TOI's nasty attack on Deepika: No, her 'Lovely' video doesn't prove them right

It's the moment for which Deepika Padukone's detractors have been waiting. Over the weekend, the music video for "Lovely", the song introducing Padukone's character in the upcoming Farah Khan film Happy New Year, was released on YouTube.

The first we see of Padukone in the video is her navel, bracketed by a shiny gold bra and a very short metallic skirt. This is swiftly followed by choreography that involves much heaving and thrusting, costumes that are essentially a catalogue of sparkly bras, some pole dancing and yes, lots of cleavage.

Considering how much of discussion Padukone and her upper torso have generated over the past week, some might say the furore Padukone raised on social media by questioning The Times of India's decision to gawp at her cleavage was ill-timed, given her role in Happy New Year. As someone observed on Facebook, "There'll be a lot of standing with the 'Lovely' Deepika in Happy New Year, but it may not exactly be a U/A-rated stand."

The apparent clash between Padukone's stance against TOI and her image in films was a point that was subtly made during a recent interview and not so subtly in this defensive explanation TOI published today.

Priya Gupta, Managing Editor of Bombay Times, writes to Padukone and other readers, pointing out a number of uncomfortable facts. One is that the newspaper is not alone. Every single media outlet relies upon sexualised imagery of Bollywood stars to grab eyeballs (though not all of us are equally brazen). For example, consider the photographs that have been used alongside articles supporting Padukone against TOI in different news outlets: most of them show her wearing a revealing outfit. (Interestingly, for her NDTV interview, Padukone wore a blouse whose neckline was almost at her chin.)

Equally importantly, these sexualised images aren't manufactured by the media. Most often, they're circulated by PR agencies employed by the actors themselves and/or film producers. So no matter what they tweet now, the industry is intimately complicit in this business of showcasing actresses as sex objects because that is what brings both actors and their projects publicity. "This has obviously been great publicity for you, timed perfectly with the release of your new film," points out Gupta in her piece. "The video's been on YouTube for a year, why object now?"

Sadly, the few nuggets of pertinence in Gupta's editorial are smothered in what is otherwise an attack upon Padukone. From pointing out Padukone was a "calendar girl" (so what?) to saying Padukone's to blame because she depicts herself as sexy, Gupta's writing reeks of old-fashioned prejudice and sexism -- to which Padukone rightly objects.

Last week, when Barkha Dutt asked Padukone about how the film industry "over-sexualises" women in an interview, Padukone said she had only recently become aware of how much of influence films exert over society. (Insert disbelieving snort here.) She then went on to point out that there's a certain "creative liberty" allowed when one is playing a character. "I feel that as along as it justifies the film and the kind of role one is playing, then of course," she said.

As she spoke, NDTV showed images of Padukone wearing tiny blouses that bared acres of her torso (and showcased her cleavage) in films like Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (in which she was a doctor) and Goliyon ki Raasleela - Ram-leela (in which she played a gangster's daughter in rural Gujarat).

Quite obviously, doctors and young Gujarati women are not known for the kind of wardrobe that Padukone paraded in these films. Although she didn't do a very coherent job of defending these choices in the interview, she's been articulate and smart on social media (cupcakes for her social media manager, please). The NDTV interview was quickly followed up with this Facebook post in which Padukone urged people to understand the distinction between the real woman she is off-screen and the (presumably) unreal characters she plays onscreen.

In Happy New Year, Padukone appears to be playing a woman who is part bar dancer, part striptease artist, part belly dancer and all sexy. One can valiantly argue that if there's anyone who has the right to bare body parts, then it is such a character.However, there's one critical detail that Padukone, her hashtag army and TOI should note: there's nothing wrong with Padukone baring any part of her body so long as she's the one choosing to do so and she's not making that decision under duress.

The problem with the TOI tweet wasn't that it showed her cleavage, but that it reduced Padukone to just her cleavage without her permission to do so. This is very different from Padukone appearing in a hypersexual avatar in a film because even if the camera zooms in on her bust (as it does in "Lovely"), it isn't being done without the actress' consent. She has chosen to play that part, wear that outfit, perform for the camera as she does — it's conscious and voluntary.

