Jennifer Lopez (J. Lo to fans) is gyrating suggestively to her latest hit, Love Don’t Cost a Thing. As the song progresses, her wardrobe decreases. By the end of the hottest track currently playing on music channels internationally, Jennifer is down to a dull gold lame bikini bottom. With a tantalising backward glance that looks viewers straight in the eye, Jennifer flings her skimpy halter-top into the sea, and walks into the surf almost as naked as the day that she was born.
I have watched this video dozens of times with my children. But it took the youngest (all of twelve) to ‘explain’ its significance to me. ‘Don’t you get it, ma?’ she demanded, with ill concealed exasperation. ‘Jennifer is sick of money. Sick of jewellery. Sick of clothes. She’s saying she doesn’t need all these things. All she wants is love.’ Oh-oh. Is that what that wiggling and jiggling was about? God. I must be really, really thick to have missed the pop-star’s big statement against greed, capitalism, moolah. I thought her act was pretty precious. Here is someone who travels with an entourage that includes a ‘personal stress manager’. She’s supposed to have insured her body for a billion (yup, billion with a ‘b’) dollars. And her latest mega-hit is against a vile and disgusting by-product of the society we live in – money – something she makes a great deal of. And flaunts. Blatantly.
Jennifer Lopez’s shrewdly-composed lyrics say it all. They could well become the anthem for the new millennium. Much like Where Have all the Flowers Gone defined the lost innocence of the Vietnam years. Jennifer Lopez knows her music. And she knows her audience. If Gordon Geeko (immortalised by Michael Douglas’ character in Wall Street) symbolised the high anxiety of a new breed of greed merchants, Jennifer today stands perfectly poised as an icon who represents the steely ambition of the twenty-somethings the world over.
While we in India do not have the exact equivalent of a J. Lo on our popular culture map, the fact remains that todays urban Indian can and does identify completely with what Jennifer is saying – all the sexy contradictions of the essential ‘message’ notwithstanding. There is confusion, much confusion. And there’s even more guilt. ‘Want’ is the key. Everybody wants more. And if that is not accurately reflected in the media, it is because of the cultural baggage inbuilt into our psyches. To want is to sin. Those who ‘want’ are those who are doomed. This is the one strong stereotype that has been reinforced down the ages and is frequently spotted on television channels, in various guises – the latest one being the sadistic ‘Bhai’ or ‘Don’.
In the old days, it was the Marwari moneylender who played this role, followed by the suited-booted ruthless industrialist and Gandhi-topi wearing unscrupulous politician. Each stereotype represented a certain period and its specific preoccupations – with power, conspicuous consumption, violence, corruption... and very tentatively, sex. Though sex as a centrepiece remained and continues to remain on the fringes. I find this rather odd, given our obsession with the subject. And yet, when it comes to dealing with it in an upfront way, media invariably turns coy, and worse, nauseatingly hypocritical. Sex, as star, is still a taboo subject, even as our movie stars simulate it in the most comical of ways, through countless song-and-dance routines featured in commercial films.
Some things just never change. Heroines have to be virgins. Heroes, too. Though only one film has dared to lift the veil on male virginity. In Har Dil Jo Pyar Karega, Priety Zinta saucily asks Shah Rukh Khan about the status of his cherry. The answer is annoyingly ambiguous, alas. I was amazed that this little scene was ignored by the vigilant censors, since it did raise a few important issues with regard to gender equality and the status of women in popular cinema (‘If he can, I can’). Other than that solitary attempt at sorting out the male-female dichotomy vis-a-vis ‘purity’ of the body, most movie-makers faithfully tread the safe and predictable path – single women shun sex, single men love it but don’t have it, and it is only perverts/rapists who indulge in it with reluctant or optionless partners.
From the distant days of Bad Girl Helen, blowing smoke rings into the faces of leering men, and thereby conveying her willingness (even eagerness) to ‘do it’, nothing much has changed. This is the message that has been passed down for over fifty years. And this is the message that sticks. Apart from the metros (and even here, the statistics remain small), young people do not indulge in sexual activity outside marriage. And even after, it is more a question of ‘marital duty’ (wife’s viewpoint) than abandoned pleasure (villain’s dream). Film husbands are there to ‘oblige’ only in the interests of procreation and maternal longings.
Two recent films broke the mould (and made a modest amount of money). In Kya Kehna, the spirited heroine decides to take a stand after a one night stand. She goes ahead and has her lover’s baby, while the two families shrink in revulsion and horror. In Chori Chori Chupke Chupke, Priety Zinta (yes, her again) agrees to become a surrogate mum for a price, but not before falling head-over-in-love with the dishy dad (Salman Khan).
