Dirty Picture, Sunny Leone, and Crimes Against Women: The Real Dirt

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Three things happened over the last couple of month’s that led up to this post. The first was the release of the movie Dirty Picture. The second was the entry of Sunny Leone into the “house of the big boss.” The third was a series of blog posts and television talk shows about the safety of Indian women in our metropolitan cities. It triggered several lines of thinking that I felt are worth reflecting upon. What message does the use of the word dirty in Dirty Picture pass on to the generation who are not yet old enough to be allowed into the theater to watch it? How does the average Indian family explain the concept of an adult entertainer over prime time television dinner on the weekend? Why do we as a society feel so surprised at rape and other gender crimes against women?

The morality and values of a society are passed on from generation to generation, and each generation accepts what it finds relevant and discards what no longer works and then passes it on.  Even though we are from the land of Vatsayana, we have perpetuated a culture of sexual repression. There are two aspects to this repression – the first is a denial of female sexuality and the second is a don’t-speak rule about sex as a natural healthy urge. As a result, most Indians grow up learning about sex from their peers, from pornography, or from abuse, either as a victim or as a perpetrator. Much of this learning is erroneous and based on myths and stereotypes.

Silk Smitha was not the first Indian woman to openly flaunt her sexuality. Screen goddesses from the early days of cinema have done it, but with due deference to the menfolk, knowing that their sexuality was only to please or placate the male. Silk was the first to be openly sexual for the pleasure it brought her, often with what bordered on disregard or contempt for the male. While the moral police will be quick to point out that it does not make her a cultural role model, her cult status cannot be explained away to large percentages of submissive males alone. In many ways, she, along with other actresses and celebrities, freed the Indian woman to express herself as a person with intimacy needs and a right to sexual expression. This is in direct contradiction to the jejune diet our male-dominated society would have us on, and hence, in order to get the masses into the theaters without raising anybody’s hackles, the film is named Dirty Picture.

What a masterpiece of social engineering and political marketing!  The Dirty disclaimer keeps moralists at bay. How can you object to a so called dirty picture that is called Dirty Picture? How can you object to a positive portrayal of female sexuality when it has already been labeled as dirty? How can you not be grateful to the makers of the film for having re-inforced the myth of sex and sexuality as being dirty, something that one needs to not talk about, not think about, and not long for? Ekta Kapoor’s Dirty Picture has gone on to be a hit nationwide, something that Deepa Nair could not do either with Fire or with Water, and there is a lesson to be learned here. The bottom line of the film is that a woman who dares to live life on her own terms can never be happy, and that is perhaps the secret to the acceptance of the film by our culture. The audience comes out raving about Vidya Balan’s performance but subconsciously glad that the tale turned out the way it did. And the subject of sexuality, or female sexuality, continues to be branded as dirty!

Just when Bunty and Babli thought it was safe to let the kids go into the water, came Sunny Leone into Big Boss. I have heard about Big Boss and even tried to watch a few episodes in earlier avatars but have failed to appreciate why millions would want to watch a group of squabbling roomies week after week, season after season.  But then I have never understood what makes people watch serials which are really nothing more than fictionalized versions of the same thing. I must confess that I have never heard of Sunny Leone till the Big Boss thing happened, and even today, it is unlikely that I would recognize her if I bumped into her in the streets. I especially like the fact that she hails not from the pornography or the blue film industry but from the adult entertainment industry. I think this is revolutionary for our society. In one stroke, we have given the adult entertainment industry a certain social acceptance that no pornographic content or blue film maker could have ever aspired for. Sex for the sake of pleasure is now officially an acceptable value. Little Bunty and Little Babli will now be able to discuss adult entertainment with a straight face with their parents.

Another masterpiece of hypocritical marketing of double standards! The adult entertainer tag assures universal viewer interest - those who like women are attracted for obvious reasons, while those who like men are attracted to find out what she has that they don’t. Young viewers are attracted because they are not yet adults, while the older generations are attracted to remind themselves how things used to be. What is of interest though is how superficial this sheen of liberality is. How comfortable would our families be discussing adult entertainment across generations or even within generations, or lets be frank, even between the average man and wife? How calmly would we be able to introduce a close friend or relative as an adult entertainer to others? Just like Dirty Picture, here is a forbidden topic that pretends to have been outed, but is still firmly ensconced in tradition and taboo.

