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Stripped to the bare essentials
By Shoma A Chatterji

When Marilyn Monroe was asked, "You mean you had nothing on?" about modeling in the nude for a calendar before her screen debut, she said with a straight face, "Of course, the radio was on." Sadly, Indian filmmakers and stars have neither the ready wit nor the willingness to offer such intelligent repartee. That goes for frankness too. They quickly hide behind empty words like "aesthetics", "commitment" "credibility" from the hard disk of their vocabulary of convenience when quizzed about using nudity - partial, indirect or suggestive, in their films.

By whatever name it's called, a bit of skin shown works and producers and directors know that. Last year, Hindi mainstream cinema bled from a dismal show at the box-office, but Raaz was a hit. It had a lot of oomph courtesy Malini Sharma and Bipasha Basu. Though many filmmakers mouth prudish sentiments and emphasize good old family values, they don't hesitate to take advantage of this tendency for voyeuristic pleasure of the audience by having a heroine's assets liberally exposed.

Contrary to beliefs that the new-age sexuality has spawned more body exposure, nudity is not exactly new to Indian cinema. Decades ago in V Shantaram's Channi starring the late Ranjana, a famous actress of Marathi cinema, there was an abominable scene where a psychopath makes love to the nude corpse of the heroine. This is called necromancy in psychological lingo, but the film flopped and the audience was saved from being witness to this celluloid perversion.

The story goes that during the shoot of Raj Kapoor's Satyam Shivam Sundaram, the male unit members forgot their work the minute Zeenat Aman walked towards the camera in her itsy-bitsy tightly wrapped sari and an ethnic choli that revealed more of her generous cleavage than it concealed. It's hard to understand how Raj Kapoor was aiming to establish the "spirituality of music" by dressing Zeenat in that unnecessarily revealing attire.

On the other side of the scale, there's prudishness about nudity even when the script calls for it. Actress Subhra Basu has chosen to go the whole hog in the recent film Parmapar because the role as a painter's model demands so. Ironically, while audiences of foreign films would readily accept it as realistic, the same audience may wonder at the need of showing the body beautiful in Indian films.

Rohini Hattiangady reportedly did a nude scene in Govind Nihalani's Party. Its premiere on Doordarshan had the scene clipped. Sarika was persuaded by the late Jalal Agha to do a nude scene in his film. The scene was shot but the film was shelved. Padmini Kolhapure did a scene in the buff in Gehrai, a plagiarized version of The Exorcist. Padmini was then an adolescent and this could have spelt ruin for her. But the film flopped and everything was all right with the world.

On many occasions, a different kind of body-trouble ensues. Way back in the 1960s, a beautiful actress called Zahira played the title role in Call Girl . The posters of the film displayed her nude back and there was a big hue and cry about this poster. She insisted this was a body double and the excuse stuck for all time to come. All actresses, from Seema Biswas in The Bandit Queen to Monisha Koirala in Ek Choti Si Love Story insist that the director used a body double for the nude scenes. The Monisha story blew up in the media, where the model who doubled for her vouched for Monisha's statement.

Shekhar Kapoor's The Bandit Queen was a box office hit wherever it was released, but nudity in the form of coercive sex was not the reason. Ketan Mehta's Maya Memsaab had Deepa Sahi and Shah Rukh Khan making love in the buff for a split-second scene which the censors did not bother about. But when a film glossy went to town about his "affair" with Deepa, Shah Rukh walked straight into the editor's office - she was a lady - and bashed her up! The police hauled him up. This film, too, was a super flop.

What do today's no-holds-barred skin shows indicate? Is it a welcome sign of cinema's "coming of age"? Or is it a desperate attempt by the industry to regain its hypnotic power over the masses? Ethics and commerce are no longer a happily married couple. So, the "aesthetics" argument does not stick. As for Indian cinema's coming of age, the fashion channels at home and channels like MGM beaming near-nude bodies swaying shapely hips down the ramp do not exactly stand the test of the naivete or the "innocence" of its viewers, cutting across age, sex, culture and education.

And then of course there is the issue of male nudity. With Deepak Tijori's Oops! showcasing beefy men in G-strings slated for release any minute now, perhaps some questions may be raised, while the rest will remain unanswered.

(Trans World Features)
Jul 10, 2003

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