The movie Khandani Shafakhana raises a valid point – that in a country with such a large population, the topic is still taboo
“In our society, nobody talks about sex, and that gives birth to various other ills, from suppressed or repressed sexuality to violence to diseases, premature pregnancies, sex crimes—the list is endless,” says Shilpi Dasgupta, the debutant director of Khandani Shafakhana in an interview to Scroll.
To remedy this dire situation, she has brought to life Baby Bedi (Sonakshi Sinha)—a competitive and quick-witted medical representative who, burdened by her family’s economic circumstances, inherits and is then forced to run her uncle’s sex clinic in Hoshiarpur, Punjab. It’s an interesting premise and forms a set with Vicky Donor and Shubh Mangal Saavdhan — both Ayushmann Khurrana films that revolutionised the conversation on male fertility or lack thereof.
However, unlike Khurrana’s films, Khandani Shafakhana restricts itself to urging other people to talk about sex and sexual problems without the protagonist actually having any herself.
While one may support the sense of determination and enterprise that Baby Bedi shows in handling criticism and the challenges of a business she is ill-equipped to deal with, the film becomes a repetitive petition to generally open up about conversations on sex in India. Dasgupta tries to peg this on a scaffolding of comedy but it falls short because the laughs come from the sexual problems and the quirkiness of the patients.
“If you hold people at gun-point or make the message too in-your-face, people may not listen. The idea is to make everyone laugh at themselves,” says Dasgupta in the Scroll interview. Unfortunately, nobody really laughs at themselves because they are all caricatures of real people with sexual problems or diseases. There is little sensitivity or empathy to the pain and shame or the relationships such people share with their families. In fact, Baby Bedi inherits the clinic because a patient shoots her mamaji (uncle) for making him an unstoppable sex machine! If only Dasgupta had pushed the envelope a little more and actually dealt with the subject she so eloquently describes in the interview.
The point the film makes, however, is valid. Are we really talking enough about sex in India? Is it still a taboo? Will sex education (or Family Life Education, as it is called) change the overall narrative on sex? How long can we afford to be coy about something we clearly excel at — as our population and demographic dividend attest to?
In 2016, Hindustan Times had an article headlined “Sexology is big business, now it wants respect”. In the article, Kuntal Dutta, an obstetrician in Kolkata, says: “Sexologist? That is a nice designation. But I cannot use it. It will scandalise my patients.” The article says that though Dutta has been a sexologist for five years in the hospital, he is called a “counsellor”. Similarly, another medical voice underlines this sense of shame surrounding sexology in India. “‘My parents cannot get over the fact that I am officially a sexologist. They never understood why, despite a degree in urology, I chose to pursue sexology,” says Yadav, who works with Fortis Hospital in Delhi’s Shalimar Bagh.
These are doctors and yet they are not even able to express their scientific credentials. Forget the patients being open about or aware of their problems.
The same article goes on to mention a Khandani Shafakhana in Old Delhi’s Daryaganj, “set up in 1928 with the motto of ‘giving sexual lives to people’. Secrecy is a virtue there. It is run by only one doctor, whose schedule, expectedly, is choc-a-bloc.” Almost a century after this Daryaganj clinic was set up, we still haven’t made satisfactory progress.
So, is sex ed the solution?
In a study published in 2013, authors Niharika Tripathi and TV Sekher writes: “The apparent stigma attached to any discussion on sex in India is due to the fact that people tend to view sex education in a narrow sense, that is, the mere explanation of anatomical and biological differences. Ideally home is the best place for sex education and the attitudes of parents are of vital importance.” Their study based on nationwide surveys concluded that the “overwhelming majority of young women and men are in favour of introducing family life education. The government and civil society should initiate a national debate to arrive at a consensus on this issue among various sections of the society.”
It is time we moved away from outdated assumptions and accept that in today’s hyperconnected world it is not the lack of information that is a problem. Rather, it is the lack of a correct perspective and linkages that have not only made sex a taboo but have made sexual behaviour risky and often violent and destructive. We need to inculcate not just the physical and moral aspects of sex, but also the notions of consent and restorative justice to our national dialogue.
Let’s take the banners calling sexual problems and diseases “guptrog” off the walls near railway tracks. The Shafakhana can still be Khandani but the conversations on sex and related diseases in our homes, offices and on social media should be open and modern.
In 1991 the American pop group Salt-N-Pepa released a song called Let’s Talk About Sex It was scandalous at the time, especially to those of us growing up in India who had never had a conversation about sex publicly or with our
Let’s talk about sex, baby
Let’s talk about you and me
Let’s talk about all the good things
And the bad things that may be
Let’s talk about sex
Let’s talk about sex for now to the people at home or in the crowd
It keeps coming up anyhow
Don’t decoy, avoid, or make void the topic
Cuz that ain’t gonna stop it
Now we talk about sex on the radio and video shows
Many will know anything goes
Let’s tell it how it is, and how it could be
How it was, and of course, how it should be”
Baby Bedi says the same thing in Khandani Shafakhana. “Baat to karo”—and she is absolutely right!