And finally, there was the expected but futile media explosion after the slutwalks, the dirty pictures, and the gender crimes against women. Just like AIDS or malnutrition, we as a society feel compelled to visit these questions periodically. Whether we find answers or whether those answers translate to meaningful use are also nothing more than questions to be visited periodically. Let us look at what we ingrain in our minds ( I include my generation, and my parent’s generation, and I can only hope that the future generation makes a change) as we grow up.

Boys who cry are sissies. Girls who don’t cry are tomboys. Boys study to become professionals, and while they are studying they develop proverbial manly habits. Girls study and then become homemakers, so while they are studying they need to learn to cook, sew, wash and nurse. Singing, dancing, and embroidery are preferred while rock climbing, drag racing and a hectic social life are not. A virgin adult single male is a wimp if not gay. A sexually active adult single female is promiscuous and a person of loose morals. The examples of how we discriminate between the genders are endless and almost all are disempowering to women. The media too portrays women as objects rather than as people. Nine out of ten films made in our country have a non-existent role for the female protagonist but a meatier role for the item girl. Recent films have managed to roll the item girl into the virtuous heroine, a generic package meant to titillate the male gaze and turn the female gaze into self pity or anger while doing a perfect balancing act between being Chammak Challo and Chikni Chameli on one hand and Sati Savitri and Mother India on the other.

The social response to crimes against women is to ask the women to behave and dress appropriately, and almost never to question the male behavior. This is not a new development, it goes right back to our mythologies. The woman is expected to carry symbols of being a possession, be it the mangalsutra or the sindoor, while the male is exempt from any such stigma. Without addressing these inequities and double standards, it is unreasonable to enter a discussion on why women are at the receiving end of injustices. Just as anti-corruption laws are being delayed and thwarted in every way possible, attempts at discussing gender inequities, especially in our society is dead-ended by the stale excuse that we are a conservative society and that such matters do not need to be discussed, since our men are descended from the ideal man, and our women do not need to be brought into such discussions. We are so cool.

These three developments might not be lifechanging for our society, but they are milestones. We have invited female sexuality and gender inequity into our living rooms through the television and the DVD player. Regardless of the fact that it still is veiled behind the purdah of hypocrisy, it is a beginning. And in many ways it is a good time for this beginning. We are now aware of the downside of aggressive feminism and how it damages relationships and family bonding. We have seen the futility of trying to gender-neutralize biological and social functions of the sexes. We can choose to take the best of what right thinking people over the world have fought to achieve over the last several decades and discard what has been proven to not work.

1. I believe that gender equality is not the same as feminism.
2. I have not seen Sunny Leone or the current season of Big Boss yet. As a matter of fact, I am not even aware if it is still running or if she is still “in the house.”
3. I believe that there are some things that men are better at than women and vice versa, but then that is purely my subjective opinion.
4. I believe that creative erotica is not the same as pornography.
5. I believe that the only answer to hate and victimization is compassion and acceptance.

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  1. a very sensitive topic handled in the most graceful way...very well written....and i agree with u on most points here....well written..

  2. So very thoughtful & thought-provoking post.It is true that our mores need to change & they are changing fast too ;but we are not going in the right direction.There is a blind craze to ape the west without evaluating the fallout in those countries.Sure gender equality & acceptance of sexuality is needed but we should take care that the pendulum does not race to the other end.

  3. Extremely well written. I had written a blog on similar subject
    May be you will like it.

  4. Anonymous8:47 PM

    A well-written, balanced, profound and progressive thoughts...

    i agree culture is not what was there in past, what you will leave for future but it is the very air you breath and how you prefer to breath.

  5. @Alka - glad you liked the post. I have been very nervy from the time I wrote this, since I was not sure how it would be perceived, especially since I cannot completely override my male point of view when writing. Your comment was very reassuring.

    @Indu - Your IP has been logged and the comment police have been informed, the next knock on your door could be from them. Kidding. I understand the danger of things being taken to an extreme, and that is probably what I meant when I referred to aggressive feminism. Progress and equality should not be construed as license for a lifestyle of excesses.

    @Atanu - I had read your post earlier, and perhaps some of my thinking here is drawn from there too. I strongly recommend that all readers take a look at his post linked above. It is a reaffirmation that there is a big enough force against gender inequities in our times.

