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The puritanic mantle



Part of the objection is centred around the `violation' of Indian culture.

JUST a few days ago, one of our national newspapers, known for its liberal stand on most issues, carried a front page story about films on television.

You might think it odd that a story about films on television made it to the front page of a national paper, but there was something else that was even more odd about the story: the story was, to use a childhood word, "squealing". It was, in other words, telling tales.

It wasn't the first time either. Another newspaper, again famous for its opposition to everything that's reactionary in our country, did the same thing. It "squealed".

What both of them wrote about was public morality. One of the stories concerned the then Minister of Information and Broadcasting threatening to pull FTV (Fashion Television) off the air unless it excorised "nudity" off its frames. The second story was about a TV channel which let everything, so to speak, hang out. "Psst ... want to see Richard Gere hanging loose?" was about the actor being seen in one of his earlier movies in a full-frontal nude shot. And he wasn't, according to the paper the only one. Other films on this channel showed nudes too.

What were these papers doing? Strictly in the news sense, they were doing their job: about the flaunting by a foreign channel of its undertaking in one case and the contravention of censorship guidelines in the other. But in doing their duty by the news, these papers were only strengthening the hand of reactionary forces, and heaven knows those hands do not need strengthening at all. And since this really was so obvious, it must have been a censorious streak in the writer and in his editor which made them carry the story.

You will see this new puritanism everywhere. Even in official circles. The new Information and Broadcasting Minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, has taken on Sushma Swaraj's mantle of fastidiousness on moral matters with even greater gusto. For example, at his instance, the "Jockey" underwear ad ("The next best thing to being naked") was taken off all channels, and, apparently, he is taking a close look at some other ads before he wields his axe again.

Music videos, designed to provoke, have succeeded in a way their writers and directors didn't mean to: the I and B ministry has put as many as 13 songs on its hit list, starting with Kaanta Laga which shows a girl in low-cut jeans out of which peeps out her thong, a halter top from which you can see a tattoo on the visible part of her breast, gyrating to the song Asha Parekh once made famous wearing a ghagra-choli.

The music video of Chadti Jawani has made even women's groups angry. According to a news report, the video "shows women, dressed as angels, dancing seductively. During one sequence, one of them looks in the mirror and caresses her bottom." The chairperson of the Maharashtra State Commission for Women shot off a letter to Prasad saying that videos like Chadti Jawani "promote obscenity and corrupt the minds of small children and youngsters." She adds, "We are not against the portrayal of sensuality, but music-video makers should understand the difference between obscenity and sensuality." These official objections have naturally found a more menacing expression on the streets, with party workers like Shiv Sainiks, taking the law into their own hands. They went on a rampage recently tearing /disfiguring a Levi's hoarding which showed half a dozen attractive models wearing low-cut jeans and tiny flesh-coloured tops.

Take away the noisy hoopla, and you wonder what the fuss is all about. Part of the objection seems to be that somehow Indian culture seems to be violated. The other main objection is that in concentrating so much on women's anatomy, women are violated.

These are interesting issues to debate, but let's at least begin with a few observations.

Do we, or do we not, see young women wearing the kind of clothes shown in the Levi's ad? You would see them in every large city, worn, not just by the avante garde but by fairly ordinary upper middle-class girls. Such widespread — and unselfconscious — use certainly doesn't suggest a clash with Indian culture.

The music videos, provocative though they may be, would not be considered obscene in any court of law. In fact, most discotheques would feature Kaanta Laga style dancing as a matter of routine, without too many eye-lids being batted.

At heart here there is the question of context and cultural gaps between different kinds of Indians, so that what is perfectly acceptable to one group is anathema to another. Given that these differences will continue, there is a strong case for a "live and let live" attitude, rather than a "search and destroy" one.

There is also the notion that skin or nudity per se are offensive. They are patently not, and one does need to go into the history of art to find out why.

Lastly, there is the hypocrisy underlying much of the moral outrage. Do the violence and hunger and lack of clothes in our daily lives not constitute real obscenity? Is the violence and rape and vulgarity of dance numbers of our cinema not more obscene than the direct, in-your-face openness of many ads and music videos? Yes, it's time for an intensive debate. And for far less noise.

Anil Dharker is a noted journalist, media critic and writer.

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