Issue 32 / Exploring The Ayashi Treatment in Bollywood Cinema

Exploring The Ayashi Treatment in Bollywood Cinema

Jan 16, 2016

In this two-part series, we explore how Bollywood has picturized the theme of "Ayashi." First we take a look to the past and how this powerful word brought forth intense romance, forever-longing and sacred hearts.

Bajirao Mastani had a highly marketable dialogue in its promo, imbuing masses with a sense of passionate conscientiousness that comes with a strong moral movie. The catchy phrase “Bajirao ne Mastani se mohabbat ki hai, ayashi nahi” (Bajirao did not just have sex with Mastani, he loved her) glorifies love by juxtaposing with “ayashi” which bears an inferior connotation in light of it.

Before one can unpack why the concept is inferior, it must first be known what it could imply. Outside the context of the film, "Ayashi"’ can be interpreted in terms of prostitution, adultery or casual sex. There is a debate of ethics on each and popular culture is actively involved in it. Cinema showcases and influences public opinions through its support or rejection of an idea. Bollywood, like foreign media, has both reinforced and challenged stigmas on sex outside of marriage. 

Old Hindi films show poor conditions of prostitutes but do not propose improving those, instead focus on pulling them out of the profession and into wedlock. Every sex worker is shown as an unhappy one, desiring marriage. Neither has she freely made her choice nor does she want to retain it. As such, these films only tackle the idea of the human trafficking angle of the sex trade. The other angle where women make free choices has not been explored. For example, in Pakeezah’s opening when Shahabuddin (Ashok Kumar) weds a prostitute, his father attributes it as a sin while he calls it love. The mother lives alone for the remaining part of her life, giving birth to Sahibjan (Meena Kumari), who too ends up as a prostitute, before she dies. Sahibjan shares the same dream: marriage. She is anguished by her profession and is also a religious person, like her mother. The quality of religious piety is, of course, only part of the narrative to gather more of our sympathy towards the sex worker. The story comes full circle. The father repents and recognises her daughter, marrying her to his nephew who already had feelings for her. The prostitute is painted ultimately as the victim who needs to be rescued from the shackles of her profession by a hero’s love and marriage proposal.

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In other films of the age, the plot, characters and tone of the film are not very different. In Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, the lyrics of the song "Salam-e-Ishq" depict the prostitute craving for love: “Mera dil bechain hai humsafar ke liye” (My heart is anxiously waiting for a lifelong companion). In Umrao Jaan, Umrao (Rekha) is kidnapped and led to prostitution. She strives to find love and escape from her profession and endures the barrage of abuses society throws at her from all corners. The ending is more tragic for her, though, as she is left desolate and unable to escape from her job. Ultimately, the sex worker remains a loving, sacrificing and pious woman, helpless and forsaken by society. 


Muqaddar Ka Sikandar
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When it comes to the topic of adultery, sexism remains quite relevant, as the man doesn’t bear as much brunt of the shame as the woman. Bollywood has shown exceptions to the rule. In Silsila, Amit (Amitabh Bacchan), a married man has an affair with Chandni (Rekha), a married woman. The shaming falls on both adulterers and not on the woman alone. Their respective spouses, played by Jaya Bachchan and Sanjeev Kumar, show dignity and tolerance while troubled by this development. Through these characters who carry a heightened understanding of the matter, the movie takes a leap from the standard depiction of commitment and cheating. Arth beautifully taps into the various layers of extramarital affairs, exploring the grey areas with delicacy and nuance. None of the characters — Pooja (Shabana Azmi), Inder (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) and Kavita (Smita Patel) — are spared from psychological torment that comes with the territory of polygamous relationships.

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Casual sex has been explored in old Bollywood films in an ambivalent fashion — not a lot of support has been allotted to freedom of choices but the trials of women are contextualized well. Although Hare Rama Hare Krishna does not explicitly look at casual sex, Jasbir's (Zeenat Aman) character of a hippie implies undertones of sexual revolution. She ultimately commits suicide. The film's message is not one of hope and positivity as it suggests that deviating from society's gender norms will have bad results.

Hare Rama Hare Krishna
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However, other films show support for sex outside of marriage through strong male characters who do not judge the women. In Kabhie Kabhie, when Amit (Amitabh Bachchan) discovers his wife Anju (Waheeda Rehman) had a child before marriage to him, he is initially harsh but gradually mellows down to forgiveness. Laawaris and Trishul are fully dedicated in their support for feminism. These stories are of illegitimate children whose journeys are made harder because of this, played by Amitabh Bachchan in both films. He rebels against society for himself and his mother, than merely conforming to his destiny. The mother who has sex out of wedlock faces immense hardships in life but poetic justice is granted as ultimately, the fathers repent on their mistakes.

Overall, vintage Bollywood cinema has tackled the complex theme of "Ayashi" with sensitivity and maturity, accurately conveying social attitudes which disapprove of it, impacting women more than men. They have not lended support to the problems in a breakthrough manner, though, staying within safe boundaries of commercial appeal.

Main Image Photo Credit: (film still of Umrao Jaan)

Sonia Malik

Sonia Malik


Sonia writes on current affairs and pop culture. An English graduate from the University of Toronto, she identifies as a global citizen, feminist and nature lover. She will be ready to shake a leg to a peppy Bollywood beat any day.


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