Both films cop out, however, when it comes to the question of individual belief. Like hundreds of formula films before them, these two also end up glorifying sacrifice. And as we all know, sacrificing ones desires for the general good of society is a responsibility that rests solely with the women of India. Men rarely sacrifice or compromise. They are so busy being men, that these sort of intrusions or irritants are best left for the women to sort out.
Television on the other hand, has shown a remarkable willingness to take chances and cross the traditional boundaries drawn by cinema. Several early soaps and serials on Doordarshan tried to go beyond the rigidity of roles prescribed for women. When I wrote Swabhimaan in the mid-nineties, I wasn’t at all sure how a daily soap revolving around the life of a mistress would fly on a national channel. Frankly, I was rather amazed it had been accepted in the first place. Nearly three years and over six hundred odd episodes later, I was pleasantly reassured by the positive response, particularly to the lead character, Svetiana, played convincingly by Kitu Gidwani.
Today, when I write for television, I do so with far more confidence. I know it’s possible to shift the goal posts and raise the bar. I know audiences will accept newness and contemporary themes (the success of Saans is a case in point). I know there’ll be a sizeable number of viewers responsive to the attitudinal shifts being projected by popular serials.
Paradoxically, though, at the other end of the spectrum, appreciative viewers of serials like Saans (which was obsessed with exploring the many facets of adultery) also lap up completely retrogressive serials like Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, with as much fervour. And the same audience cold-shoulders sensitive, women-centric films like Astitva and Zubeida. Analysts looking for a logical explanation are wasting their time. It is almost as if there are two Indias, each with a split personality. That makes it four complex target groups that have to be catered to simultaneously, keeping an ever-changing overlap in mind.
One would imagine an overwhelming response to forward thinking films and serials that strive to ‘image’ women correctly. But that isn’t happening. Or if it is, the numbers are inconsequential and insignificant. The sort of roles that say, Rani Mukherjee plays (long-suffering wife and martyr, but clad in alluring designer wear), aren’t qualitatively different from the ones Asha Parekh used to favour. Two generations later the same vapid values and viewpoints are being validated and endorsed by audiences across India. How come? Are we culturally programmed to resist change per se? Or are we playing ostrich and pretending nothing has changed?
When I talk to friends of my children and other young people who define todays India, I find a mindset that’s very attractive, very global, very contemporary. These kids are as savvy as their counterparts anywhere in the world. Why then don’t they reject the old formulae and demand entertainment that reflects their dreams and aspirations more accurately? Ask them.
Meanwhile, our advertising agencies, pathetically derivative, slavishly wannabe, continue to super-impose a weird version of ourselves on the national consciousness. Just as there never was a Liril girl frolicking in a green bikini under a waterfall, there never will be a Complete Man changing his baby’s diapers. But so what? We all know the ad world is made up of ace bullshitters living in a self-delusionary universe of their own creation. Nobody takes what they dish out seriously. Nobody is meant to. Fantasy rules.
But unlike our desi films, in which fantasies are linked to the collective imagery of centuries, the ad guys use an unknown platform for their take-offs. From where do they get their reference points? I know. I know. From the fat black book that everybody steals shamelessly from. Even so, the bizarre, almost surrealistic typecasting one encounters in TV commercials and print ads, leaves one stupefied.
The latest attempt at repositioning the Uptown Girl is so laughable, it makes me cry. Power Babes went out with the ’80s. But somebody forgot to tell the desi ad guys. Which is why, ad after corny ad projects plastic women in ill-tailored business suits playing Cave Ladies with a bad case of attitude. Tell me, where do such terrifying career women hang out? I have yet to meet one. When did the Indian chick leap straight into the boardroom after performing her duties (agilely and tantalisingly) in the bedroom? The only real, identifiable female character to be conjured up by the Big Boys of Bumper Sales has been Lalitaji. And they didn’t even bother to give her a decent burial. Or a facial, for that matter.
Hedonism and hard-sell go hand-in-hand in the cheerful land of never-ending consumerism. Agreed. But just how powerful a message is the one Coke forces down our gullets in one catchy word? Very powerful. ‘Enjoy!’ exhorts the ad. And enjoy everybody does. In fact, so interlinked is the enjoyment quotient with youth-branding, that practically any and every product can be peddled under that single word’s all-encompassing umbrella. The Badshahs of Big Spend know this. We know it too. Except it’s tough shutting ones eyes to social realities that refuse to disappear.
Of course, we want to ‘enjoy’. We’d be fools not to. And yet, at the end of the day, when one attempts to recover from the onslaught of the myriad messages being bombarded from every conceivable mass-comm medium, why does a small voice keeping whining. ‘Yeh Dil Maangey More?’ Aw gee. This is getting too much to handle. Why don’t I just take a Pepsi break?