In the 1979 film Noorie, the strikingly lovely, passionate yet shy heroine played by Poonam Dhillon commits suicide before her wedding because she is raped. It was a brutal assault on her sense of self and safety. But cinematically it was mounted to show the heroine’s inability to face shame and her would-be husband’s social ridicule because she was no longer “chaste”. The only way left to protect the husband’s honour was by killing herself. Rape may be an uneasy instance to offset an argument on virginity, a much-valued attribute in Hindi cinema for many decades, but that extremity helps make the point.
Though it is a scientific fact that a woman’s hymen can be ruptured even by a rough horse ride, virginity continued to be sanctified in Hindi cinema. Associated with sacrifice, purity, chastity, idealism, perfection, and an aspect of “Indian values” in a woman, it set a certain bar for the heroine. Authority was asserted through a veneer of romantic respectability, an absurd way to wield power. The virginal mystique of a woman who saves her sexual innocence for her husband was given a haloed status. Never mind if the man didn’t even remember where he had lost his. In other words, in films, a woman’s body was used for narrating stories of love, war, revenge and power, and certainly those of restraint, dignity and conventional Indian femininity. No lust or wantonness. Or as social scientistShiv Viswanathan says, “The history of the woman in Hindi cinema was only told through her body, never through her desires.”