12 Indians who Pioneered Sexual Progression

There are certain figures who have gone against the taboo mould in India. Join us as we present 12 people who pioneered sexual progression.

12 Indians who Pioneered Sexual Progression

"Same-sex relationships, too, are extremely soulful"

Sexuality is a key aspect of life that the Indian community widely considers taboo and inappropriate.

Indian children are no strangers to parents making them close their eyes every time an explicit scene appears on television.

As they grow older, Indian boys are sometimes taught to ‘be careful’ around modern girls, while those girls are taught to ‘behave’ and ‘dress well’.

Sex outside marriage, as well as any sexuality other than heterosexuality, is also frowned upon by some societies.

However, over the decades, many Indians, especially celebrities and public figures have challenged these ideologies which go against the norms within their work.

Through this, they provide alternative, fresh outlooks towards sexuality.

DESIblitz delves into 12 of these people and we explore how their work has pioneered sexual progression.

Ismat Chughtai

12 Indian Celebrities who Pioneered Sexual Progression - Ismat Chughtai

Kicking off our list is the sensational novelist, short story writer and filmmaker Ismat Chughtai.

Through her impressive array of works, Ismat Ji certainly carved a niche for herself when it comes to exploring themes and ideas.

The liberal humanist shone brightly in the 1940s, with much of her work celebrating feminism and breaking sexual stigma.

One of the short stories that garnered her the most attention is Lihaaf (1942). The story depicts the sexual awakening of Begum Jan following an unhappy marriage.

Lihaaf attracted criticism for apparently suggesting lesbianism which resulted in Ismat Ji being charged – and later acquitted – of obscenity.

Ismat Ji details her meeting with the woman who inspired Lihaaf:

“She invited me to a fabulous dinner. I felt fully rewarded when I saw her flower-like boy.

“I felt he was mine as well. A part of my mind, a living product of my brain. An offspring of my pen.”

In another interview, Ismat Ji declares: “I write about people I know or have known. What should a writer write about anyway?”

Such liberal thinking deserves applause. It is no wonder that Ismat Chughtai is still respected and celebrated.

Raj Kapoor

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Indian film connoisseurs refer to Raj Kapoor as the ‘Showman of Indian cinema’.

Raj Sahab has his name firmly ingrained as one of Bollywood’s finest actor-producer-directors.

However, he is also known for channelising female sexuality within the film industry.

Upon release, Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978) attracted controversy for showing several bold scenes of a sensual Zeenat Aman (Roopa).

Similarly, in a few scenes in Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985), Mandakini’s (Ganga Sahay) breasts are clearly visible when she nurses her baby.

Iconography such as this was previously unseen in Bollywood. Raj Sahab should be commended for displaying such daring moves within his art.

In the book The One and Only Showman (2017), Raj Sahab remarks on how his childhood experiences led to his fascination with nudity:

“I was a worshipper of nudity. I think it all started because of my intimacy with my mother who was young, beautiful and had the sharp features of a Pathan woman.

“We often bathed together, and seeing her in the nude must have left a deep, erotic impression on my mind.”

Protima Bedi

12 Indian Celebrities who Pioneered Sexual Progression - Protima Bedi

Protima Bedi is instrumental when it comes to sexual progression.

She was a masterful dancer in the art of Oriya and is known for her indefatigable feminism.

In 1975, Protima allegedly ran naked on Juhu beach.

The model was also a glamorous fashionista, defying social norms for female appearances and being comfortable in her skin and tone.

She relates her brash behaviour to help others gain self-discovery:

“I shed my clothes, my inhibitions, my conditionings by outdated social norms so that you too can discover yourselves.”

Protima also stresses the importance of not hindering oneself, and allowing things to happen naturally:

“You have only to ready yourself, to allow things to happen as they should.

“The greatest favour you can do yourself is to get out of your own way.”

Protima is the mother of the Bollywood actress Pooja Bedi, who is known for starring opposite Aamir Khan in Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992).

Vikram Seth

12 Indian Celebrities who Pioneered Sexual Progression - Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth is among the world’s most prolific Indian authors. He is also a poet.

His novels include The Golden Gate (1986) and A Suitable Boy (1993).

Vikram is an essential voice, campaigning for LGBTQ+ rights in India.

The writer himself is bisexual and was in a decade-long relationship with the violinist Phillipe Honore.

He dedicates his third novel An Equal Music (1999) to him.

Vikram explains how he wishes Indians were free to come out:

“I am in a fairly comfortable position, though I did have a hard time understanding myself.