 TOIs nasty attack on Deepika: No, her Lovely video doesnt prove them right

Deepika Padukone in the Lovely song from Happy New Year.

Gupta completely ignores this critical problem: that TOI created an image entirely for the purpose of objectifying Padukone. From the overhead angle that the cameraman had chosen, all you could see of Padukone was her cleavage. She was literally reduced to a sexualised body part. They weren't showing Padukone as she wishes to depict herself. She'd come for that event in an unprovocative ensemble, which is evident from the regular, face-forward photos of Padukone at that event. It's TOI that turned her unremarkable outfit into something that is sexually-charged and manipulated the reader into seeing Padukone in that light. If Padukone's publicity team did indeed use this old footage for some fresh publicity, as Gupta has insinuated, then you can't really blame them. It was an image created to make headlines out of nothing.

Not only is placing the "blame" upon Padukone a stupidly defensive gesture, by doing so Gupta ignores one of the more significant strides forward that Bollywood and Indian media have taken over the past few decades (and ironically, Bombay Times is partially responsible for this). In the 21st century, the respect an actress commands is not connected to a neckline or hemline.

A few decades ago, the outfits that Padukone has worn in "Lovely" would only have been the vamp's lot. No one would dream of putting a heroine in them because it would be considered too sexual and heroines were supposed to be paragons of virtue and nubility who stayed curiously disconnected from their sexuality. The hero and sometimes the villain saw her sex appeal, but she didn't. If a heroine did do something as scandalous have a job as a bar dancer, there would be a sob story suggesting the poor doll had no option but to walk this path of ill-repute.

Today, however, we're making our way out of that moral straitjacket. One of the reasons we're managing to do this is that mainstream media has put "bold" photos on its pages without apology or shame. Sure, this may have been the result of a deal with a film producer (especially if the photo is in Bombay Times), but most readers don't know that. All they see is a woman unashamed of her body. Today if an actress is photographed wearing a bikini, she is no less respectable than a woman in a burqa or a full-sleeved, high-necked blouse and sari. Considering how many strictures are placed upon most women, dictating how they should dress so that they're not 'asking for it', you could argue that when an actress wears revealing outfits and is depicted as worthy of respect on and off screen, it's a necessary rebellion.

This is why actresses who do item numbers pose an uncomfortable dilemma for feminists and why it's disgraceful that Gupta is attacking Padukone for her public persona. Yes, an actress may choose to depict herself as sexy and wear next to nothing, but it's an independent and informed choice. Padukone, for instance, exercised her right to choose when she signed up to play the role she does in Happy New Year; or when she, throwing realism to the winds, played a doctor who can carry off an outfit composed of a ghagra and a bra masquerading as a choli in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani.

If a woman's priority is to be considered sexy in her professional life, then the rest of us have no business forbidding her to do so. It may make us uncomfortable because we'd like to believe a woman is more than her vital statistics and we're well within our rights to make this observation. However, that doesn't make her choice 'wrong'. When all we see is her bare skin and we don't notice her performance, then we're not seeing everything that Padukone is putting on show in a song like "Lovely".

The mentality that a female body needs to be covered up in order to be respectable isn't entirely a thing of the past in either Bollywood or real life, as Gupta's editorial makes patently clear. Yet the fact is, if someone wants to view a woman as a sex object, it doesn't matter what she wears or does. Some time ago, photographer Fabien Charuau created Send Some Candids, a series made up of photographs taken of women in public spaces, wearing everyday clothes, which were then uploaded to pornographic sites. The cellphone clicks showed it didn't matter what a woman was wearing; sexiness and sexual objectification lay in the eyes of the beholder. It's eerily reminiscent of how the camera angle was used in the video that TOI had tweeted.

Gupta would have you see "Lovely" and sneer at Padukone's "hypocrisy", but ultimately, the choice lies with you, the reader and the viewer. Will you see Padukone as a sex object or an actress? As far as Padukone is concerned, she's quite clear that she's the latter.

Updated Date: Sep 22, 2014 19:13:31 IST