November 30, 2005

Spectacle Of Bigotry: The pre-martial sex controversy

The Khushboo imbroglio symbolises the lethal trend of political parties using cultural bigotry to achieve electoral ends. The attempt to curb free speech needs to be nipped now.

SAVAGE SHOW: A protest against the actor outside the court

Angry mobs throwing slippers, tomatoes and eggs at a beleaguered woman who dives for cover as she appears in a court for allegedly insulting the Tamil community. It was a scene that would have made the 18th century French philosopher Voltaire cry in disgust, "What a fuss about an omelette!" The woman in distress: Khushboo, the popular actor who was so loved by Tamil audiences that her fans even built a temple for her. But real life doesn't often work along a predictable script. Last week, as her effigies were being burnt outside, a court in Mettur granted her conditional bail after she surrendered before a judicial magistrate in connection with a defamation suit filed against her.

"She didn't defame anyone. Why did courts entertain the petitions?"


 "You cannot curb a person's right to free speech and to express views."

 "This hue and cry about her views is needless. We are with her."

 "It's sad that we are not prepared to accept a perfectly reasonable opinion."
 "The message this is going to send out is 'stay quiet' and 'don't mess around'."
 "We should support her against bigots who are making an issue out of nothing."
 "Right to free speech can't be held to ransom by intolerant sections."
 "They are using cultural policing for political ends. It won't work."
 "Khushboo is just a soft target for a highly politicised issue."
 "Sex is something we need to talk to youngsters about for their own good."
 "We don't have the right to bully someone or curb their freedom of speech."

As television audiences are haunted by the indelible images of a tearful Khushboo, the actor has every reason to be bewildered for it is yet a mystery who she defamed. Khushboo, it would seem, has been tried and sentenced by bigots as people looked on. All she said was that pre-marital sex was now an urban commonality and she found nothing wrong in it. She herself had lived with her man for two years before she married him. She was commenting in a column in India Today's Tamil edition (dated September 28, 2005) on the findings of the annual survey on changing sexual mores. She said, "No educated man would expect his wife to be a virgin."

As author Shobhaa De says, "Khushboo has said nothing that sex surveys don't regularly point out. She is neither suggesting anything promiscuous nor is she hinting at some wild sexual orgy." In fact, CPI(M) Politburo member and MP Brinda Karat questions the very admission of the cases by the courts. "It is unacceptable that the court should have, in the first place, admitted a petition against Khushboo's remarks. The court had no business to do so because what Khushboo did was express her views. The freedom of expression allows her the right to air her opinion and what's sad is that not a single individual seems to have come out in her support," says Karat.

Facts may support Khushboo but innuendos and fiction make for a better script. And controversy. The breaking news of her views came via a headline on Sun TV which is controlled by the Marans, nephews of DMK President M. Karunanidhi. Suddenly all hell broke loose. As if on cue the Tamil Protection Movement, the self-styled guardians of Tamil culture, took to the streets. The organisation-headed by S. Ramadoss, leader of DMK ally Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and father of Union Health Minister Anbumani, and Tirumavalavan, a leader of the Dalit Panthers of India-condemned the actor for "insulting the Tamil community as a whole and hurting Tamil women in particular".

Tabloids and the soundbite brigade followed suit. Tamil Murasu, the new evening newspaper of the DMK took over and questioned her right to speak about Tamil women. It didn't matter that she had made no reference to Tamil women. Truckloads of men and women, who did not even know what the issue was, agitated for TV cameras. Tirumavalavan insists that it was a spontaneous reaction but the truth, as Jaya TV showed, is that most people interviewed by them knew nothing about what was published. Agitations spread in all corners of Tamil Nadu, spearheaded by the "culture" protectionists, and defamation cases filed against the star in various courts of the state in spite of her breaking down before Jaya TV cameras and apologising to the Tamil people, asking their forgiveness if she had hurt them unintentionally.