“Part of it was because of the prejudice against it.

“There is a lot of suffering involved; in small towns and villages, in metropolitan cities, even in a liberal family like my own, I found it difficult to understand myself.

“It was comparatively easy for me compared to those who are in service; they may even lose their livelihood.

“I only wished they would come out.”

Amar Singh Chamkila

12 Indian Celebrities who Pioneered Sexual Progression - Amar Singh Chamkila

Sexual progression does not always have to be in the form of fashion or literature.

Music can also play a significant role in this forward thinking.

Amar Singh Chamkila is one of Punjab’s most influential musicians. His duets with his wife Amarjot reverberate widely through India.

One of his unique selling points is his lyrics which are frankly explicit and lewd.

For example, in the chartbuster ‘Mitran Main Khand Ban Gai’, the female voice entices the male singer to “lick me”.

However, it was this aspect of Chamkila’s art that made him so original and famous.

It can be argued that while double-meaning lyrics are rude, the catchy rhythm can suggest a progressive way of thinking.

It is also important to note that while his songs could be explicit, the musician himself was known for his gentleness and genuine nature.

In 2024, a biopic on Chamkila was released on Netflix.

Directed by Imtiaz Ali, the acclaimed film features Diljit Dosanjh as the popular musician.

The film’s success is indicative of Chamkila’s everlasting legacy.

Silk Smitha

12 Indian Celebrities who Pioneered Sexual Progression - Silk Smitha

In Tamil and Telegu cinema, the name Silk Smitha shines with glory among the sexiest and most talented actresses.

She began her vivacious career with the Malayalam film Ottapettavar (1979).

Smitha also dabbled in Bollywood, performing the song ‘Baango Baango’ in Qaidi (1984).

She is a dancer in the number and she gyrates her body and poses in sensual positions, enticing the men in the song.

In an interview, the actress clarifies an allegation against her.

She was accused of being disrespectful to colleagues by crossing her legs in their presence.

Smitha says: “I sit with my legs crossed in front of them. It is my habit to sit with my legs crossed when I am relaxing.

“I have been that way since childhood. Nobody had ever told me that was bad manners.

“But now, just because it does not suit the social norms of some narrow-minded journalists, it is being turned into a big issue.”

Defying the norms and inspiring millions while doing so was second nature to Silk Smitha.

Fans were rightfully devastated when she took her own life on September 23, 1996.

Wendell Rodricks

12 Indian Celebrities who Pioneered Sexual Progression - Wendell Rodricks

In Indian fashion, Wendell Rodricks leaves an indelible mark on the hearts of fans craving more sexual progression.

The stereotype of gay fashion designers is rife. However, Wendell was admirably the first fashion aficionado who was openly gay in India.

He has campaigned for gay rights as well as social and environmental causes.

His interests also lay in food and travel and he published several writings on these topics.

Wendell came out as gay at the age of 19 and formalised his relationship with his partner Jerome Marrel in 2002.

The designer divulges his terror of being gay in 1970s India.

He explains: “It was terrorising. Sheer, cold terror. What would everyone think?

“I said to myself that it was more important what I thought. To be honest.

“Not to destroy a girl’s life by marrying just for society.

“I was looking for a relationship. Hopefully, a long-term one. Eventually, I did get what I was looking for.”

Wendell’s compassion and maturity stand out. He was rightfully honoured with the Padma Shri Award in 2014 – India’s fourth-highest civilian award.

Rituparno Ghosh

12 Indian Celebrities who Pioneered Sexual Progression - Rituparno Ghosh

This original filmmaker is steeped in the annals of Bengali and Hindi cinema.

Rituparno maintained that he had a fluid gender, though many still addressed him using masculine pronouns.

He began his film career when he directed Hirer Angti (1992), which was based on Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s novel.

Homosexuality is a common theme throughout Rituparno’s work. He was one person never to shy away from taboo subjects.

This makes him one of the most famous filmmakers of India.

When it comes to the queer community in the country, Rituparno shines as an emblem of openness and leading figures.

Rituparno expresses his feelings about same-sex relationships:

“There is much more to such relationships.

“Same-sex relationships, too, are extremely soulful, emotional and have the same pathos that any heterosexual relationship has.”

Such thoughts are inspiring and progressive and they project a pathway towards acceptance.

For that, Rituparno Ghosh deserves to be saluted.

Manvendra Singh Gohil

12 Indian Celebrities who Pioneered Sexual Progression - Manvendra Singh Gohil

Sexual progression is admittedly not the first thought that enters one’s mind when it comes to a royal family.

