smiles Hira.
In truth, this is a more complicated issue than meets the roving eye. This social phenomenon is far too deeply ingrained in gender constructs and how we are conditioned to be so easily explained. It can be argued that women have always watched — albeit furtively — and more will be learned by studying how a woman watches, and how she is being permitted to do so, rather than if she is watching at all.
Laura Mulvey who coined the term male gaze, argues that as opposed to the female form, the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Says Madhuja Mukherjee, professor, film studies, Jadavpur University: The display of the male body is not just for the female gaze. The male form is a show of power. Patriarchy and cultural mores render the female gaze unacceptable. The reception is only partly possible.