    @magic-eye - thanks for your appreciation. it means a lot to me.

    @Barun - glad you liked the post sir, do come back often and share your inputs with the readers of this blog.

  6. Well written.....have made a note to re-visit your blog and explore earlier posts...

    1. Welcome to SJD. Glad you liked it, Satish.

  7. Anonymous2:19 AM

    this probably is the best article i have read on this issue. i would go even further to call this an absolute masterpiece and a must read for everyone; for men who talk about gender equality and subtly flaunt a forced masculinity and women who cry foul but gleefully accept a submissive role in our society.

    1. Deb, loved the way you have portrayed the hypocrisy built into our social system. Thanks for taking time to comment.

  8. Anonymous6:07 PM

    telling "women to behave and dress appropriately" is useless as men want to see them like that and that's why they use to wear like.

    Why dirty picture a hit bcoz males (mostly) liked it.

    1. He he he. I find that bit about telling women to dress appropriately the most ridiculous thing. The gender crime begins with how men see women and not with what they are wearing.

  9. I love this debate although I think The Dirty Picture was not all that it was cracked up to be. It did contain all the stereotypes. Why is a "bad girl" destined to fall, I ask.

    If it was fiction, why couldn't they give it a happy ending?

    1. I don't think The Dirty Picture was fiction. The ending obviously justifies the male precept of this is what "bad girls" deserve. Society has always been making sure that "bad girls" are brought to "justice."

  10. A sensitive topic handled sensibly!
    Introspective and at the same empowering!Asocial mirror that is worth looking into!

    sensible post dear subhorup

  11. You have successfully navigated the rough waters. I would also like to point out the rough and almost inhumane treatment women receive in other religions and cultures. This desire for a man to subjugate woman gradually seems to be growing weaker in subsequent generations. Having said that as I have grown from boyhood to manhood I became acutely aware of the womenfolk and their world, and it changed my views radically. Hopefully it shouldn't take a generation to bring about this change.

    1. I subscribe entirely to your hopes, Sandeep, but maybe in a more realist way. I would love to see that day as soon as possible. And you are right, this is not an Indian society problem; it exists even in the most liberated of social systems in some way or the other. If the struggle to find equality in those societies has taken this long and is yet to be absolute, imagine how long the journey ahead is for societies like ours.

  12. Anonymous4:35 AM

    women one of the most talked topic in this country,
    whether sex,education,teasing or bollywood
    when men want to be superior they supressed them and on the other way everyone likes
    jalebi bai,chikani chameli
    thoughtful post and very well written.

  13. Hi Subho...great read ...some comments/opinions/dis/agreements...
    feel free to ignore if you don't agree..
    I would like to see 'dirty' in dirty pictures as a political act of reclaiming the word..like 'slut'walk and 'queer'. What makes DIRTY picture so interesting and a rupture is that it is a mainstream Bollywood film..with an eye on box office..I agree Vidya Balan's punishment was too harsh.(Here I mean those shots where she sees the pretty innocent silk in clear glass and the 'fallen' silk in muddy puddles and not her suicide). She dies but before that she refuses TWICE the olive branch of marriage and being saved by masculine intervention.
    Subho...what exactly did you mean by aggressive feminism destroying family bonding and relationships. Wow!! Where did that come from ? And I always believed that feminisms was a political belief that fought for the liberation of human race...and no... feminists are not all- men-are-bastards-lets-break-the-family...they are fighting for a world where sex and gender will not matter whether at work or at home.
    Some further clarifications on your stands
    What is the difference between gender equity and feminisms ?
    How do you distinguish between creative erotica and pornography ? (I smell a 'high art' against 'popular art' syndrome here)
    Is the answer to hate and victimization really compassion and acceptance? Or is it changing a hegemonizing system that spawns such hatred and victimization ?

    1. Thanks for your extremely thought provoking comment. It is a great feeling to have readers who think this deeply about what you have written. Way too many threads here, will try and address some of them.

      By gender equity I mean equal rights and equal rules for both genders, Panchali. When I spoke about aggressive feminism, I meant the emphasis on the rights of the woman to do as she chooses without regard for her role as a homemaker, mother, nurturer, and spouse. I think it is hard to agree that men and women are wired differently and that is for a purpose. The specialization helps make the task of survival as a species more efficient. I feel that rising above that is not the same as rebelling against it.