However, Manvendra Singh Gohil – an Indian prince – is widely touted as the first openly gay prince in history.

It is a matter of great pride that he hails from India for South Asians.

In 1991, Gohil married Princess Yuvrani Chandrika Kumari in an arranged alliance.

However, the marriage only lasted one year, ending in disaster.

Gohil reflects: “It was a total disaster. A total failure. The marriage never got consummated.

“I realised I had done something very wrong. Now two people were suffering instead of one.

“Far from becoming normal, my life was more miserable.”

Gohil’s parents were accepting of their son’s sexuality but agreed that it should not be revealed.

In October 2007, the prince appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in a segment titled ‘Gay Around The World’.

He also inaugurated the Euro Pride gay festival in Stockholm, Sweden in 2008.

Shreegauri ‘Gauri’ Sawant

12 Indian Celebrities who Pioneered Sexual Progression - Shreegauri 'Gauri' Sawant

In an ever-evolving world, one community that is being celebrated like never before is the transgender sector.

Shreegauri ‘Gauri’ Sawant stands as a pillar of positive representation for transgender rights and equality within the people.

She is an activist originally from Mumbai. She explains her background in an interview.

“There has always been a distance between me and my family.”

“You always wonder why [the transgender society] is so loud, dark and aggressive, it is because our own families have shamed and ousted us.

“Why did I have to go to knock on the door of the Supreme Court? People asked me, ‘How will you adopt a child? You don’t even have your own identity’.

“That’s where my journey started from.”

Gauri gained recognition from a moving advert in a Vicks campaign, in which she played the transgender mother of a young girl.

She is also the founder of the Sakshi Char Chowghi Trust which provides information and counselling to transgender patients seeking to learn about safe sex and those with HIV.

With her selfless activism and radical, unbreakable voice, Gauri is an undeniable symbol of bravery and resolve.

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Sunny Leone

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Few are oblivious to Sunny Leone’s past as an adult film star. She created a name for herself in the adult content industry.

She soon made her Bollywood film debut in Jism 2 (2012), in which she plays the erotic Izna.

In her films, Sunny is often seen as a sex symbol, unafraid to showcase her sexuality and assets.

The star underscores this boldness as she reveals the inability of her parents to control her:

“When my parents found out they knew my personality which was very independent.

“Even if they tried to stop me or tried to steer me the right way they would have lost their daughter.

“I’m too headstrong. And it wasn’t a plan.

“It just happened and my career and everything just kept getting bigger and bigger.”

Stressing the need to be confident in one’s sexuality, Sunny says:

“Ultimately, it all boils down to how confident and comfortable you are with your own sexuality.

“If your sexuality means pleasing your husband in bed, then so be it.

“If it means expressing it in other ways, then that’s good too.

“How you want to express your sexuality is completely your prerogative, not society’s.”

Vasu Primlani

12 Indian Celebrities who Pioneered Sexual Progression - Vasu Primlani

Vasu Primlani runs her show on her terms, being India’s first queer comedian.

She is also a somatic therapist and environmental activist.

Not only this, Vasu also provides ground-breaking support to sexual assault and abuse survivors.

All of these noble causes make her a rightful Indian icon.

Disclosing one of the inspirations her routines have on the audience, Vasu reveals:

“People are awed. Some guys think I’m joking.

“Others say, ‘What a waste!’ One woman came up and said, ‘Now I wish I were gay, if being gay is so cool’.”

Vasu also adds her feelings about sexism surrounding Indian comedy:

“We ignore it. They won’t get very far with that kind of attitude.

“Sometimes I cut them to pieces for their attitudes.”

Vasu is a stalwart of equal rights in India. She deserves every ounce of applause that comes her way.

Sexual progression is of paramount importance if we are to move swiftly towards a place of equality and acceptance.

All of these Indian icons champion progressive thinking and refreshing attitudes.

Whether in film, in text, onstage or via their social activism, these celebrities knew where they wanted to go and how to get there.

They have all played important roles in getting a very significant ball rolling. However, we still have a long way to go.

One thing is for certain though – we are heading in the right direction. 

Manav is a creative writing graduate and a die-hard optimist. His passions include reading, writing and helping others. His motto is: “Never hang on to your sorrows. Always be positive."

Images courtesy of Egomonk Insights, IMDB, Medium, Britannica, Pinterest, Times of India – India Times, Wendell Rodricks, YouTube and The Quint.

Video courtesy of YouTube.

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