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Smoke, don't inhale

IF THE modalities of expression of public outrage over the Stephanie hit-and-run case is any indicator, Indian nouveau riche society has been badly bitten by the `smoke but don't inhale' bug. The Stephanie case [she was run over by a car driven by four youths, allegedly drunk] is but a microcosm of a crisis of identity that is looming, menacingly, over young metropolitan India.

It is interesting to note that the primary defence offered by the accused was that the victim was an `acquaintance.' The implicit assertion here is the rather austere statement that good girls do not hang out with acquaintances at late hours of the night.

The existence of this puritanical streak is further supported by the evidence that, over the week following the incident, certain newspapers reported Stephanie as having been a `night-club' dancer. We are confronted here with two puritanical presumptions. One, being a night-club dancer is a questionable profession. Two, it is less of a crime when it is a woman perceived as being `easy.'

The question now is, given that bourgeois India finds the concept of open sexuality abhorrent, why is it that the metro yuppies insist on flaunting their liberated sexual mores so very insistently? Popular teenage perception, consistently reinforced by mainstream Bollywood, has raised, among other things, alcohol consumption and eve-teasing to the status of mandatory rites of passage to that exacting Holy Grail of `coolness.'

The trouble is that the archetypal urban dwelling 20-something metropolite derives his outlook upon life not from the reality of Indian society but from the unadulterated poppycock of MTV. Concomitant with the economic liberalisation of the early 90s, India witnessed a massive burst in the somnolent entertainment industry. Studio after studio, with little or no talent aboard, jumped on the cable telecasting bandwagon and to stay alive in the market, religiously adopted the trends of the U.S. industry ad libitum.

Unfortunately for us, while the American industry has moved on from its fixation with bubble-gum pop and while American society is in the process of moving on from its experiment with liberal sexuality, the Indian nouveau riche is caught in a cleft stick. When all the hoopla raised about pub-hopping and live-in relationships, etc., finally began to garner metro mainstream acceptance, they found that their American idols had moved on.

In a culture as hysterical and volatile as ours, there is little scope for rational demarches. Once the slide to decadence, euphemistically denominated `emancipation from ossified medieval mindsets,' had commenced, there was little the yuppies could do about it than to learn to like it.

And that is why, while farmers in the Andhra heartland starve and their crops wilt for lack of water, the booze flows without fail in the pubs of Hyderabad. That is why, while a 21-year-old girl is chased at midnight and dies on the streets of Chennai, in all probability, a Tollywood film unit is recording a similar stunt for the hero to pull off not so very far away. Of course, in reel life, the hero can hold his drink like a man, drive like a maniac and still impress the adoring muse who, coyly, accepts his proposal for marriage, cohabitation, sex, etc.

If the above statement appears abstract, readers are invited to recall a certain Bajaj Pulsar ad, first telecast last year, where the hero commandeers his elder brother's bike and drives about town, `hitting on the chicks.' The protagonist's disc brakes allow him to spare the life of a rabbit that happens to blunder in his way. Stephanie, alas! She was not so lucky.

How can our youngsters be blamed if we, through the mindless commercialism of our entertainment industry, present them such ambiguous social messages? Where does machismo end and idiocy begin? Where does seduction end and molestation commence? For today's generation, these ethical boundaries are becoming increasingly fuzzy.

In our zeal to ape occidental values, we have omitted to consider the fact that, such as they are, these values have evolved indigenously in a social milieu very different from ours. Our efforts to superimpose American ideologies on our own have resulted in the creation of a dangerous dichotomy between our societal archetypes and our ethical values. In simpler terms, society today wants to smoke, but is not ready to inhale.

It is the task of the media to mould the objectives of the entertainment industry to conform to our collective vision as a nation. To replace films about prostitutes and homo-sexuality with crude, unimaginative indigenous icons, as the government persists in doing, is to further propagate the myth of Western superiority.

A plant, in the absence of artificial splints, will grow to assume its natural shape. Likewise, gradual censorship of the MTV culture is likely to result in the maturation of metropolitan young India as a strong, vibrant social entity, in conformance with our cultural ethos.

NISHEETH SRIVASTAVA

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