I had never seen Ram Teri Ganga Maili. Long story short, I hadn’t watched actress Mandakini bare her breast in Raj Kapoor’s 1985 film, and every time the infamous scene was referenced in Bollywood discussions, I’d been feeling left out. So I recently went on YouTube and watched the train sequence where Mandakini bares a double-D on the pretext of breast-feeding. She then conveniently forgets to button up and sits there singing a lullaby of sorts, while her pendulous breasts make the viewer either extremely uncomfortable or very turned on. Either way, one can see why Ganga was ever so “maili” at the end of this voyeurism.

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While South Indian films have forever been showcasing generous breasts struggling to breathe free under tight transparent blouses and fickle pallus, the breast did not fully arrive in Bollywood until Mandakini’s bold scene caught everybody in a gasp. Until then, Madhubala’s forehead with a crazy lock of hair, Nutan’s bare ankle, Meena Kumari’s quivering lower lip, Mumtaz’s pout, and other innocent inches of flesh brought unexplained titillation for Hindi film viewers. In 1978’s Satyam Shivam Sundaram, Raj Kapoor had already tried to reveal as much of Zeenat Aman’s bosom as possible, but the desi obsession with the burnt half of her face took attention away from the bare skin.

Then, in the 1981 film Yaarana, Neetu Singh ran into Amitabh Bachchan’s arms, proving that the makers of Baywatch weren’t the first to come up with the “run and bounce” strategy. Neetu Singh’s slow-motion gallop was a harbinger of the coming Bollywood years. All hell broke loose after that and most of the ’80s were spent trying to drape the sari in a way that would bring most attention to an actress’s breasts.

Padmini Kolhapure’s career took off in 1980, as soon as she took off her shirt inInsaaf Ka Tarazu for the role of a rape victim. She went on to dazzling success throughout the decade with other such scenes. In fact, the “rape” sequence in Bollywood films soon became an alibi for cheap displays.

Then, in 1985, Raj Kapoor acted on his fantasy, and Mandakini brought the “boob” to the boob tube. Such was the impact of its arrival that even the menacing underworld felt compelled to make its appreciation felt. Gangster and crime boss Dawood Ibrahim, with whom Mandakini is rumored to have been involved, allegedly made off with the breast and the beauty.

I was eight years old in the late 1980s when my family sat together watchingChandni. I turned to my mother with an inquisitive frown. Why was Sridevi dancing bharatanatyam in what looked like a decorated white bra? While the curtain promptly fell over the television in our home, the pallu kept falling lower in Bollywood.

Along came Madhuri Dixit, and the breast had never been heaved in such style. While men, women, and children alike marveled at Madhuri’s dance moves inBeta, we all secretly knew that “dhak-dhak girl” was a euphemistic title for something else. The likes of Kimi Katkar, Shilpa Shirodkar, Mamta Kulkarni, and Nagma swiftly followed, bringing with them very little acting talent but a lot of B-grade flicks, revealing outfits, and bawdy dance moves.

Now, the robust bosom-heave is an essential step in all Bollywood dances. No matter how beautiful or how accomplished an actress, mainstream cinema ensures that she will writhe around in a wet dress or bounce her well-endowed body for the audience. Urmila Matondkar’s running sequence in Rangeela, Aishwarya Rai’s moves from Ishq Kamina, Kareena’s soaked jig in Asoka, and Preeti Zinta’s dance under the waterfalls in Dil Se are all demonstrations of what it takes for female actresses to further their careers in Bollywood. Recently, as the whole of Bombay sizzled in an uncomfortable water deficit, Nishabd’s Jiah Khan sat in Big B’s backyard, watering her chest with a garden hose. “A star is born!” newspapers proclaimed in a hurry even as everybody was busy squinting at her soaked white shirt.

From the early beginnings in the ’70s to present times, film posters have insolently gone against all public censors in displaying cleavage, indecent poses, and sexually suggestive scenes from Bollywood movies. The virginal, chaste image of the “ideal” Indian woman has been reinforced by the Hindi film industry, even as it is conveniently cast away in the name of that one racy “item number” which will make an impression at the box office.

It is often joked that if a female lead does not have a “boob shot” in a quality film, it gets passed on to the critic’s awards. In Bollywood circles, it is said that filmmakers set a price for the dhak-dhak move. While it may be a dog-eat-dog business in Hollywood, Bollywood seems to work by the tit-for-tat maxim.

It is interesting to note that the same rules didn’t seem to apply to the male actors until recent years. That trend is now changing fast. Salman Khan, Sanjay Dutt, Saif Ali Khan, Hrithik Roshan, and John Abraham can all boast of toned physiques that wow their female (and in some cases, male) audiences.

Incidentally, new members are starting to jump aboard Bollywood’s bare brigade. The most recent mainstream releases heading box office charts include Shah Rukh Khan’s masala movie Om Shanti Om and Ranbir Kapoor’s debut film Saawariya. While the two films belonged to separate genres, the one thing that stood out in both commercial hits was that this time it was the male leads who served as eye-candy for their female fans. Shah Rukh Khan bared some delicious abs to the beats of “Dard-e-Disco” in OSO. And debutante Ranbir Kapoor will probably go down in Bollywood history as the only male actor to have a scene snipped by the censor board for indecent exposure. Even as female fans eagerly awaited a glimpse of Ranbir Kapoor’s goodies in Sanjay Leela Bansali’s Saawariya, the censor board tightened their grip over the strategically draped towel that kept slipping off the young actor’s gyrating pelvis.

Perhaps, we might say, a new sun has risen over Bollywood—finally bringing in its wake some firm biceps and taut bellybuttons.

 

Aditi Nadkarni is a U.S.-based cancer researcher, creative writer, poet, and documentary filmmaker.

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