The new Exhibitionism


The new Exhibitionism

New Delhi : Sue and her mom are having a heated debate in the fittings room of designer Raakesh Agarvwal’s factory in Noida. The two have flown in from Mumbai to buy an opulent, lime-green lehnga worth a few lakh rupees that 28-year-old Sue wants for her wedding. The bone of contention is the position of the lehnga — where will Sue (Sunanda Rastogi*) tie it? Below her bleached belly button or above it? Sue wants it way down, like a pair of low-rise jeans so that her fuchsia thong gets display and her tattoo — an enticing crab — sneaks out too. The mother of the bride is emphatic: a morality minister who has been voted out of power but hangs on to its remnants. “What will your in-laws say?” she yells. “How can you tie a bridal lehnga there?”

“It’s my life, my body, my marriage ma, take a chill pill,” says Sue. Agarvwal, a spectator in many such squabbles, knows he must patiently wait till the “tying point” of the lehnga reaches a truce. Sue wins; Mrs Rastogi sulks.

Another setting: a Mumbai pub. Thirty-year-old Tanvi Sarin’s mother would have gagged if she had seen the cake her daughter got for her bachelorette party. A chocolate concoction, it was in the shape of a penis with Tanvi and her girlfriends giggling mischievously as they clicked pictures of it on their cellphones, before consuming it with the red wine served by the red-in-the-face waiter.

Somewhere in Bangalore, a 40-year-old woman sends a text message to a male colleague: “Peach panty—wanna taste?” “The excitement in our relationship is dependent on sexual, cheap comments,” she says. “Cheap, ha,” she says, laughing.

India is on a sex-expressive high, crying loudly for attention. A fiery licentiousness now salts verbal expressions and behaviour as teenagers behave like adults and adults like adolescents. When a mango juice advertisement is called Aamsutra, the pun isn’t lost on anyone. Nor is the full impact of the lyrics of Bhaag DK Bose from Aamir Khan’s forthcoming production Delhi Belly. Sexual exhibitionism is in communication, clothing, relationships. Sexual scandals have become common, as has “heavy flirting” (a term used by an American newspaper for former IMF chief Dominique Strauss Kahn\’s indiscretions). There is a frisson in sexual texting, which, transmits hugs, kisses and a bunch of expressive emoticons to anyone, anywhere in the world.

Consider the wide spectrum of what’s going on: Public display of affection (PDA) not just between Siddharth Mallya and Deepika Padukone at an IPL match, but also among regular couples in big cities and small towns. The free use of the F-word — at workplaces, homes, in relationships, never mind if grumbling grandpa is within earshot. Bollywood lyrics and titles are served like a bowl of porn flakes with Munnis, Sheilas, men as mutton, and terms like potty, nanga, love, sex and dhoka thrown in. The recently released Luv Ka The End has The Mutton Song where the hero is in drag and dances to an item number. “Mera jism, jism, mere badan badan, arre main hoon taaza mutton mutton,” go the lyrics. Wannabe model Poonam Pandey said she would strip if Team India won. Another climber in the modelling circuit, Liza Mallik, now ostensibly a PETA ambassador, went on quote to say she didn’t drop her clothes to save tigers but to save her crumbling reputation. If the bikini “babe” as a must-have in tabloids and newspapers is one part of the narrative, the chick culture, with women “cool about being called chicks”, is the other.

Then there are the risqué nuances: men and women of all ages wear their bodies on their sleeves through revealing garments; the rising craze for tattoos and piercings around private parts, the rocking sales of lingerie in smaller towns; sexual status messages on Facebook; the age of f-buddies and the home delivery of item-girl Munni into the middle-class drawing room along with the pepperoni pizza. “These are all growing-up, coming-of-age rituals of a society. Being casual about things that are taboo, pushing boundaries through language and behaviour are like adolescent affectations,” says cultural commentator Santosh Desai. Yet, what he terms as a society’s transient phase of being in the “playing arena” is significant. “Every generation goes through this but what is significant is that people are learning to make newer choices by flirting with boundaries,” he says.

What appears like liberation is rebellion for many. Succumbing to sexually-charged lifestyles requires a new coming-to-terms with the self and others around. Ask 48-year-old Naina*, a rich Delhi housewife, “very desperate” as she laughingly calls herself. She says she has become addicted to a “cocktail of liberation and desperation”. Last month, Naina threw a five-star kitty party for her friends, where besides martinis, tequila shots and sushi platters, she brought in a 22-year-old male stripper to dance for the ogling (“please don’t call us middle-aged”) women. Naina’s husband is a rich industrialist. “What else?” she winks. It is easier for him to give her a few lakhs of pocket money every month, instead of time. But she is too bored to just spend it on the next Fendi bag. “I need sex and entertainment and I need to shout that I exist,” she says.

If this sounds like a lament about urban elite who gargle away the previous night’s indiscretions with Evian water, it is not. “It is a cross-class phenomenon, everyone now has access to ideas that circulate in transnational spheres,” says Sanjay Srivastava, professor of sociology, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi. “Interestingly, some of the most explicit discussions on sex happen in Hindi language women’s magazines such as Meri Saheli and Grihshobha,” says Srivastava. “Clearly, they would not publish such material if their readership did not want it. While it is too soon to judge if significant changes have happened in the socio-moralistic sphere, it is true that those whom we think are most resistant to such change, appear not to be,” he adds.

