Miscellany

Radhe Maa to Masaan: Will India ever stop shaming sex and mini skirts?

We keep hearing about a new India but the old is so persistent that it is hard to guess when the new one will finally arrive.

 |  Miscellany  |  4-minute read |   08-08-2015
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News that as many as 40 couples were arrested from a hotel in Mumbai is reminiscent of the recently released film, Masaan, where a similar scene takes place right at the film’s beginning. Devi (played by Richa Chadha) and her boyfriend rent a room in a Benares motel and just as they get intimate, the police knock down their door. The chief raider, one Inspector Mishra, makes a video of Devi, while her boyfriend, a young college-goer, locks himself up in the bathroom where he cuts himself and bleeds to death.

It’s a deeply disturbing scene because it brutally contrasts the difference between private and public spaces in this country and how the former is always at the mercy of the latter. The rest of the film captures Devi’s persistence in coming to terms with that early harrowing scene which escalated so quickly and tragically. Masaan works because it uses a common Indian theme – of publicly shaming a transgressor – to reflect on the multiple tragedies that visit the transgressor after such public shaming.

Even in the Mumbai case, the police argument against the erring couples is that they were a threat to “public decency”. What public decency, one wonders, when it was a bunch of consenting adults having some fun in the privacy of their rooms? Yet, shots of those arrested conformed to the “shaming”: covered faces, morphed pictures and all-round panic.

We keep hearing about a new India but the old India is so persistent that it is hard to guess when the new one will finally arrive. Things continue to be looked at from entrenched prisms, and not just in old cities like Benares, as the Mumbai case shows. Sex is a dirty thing before marriage, and the woman must live out the repercussions of indulging in desire that society deems indecorous. The woman is the seductress, and like Ahalya in the Ramayana, must be made to pay.

How often have we seen shots of women being forcibly taken out from sundry rooms where, the police claim, prostitution rings run? We never hear the next of such stories. What happened to the women? Were they really prostitutes, or merely meeting their paramours? What about the men? Why do we not ask questions of them? Even if the women were prostitutes why is that bad? And so on.

This culture of selective outrage works routinely in the case of that curious phenomenon called godmen. This week, images of Radhe Ma sauntering “obscenely” to Bollywood music and having the time of her life were beamed. A retinue of her bhakts were incensed with the realisation that Radhe Maa was after all only human and not this asexual doll that she comes across when devotees shower her with tonnes of flowers while she sits fresh-faced, her hand raised in blessing. That scene is weird with its sexual undertones but no one can say that since she is in her godwoman avatar then and all sexuality can be explained away as divine beatification. But the moment she puts on a mini-skirt and grooves lustily, she becomes a whore.

It says something about us that her pictures generated more media buzz than the very real crimes of an Asaram Bapu who too is a godman, only one charged with serial murders. But this is hardly surprising. We believe so fondly in a culture of silence around sexuality that the moment someone pretends to have a life, we take her down. I am not defending Radhe Ma since she clearly benefits from the hypocrisy of her double life but her situation is still a comment on our mores.

As a society, we are ready to overlook any and all transgressions as long as they can be pushed under the carpet. To meet that criterion, however, those transgressions should conform to our majoritarian morality. We do not want to discuss marital rape and we do not debate Section 377 since both of them are issues that might disturb our built-in patriarchy. Everything else is fair game, for which we believe in shock-and-awe tactics such as raiding people in their rooms and banning porn.

Speaking of which, the worrying thing is that the government chooses to nanny us selectively. If it spoonfed us in all cases, I would still understand its block-headedness. But it does not. It has only banned things that do not tick mark its vision for India, such as porn and beef. It has not banned smoking, for instance, because powerful cigarette lobbies ostensibly work their influence on the government. Why, some BJP members themselves run gutka manufacturing units.

Over the coming days, we will be treated to details of what becomes of the men and women arrested in Mumbai. Or maybe not. They will likely pay the police to hush up the case, an outcome that would reinforce its similarity with Masaan. Inspector Mishra “takes care” of Devi’s case after her father promises to pay him Rs 3 lakh. A nice little industry around sexual “offences” runs, in real life and reel, while we sit back in our seats and gloat in mock-horror at the sordidness of this never-ending saga.

Writer

Vikram Johri Vikram Johri @vikramjohri

I write for a living. Sometimes the words comfort the heart too.

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