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Rushdie turns India's air blue
By Siddharth Srivastava

NEW DELHI - From time to time, Indian author Salman Rushdie stirs reactions that are unrelated to the books he writes. Earlier there was a death sentence for insulting a prophet, a couple more novels that did not match his earlier brilliance, then a third wife - a model two-and-a-half decades his junior - with whom he makes his way through the party circuit around the world, and now his take on porn, which has set off debate in this country, and elsewhere.

This time Rushdie has again risked the fury of Islamic clerics, as well as Christians, by arguing that a free society should be judged by its willingness to accept pornography. In his pornography-praising essay titled "The East is Blue", which is to be published alongside images of US porn stars in a book called XXX:30 Porn Star , he implies that Muslims are avid consumers of pornography because of the sex segregation they have to endure. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, the book's photographer, said in an interview that Rushdie supports this argument with statistics about the volume of porn traffic on the Internet in Pakistan.

He has asserted that pornography exists everywhere, but when it comes to societies in which it is difficult for young men and women to get together and do what young men and women often like doing, pornography satisfies a more general need. Gore Vidal, the grand old man of American letters, has written in the foreword to XXX:30 that America is a puritanical society fettered with unnecessary constraints.

Here in India, views on porn take every hue. In a recent article in the national daily Hindustan Times, following the Rushdie generated debate, noted Bollywood director Mahesh Bhatt, known for his free-spirited movies, life and views says: "I have always maintained that there's nothing degrading in the displaying of any part of the human body. This amazing creation of mother nature is also considered by Hinduism as a gift so special that you are only worthy of it after several rebirths as other lowly creatures. And those who are embarrassed or offended by the display of it are those whose minds have been damaged by ideology - religious or feminist - just because we have pornography in movies today does not mean it did not exist earlier. Remember the toilet graffiti we used to snigger about in school, the charcoal drawings of breasts and vulvas on rocks and tree trunks? Let me assure the alarmists that pornography is nothing new.

It's just that today, with the communication revolution, it has become a business, a big business, which grosses billions of dollars a year, as much as spectator sports and movies combined. Far from poisoning the mind, pornography shows the deepest truth about sexuality stripped of all romantic veneer. The stark images in porn are shock devices to break down middle-class norms of decorum, reserve and tidiness. Pornography is now evolving towards becoming high art. It's high time we take a fresh look at this phenomenon which is rooted in the human biological impulse."

A slightly less liberal view has been expounded by Jug Suraiya, writer and associate editor with The Times of India. Suraiya differentiates pornography from erotica: "The bare truth about pornography is that far from being a liberating influence - as Rushdie and others claim - it is an instrument of exploitation and imprisonment. It represents an impoverishment of our sexual imagination. Let's not confuse - as Rushdie has done - pornography with erotica. Erotica represents the complex cartography of desire, full of hazard and mystery, inviting endless exploration. Pornography is a dumbed-down diagram leading to a cul-de-sac whose only destination is libidinal claustrophobia. Contrast the nude with the naked. The nude is always cloaked in the mystique of the model's inviolate autonomy; flesh transformed into living spirit. The naked - whether in those grainy documentaries of Nazi death factories, or in the voyeuristic footage of sub-Saharan refugee camps, or in the flickering images of a blue movie - are stripped of all self-possession, made into robotic zombies; flesh turned to dead meat, to be sold by the kilo as off a butcher's hook. The erotic is life-affirming, pornography is life-negating. But what finally divides erotica and pornography is the test of time. We all remember the Kama Sutra, Lady Chatterley's Lover and James Joyce's Ulysses. But can you honestly say you remember the last pondy [textual soft porn] you read or blue film you watched, or the name of the cover girl on the latest issue of your favorite hag-mag?"

A third view is represented by the Indian government and often the right wing "culture brigade", in their quest to cleanse the minds of Indian society by preventing any show of flesh, whether art or commerce, porn or erotic. The right-wingers use crude forms of justice such as breaking cinema halls, assaulting directors and writers. In its limited sphere of activity that comprises the censor board, with Internet porn all pervasive and uncontrolled, government-appointed nominees snip and snap at anything that does not pass muster in their definition of delivering social good, which is why most love-making scenes in Bollywood movies involve clothed protagonists and the traditional kisses are represented by the camera panning to the skies or to two birds on a branch. In the latest crackdown on porn, the Indian government has decided to constitute a committee to take a fresh look into the guidelines for direct-to-television technology (DTH) to check its misuse. Recent media reports have highlighted that DTH enables viewers to access 24-hour adult programming from around the world. Officials have said that one pornographic channel being accessed through DTH had shown disrespect to the national flag.

