Incest and Bollywood! Really? Certainly not a theme we associate with our good-old masala movies. However, Bollywood has not exactly shielded away from the subject. Bollywood has talked very little about it, but there is enough to have a nuanced discussion on Bollywood's methods of handling the subject of incest.
Let me open with three films that failed at the Box Office primarily because they were accused of implied incest. Bambai Ka Babu (1960), Lamhe (1991), and Zameer (1975) were all big banner movies with a popular star cast. There was no actual incest in the films, but the themes had underlying incestuous connotations. Bambai Ka Babu and Zameer had similar stories. In both films, the couple was mistaken as siblings by the society. But there was no family connection between them, and the audience was aware of that from the beginning. While Bambai Ka Babu ended tragically, Zameer had a happy ending. In Lamhe, a young man falls in love with an older woman who is completely unaware of his feelings and finally ends up with her daughter. The audience was uncomfortable with their relationship primarily because he was 'like her father'.
The three films, I just talked about, had nothing to do with incest, yet the audience rejected them. But now, it's time for actual depictions of incest on screen. Let me begin with Manoj Kumar's Clerk. In Clerk, a father rapes his daughter, unknowingly, and then dies repenting after he finds out the truth. Clerk bombed when it released. But later, it acquired a cult status primarily because of Sajid Khan's TV comedy called Kehne Mein Kya Harj Hai where he made the film famous for ham performances and poor direction.
Nalini Jayant's debut film Behen (1949) is the story of an obsessive elder brother who wanted to have total control of his sister, and does so by ruining all her relationships with other men. Even though there is no sex, the brother's obsession with the sister has strong sexual elements. Behen did decent business at the Box Office.
In 1947, a film called Bhanwar, explored the theme of incest. A review of the film in Motion Picture Magazine called it a "perverted theme". Bhanwar is the story of three childhood friends, one woman, and two men. After she is orphaned, one of the friends decides to marry her in order to give her a home. But their marriage is not a happy one, and she gradually realises she is in love with the other friend. Later she has a one-night stand with him when her husband is away. Eventually, it turns out that her husband is her long lost brother, which allows her to be with the man she actually loves. What is interesting here is that the reviewer was confused at the multiple levels of immorality in the film and did not know which one outdid the other. The heroine cheats on her husband, commits incest, and yet gets to live happily ever after. In fact, Bhanwar ends happily for everyone as the husband/brother also finds another girl. It is not difficult to imagine why Bhanwar would disgust the audience. The film refuses to punish the victims for an honest mistake, in fact, gives them options to move on and live a happy life. Even today Bollywood is likely to find the premise of Bhanwar immoral. All the characters in Bhanwar transgressed serious moral codes; ideally they should have been destroyed. Instead, they were allowed to continue with what they had done, and the film even absolved them of their guilt.
Anurag Kashyap's That Girl in Yellow Boots (2010) also explores the theme of incest where the girl does not know that she is giving "hand-job" to her father. It's the story of a girl who comes to India to find her father, earns a living as a masseur and makes extra money by giving "hand-jobs". Her father knows who she is and is her regular customer. The film directly addresses the issue of incest in family where the father had abused and impregnated her elder sister, and he had now come to have a sexual contact with her. It was a brave film, but again failed at the Box Office, unlike Monsoon Wedding (2001) that was successful and also directly talked about incest and child sexual abuse.
Let me wind up with a film called Rakhi (1949) about which Baburao Patel, the editor of FilmIndia, said, "Rakhi, the latest Prakash Pictures, has failed completely because it begins with a disgusting suggestion of illicit sex relationship between a brother and a sister." Patel then directs his diatribe towards the religion of the writer of the film. "The story is written by a Muslim writer Shums Lucknavi, who being a Muslim and as such in being a believer in marrying first cousins, is not expected to understand the sanctity of the relationship between a brother and a sister observed by the Hindus. Even a slightest shadow on this sacred relationship is considered too filthy and revolting by an average Hindu mind. And yet persuaded by a Muslim writer, both the Hindu producer and the Hindu director have allowed this filthy suggestion to be portrayed on the screen with the one natural result that the film has failed ingloriously." (FilmIndia, March 1950, pp 57). First of all, there is no incest in the film, it's only suggested, and Patel blames it on the Muslim writer without "Hindu" values. He is in complete denial of the fact that incest is universal. Instead, he chooses to demonize the Muslim writer who has corrupted the two Hindus in making this film. Patel wants to close all avenues for even starting a discussion on the subject. This conscious process of "keeping it clean" is not surprising. There are values that every culture wants to inculcate and condemning incest is common to almost all cultures. However, there is a difference between critiquing something as opposed to hiding it, and denying it. Patel clearly fails to see the difference. What is depressing is that even today a large number of people are likely to parrot Patel's views about incest. Hopefully, that would not stop filmmakers from exploring this gray zone which remains largely underexplored in Bollywood.