An argument seconded by image guru Dilip Cherian who feels that urban India is living this out in different stages. “Real or sometimes purely for display, this harking back to adolescence is a rite in all of India, but visible in different stages depending upon the city you live in. It is happening in Chennai too but in a subtler way,” says Cherian.

Films and media, our two morality mirrors, fuel the perception of sexual liberation. Some stories ape the trauma of transition; others hint at the schizoid changes brought by modernity but fade away after a publicity blitzkrieg. Vishal Bharadwaj’s 2006 film Omkara and Rohan Sippy’s 2011 flick Dum Maaro Dum are studies in contrast. Both deal with adult dilemmas, emotional insecurities, forbidden desires and cuss-words. One was based in the Hindi heartland and connected with the masses; another set in Goa, signified a hedonistic escape. Omkara, despite its cuss words, was not only insightful but lived out the promise of its promotions. Quite in contrast, Dum Maaro Dum in which the story is about the crimes of a drug mafia, mounted its publicity on Deepika Padukone’s skirt and the Potty pe baithe nanga lyrics of Jaideep Sahni, skewed way out of context. The publicity managers buried the actual script by amplifying bawdiness through ringtones and sensationalist media “scoops”. No wonder the film petered out.

Munni turns out to be a terrific metaphor in the bawdy politic. It has converted six-year-old girls in middle-class homes as well as their fathers into item girls. Gyrating with abandon is seen as being “forward”. It even urged a family of traditional Sikhs to match steps with a flashy Rakhi Sawant on Shaadi 3 Crore Ki — a conspicuous reality show that concluded recently on Imagine. At the same time, Munni Marketing is a Bollywood business story. Everyone making a film these days wants his own Munni, believing that one sexy song can sell an entire film. “It is the herd mentality of our industry; if one song, idea or theme does well, 10 others follow suit,” says choreographer-director Farah Khan billed as the one who brought item numbers “back”. However, Khan feels there is a coming-of-age in all this, otherwise films like Delhi Belly, for which Aamir Khan wants an A-certificate, would not be made.

Ashish Patil, business and creative head of Y Films, the youth division of Yash Raj Films, says that in the Eighties when South Indian films influenced Hindi films, lyrics dwelt around words like “accelerator dabao”, they went through a fervent “khatia and charpai” phase. “But in the Mutton Song, the lyrics are intentional,” he says. “If songs like Munni and Sheila have done their bit to objectify women, this metes out the same treatment to a boy, where the girls whistle and make cat calls,” he adds. The Film Censor board is in agreement with adult fare cinema even if the National Commission of Women is not. What would have been censored five years ago is now easily passed.

Curiously, the reality is somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. From the assaults of the moral police on girls wearing jeans in colleges and on Valentine’s Day, to an announcement culture where everything from divorce details to the colour of underwear is hung out in the limelight, there is a disjointed shift. Between the two extremes lies the disturbed arena of sexual harassment at the workplace, honour killings, and diktats of khap panchayats.

Even in fashion, commonly viewed as the hotbed of elitist trends, there are diverse realities. Bangalore-based designer Sanchita Ajjampur, who has worked with global lingerie brand La Perla and is a recognised resort wear designer, says she sees an uneven relationship between sexiness and what eventually sells. Every time she sends bikinis down the ramp, they become the most photographed pieces. “But it does not correspond to the actual business. In India, ethnic wear still outsells sexy wear. Besides, some models are hesitant to show too much skin on the ramp. They worry about the consequences at home,” she adds.

Yet we may just be living the first draft of sexual liberation. “Let’s not forget that the way expressive lifestyles and behaviours are being received with equanimity corresponds to a larger need to act grown-up,” points out Desai. “New choices are opening up possibilities of discretionary relationships. Earlier relationships were given to us, we had to nurture them with sacrifice and acceptance. That architecture is changing,” he adds. And, as Cherian points out, the change isn’t as disjointed as it appears. “From the vanishing of the purdah in the Sixties to the preening phase of the Eighties and Nineties, this flashy and voluptuous culture has evolved, and not so suddenly,” he says.

Srivastava agrees, arguing that it has also led to a questioning of a wide range of taken-for-granted concepts. “There are significant changes around the idea of a ‘good’ or ‘moral’ person. Earlier, love, intimacy and friendship were aligned to certain nationalist ideals; personal happiness had to be tailored around it. Now they are linked to global notions of intimacies, happiness, and sexual expression,” he says.

One of the biggest departure points is the change in the construct of the “good girl”. Srivastava feels that what is seen as the “objectification of women” can also be interpreted in other ways, rather than only the she-is-a-victim narrative. “In the present era, some young women are far more in control of their public persona than the objectification argument might allow,” he says.

Still, who said growing up is painless? The exhibitionist culture creates competitiveness and pressure. Since it is about visual posturing, there is an anxiety to look “cool” or “hot”; bold and beautiful, to be out there, to network hard, to befriend, be fashionable, and sexy. Everyone agrees that till it is all done for“effect”, it will remain a My Munni Is Bigger Than Yours battlefield.

With inputs from Harneet Singh

(* Names have been changed to protect identity)