In his long career, Bhatt has had several run-ins with censor officials and describes one such instance: "I still recall the day when the stern-looking censor board official chided me for subverting the sacred 4institution of marriage [the subject of the movie directed by Bhatt]. And I also recall what I told him. 'If sex is right inside marriage, then it's right outside marriage. And if it's right after marriage, then it's also right before marriage'. The gentleman was livid. He was a product of our so-called puritan heritage - which means that he was repressed, anti-sexual, anti-play and anti-pleasure."

The fact of the matter is, despite government efforts and intellectual arguments, porn exists. And given the varied routes of access - television, Internet, CDs, videos - it cannot be curtailed. Today, estimates of the annual global revenue for adult entertainment film sales and rentals and website subscription fees ranges from US$8-10 billion. Celebrity soft porn sells everywhere - whether it is oral talk from Britney Spears' husband for 55 hours who dished out all that happened when they went about their business as a married couple; a not-too-happy Cameron Diaz trying to erase She's No Angel, a 30-minute soft porn video selling like hot cake on the Internet; Paris Hilton's home video, One Night in Paris; or Baywatch star Gena Lee Nolin in a mattress romp. In the recent past, there has been the top-selling homemade videotape of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee that has hit since 1997 on the Internet. Further in history there have been Marilyn Monroe and later Sylvester Stallone. Pamela, Paris and others associated with the release of such private celebrity material have gone on to make pots of money, with the stakes only growing higher as technology improves over time.

In such a scenario, it seems that Indians, too, want to join the party, where boldness and obviously bareness is fast becoming the credo. Angela Devi and Sunny Leone are two Indian girls who have hit big time in the US porn industry. Indian girls feature regularly on international porn sites, but never have any carried the tag of being stars, meriting a front-page display in a national newspaper here. Angela, 25, was born to Delhi migrants in New Delhi and has been living in Phoenix, Arizona for the past 17 years. Her credits include regular appearances in hardcore magazine Hustler since 2002 and voyeuristic videos. Sunny, 23, came of her own when she was named Penthouse's Pet of the Year a few months back. Both Angela and Sunny also run successful websites.

Some of the way the world is progressing seems to have rubbed off on Bollywood as well, and thus by extension, the censor board. Mallika Sherwat, an upcoming starlet, has set scorching standards in her bare-dare movies - two till now. The first, Khwaish which broke the Indian record 19 kisses and the second, Murder, which was an equal encore. She has also been offered to pose for the centerspread of the venerable Playboy magazine that has catapulted so many to stardom. The success of Khwaish and Murder, and by extension Mallika, has sent the rest of Bollywood's actresses into a tizzy, with several now shaking off their traditional Indian mores to break free.

The first off the block is starlet Neha Dhupia, who in her second movie release called Julie has let her backside show, the first such happening in a mainstream Bollywood fare. A former Miss India, Dhupia's uncut nude and love-making scenes from the movie are making the rounds on the Internet. Not to be undone, top actress Kareena Kapoor has added spice to the powerful Govind Nihalani film Dev, based on the Gujarat riots of 1992, by passionately kissing co-star Fardeen Khan. Another star, Mahima Chowdury, who famously spurned top director Subhash Ghai who wanted her to strip a little a few years back, will be featured in a series of lip-clinchers with much older co-star Anupam Kher, who ironically also heads the Indian censor board, in the movie Chess.

Which brings us back to the original Rushdie argument on the relation between the existence of porn and free society. Going by empirical evidence it does seem to be true, but a bigger question remains, concerning the people involved in the porn industry, especially the women. Do they do it out of their own free will and choice for money and pleasure? Or are they forced into it under duress, threat or sheer desperation? Can they get out of it when they want to? That's the level one would feel, especially in a country such as India where women are exploited for such purposes, that a mechanism should be in place which provides a forum for all those who do not want to, but are forced to.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.

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Aug 18, 2004

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