  14. Good writing. But answer me one thing, why do you think the women who wear comfortable but skinny cloths gget made fun of, and al the uncomfortable stuff leading to hospital emergency wards take lace? Police - the key word. They are general men having been all the wrongful teachings you had described. Once you control the public, things should change quicker, for the better.
    Let me try collecting my thoughts and write my take.

  15. Me being a women totally agree. Hats off to you

  16. Absolutely fine views. A lot need to change in our country with respect to women. We are still big hypocrites. We preach one thing and practise quite the opposite.

  17. I don't understand why people make such a big deal of sex..Isn't it just another human need, like eating, peeing and stuff..the more people try to supress it, the more ugly it turns..a very nicely written post..I never thought so much about the title "dirty picture"!

  18. I came to your blog as DhirajKartik, my friend, recommended me your article. Needless to say it is well written, however, the conclusion didn't quite come through as strong as the introduction. I was able to relate to some parts of the article as I am a bachelor and brought up mostly on my own after my mother passed away. Girls/Women have always been a mystery and I have been torn apart between accepting/viewing them as "Chammak Challo and Chikni Chameli or Sati Savitri and Mother India".

    It is only recently that I have started to view them as individuals with dreams and ambitions of their own with unique perspectives of life.

    Oh the dilemma created by the media and the expectations the new generation has to live up to.

    PS: The images go well with the article even though initially I was repulsed by them.

  19. loved reading this post. the words and thoughts flowed in this one. balanced and very well presented

    the contradictions and the resulting confusions in the way we raise and feed thoughts & notions into our children and the society is mind-boggling.

  20. Anonymous2:20 AM

    Very well written with a good ending!:)

  21. You've conveyed the point very sensitively taking care of all the aspects. Kudos to that!

    What do you think it would take for society to not play with a girl's reputation so easily?

  22. Loved reading this one...
    The society is full of double standards. College students can be kicked out, their life and career ruined for watching porn in many places... but yet we have Leone on prime time TV...

    Dirty Picture, I thought was an embarrassing failure in this regard. It exploited the same elements that it was trying to comment upon, without once trying to delve deeper into the psyche of the protagonist...

    Nevertheless, I believe we are witnessing a silent revolution in terms of of depiction and acceptance of sexuality and erotica in the society. Whether one agrees with it or not is a different issue but the trend has already began. & the change is coming faster that I initially imagined. For instance I never though I'll see films like Gandu & Chatrak made in India in my lifetime.

    The censor board seems ill equipped and probably has been taken by surprise with these developments. They need to have multi-tier certification based on age (& plz no cuts or bans)...

    But at the same time I believe we have to be more careful with TV programs as they can be accessed by everyone including children...

    PS: I do like Sunny
    PPS: You seem to have mixed up Deepa Mehta & Meera Nair in excitement...

  23. I don't know how I managed to miss this write-up of yours. I have read it twice and I feel I need to read it once more. Such depth, such thought and understanding--this is an amazing and bold piece. And your disclaimers top the piece--un perfecto write up "gender equality is not the same as feminism."
    Loved this piece so much, Subho!!! Hats off!

  24. I don't know how I managed to miss this write-up of yours. I have read it twice and I feel I need to read it once more. Such depth, such thought and understanding--this is an amazing and bold piece. And your disclaimers top the piece--un perfecto write up "gender equality is not the same as feminism."
    Loved this piece so much, Subho!!! Hats off!

  25. A very sensitive issue handled really well. I don't get it. Imagine a world without women? Well, all men should then get ready to become gay! Incidents of pressing down women so that men can shine come mostly from small towns and cities. But, I came across an interesting story from the small town of Dehradun. Shraddha Sharma, a young teen sings songs and posts them online. Overnight, she has become a huge web sensation and has also been roped in bu Hair n Care to star in their latest TVC. Their is no gender bias here. She is probably a bigger fan than any other movie star from her town. People need to change their mindset. Their is a difference between gender bias and feminism!

  26. Brilliant! Yet these crimes still linger in our society! What can be the responsible Indian's response to this?

  27. Indeed a thought provoking writeup... I'm also terribly frustrated with the female-meat-sale in recent days each and every bolly movies... but keep hope Subho, this age-long caliper will soon be replaced by a more precise gauge to let both the genders enjoy equal sexuality... Cheers bro :)


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