Tamil Nadu, an emerging destination for high technology investments, suddenly showed the world its bizarre and ludicrous face. Morality became an obsession in the state. It would seem that the titillating masala mix videos that rock late night channel viewers and the concept of "chinna veedu" (bigamous second marriages) were from another planet. As filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt points out, "In a state where HIV-aids hovers like a menace, it is absurd that a celebrity like Khushboo who says things as they are about our sexual habits should be victimised and belittled. Everyone seemed to have some view on the issue but no group that mattered made any noise against the chauvinist bullies or pointed out that it was Khushboo's constitutional right to express her views whether you agreed with her or not."


But the voice of reason was silent, stifled with fear. Even the Film Actors Association distanced itself by instructing all its members to lie low. Its secretary, actor Sharath Kumar, a DMK MP says, "Since the matter was in the court we thought it was not right to make public statements about it."

Stars whose huge cutouts dot the Chennai skyline stayed mute spectators to this attack on a colleague. Chivalry, it seemed, was only for the screens, and patriarchal machismo that rules Kollywood screens came to haunt the streets. Indeed when actor Suhasini Mani Ratnam stood up for Khushboo she too was not spared. In a bold move Suhasini apologised to Khushboo on behalf of the Tamil people for the "barbaric attacks", drawing sharp criticism for insulting Tamil women. Angry people burnt her effigies and several cases were filed against her too for disturbing public order and speaking against Tamil culture. Worse, the film actors' association asked her for an explanation and she had to apologise.

None of the political parties-the left parties, the MDMK and the Democratic People's Alliance constituents, Congress, DMK and PMK-intervened. The Congress may be headed by a woman but its spokesperson Anand Sharma merely said, "Those are her (Khusbhoo's) views." No one was prepared to say anything because they did not want to antagonise the PMK. Surely there was a political agenda behind the agitations. Charuhasan, father of Suhasini and actor brother of film star Kamal Hasan, remarked, "I said on a TV channel that chastity attributed to women is a figment of male imagination. Why is it that nobody filed a suit against me?" They would have if any kind of political mileage could be gained out of it.

The genesis of the controversy is not in what Khushboo said but in the incestuous relationship between filmdom and politics in Tamil Nadu. It is widely believed that it all started with a quarrel between Khushboo and film director Thankar Bachan who is quoted as saying that he "depicts women in his films as they should be". Bachan is a member of the Tamil Protection Movement and is close to Tirumavalavan and Ramadoss. A few months ago, Bachan made some crude remarks about film actors-he stopped short of calling them prostitutes. Khushboo, with a few other female stars, including senior actor Manorama, made him tender a public apology. Khushboo's column was an opportunity to hit back.

There is also the peculiar situation of party-owned media outfits. The J. Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi battle has a queer echo in the electronic media where pro-DMK Sun TV is perpetually battling the pro-AIADMK Jaya TV. Beyond the propaganda war there is also the TRP war. Khushboo anchors a very popular TV show called the Jackpot, the rising TRP rate of which apparently made Sun TV uncomfortable. Also, Khushboo is reported to have annoyed Sun TV by refusing permission for it to telecast a show of hers staged in Singapore.

SEXCAPISM: Onscreen titillation does not seem to bother the culture police

At another level, DMK insiders reveal that Jayalalithaa was planning to induct Khushboo into politics and pit her against M.K. Stalin, Karunanidhi's son, in the coming assembly election. Khushboo, with her popularity with women, may have posed a tough challenge. She was clearly standing on a minefield. The moment was opportune to kill two birds with one stone-a blow to Jaya TV and to the rumoured moves of Jayalalithaa.

With the spectre of the election breathing down her neck, even Jayalalithaa did not come forward to support Khushboo. Worse, she said that Khushboo's view was unacceptable-not only because the concept of chastity as the true Tamil trait has been nurtured by Dravidian politicians into an emotive issue and whipped up as a political weapon, but also because the chief minister is careful not to offend the PMK, which may turn around and join her camp before the polls. The PMK, which has a strong Vanniyar support in the northern belt, is capable of deciding the victory of the lead partner, whether it is DMK or AIADMK.


Chastity is Becoming Outdated

Women in Chennai were lagging behind Bangalore in expressing sexual desires. But Chennai women are now coming out of hibernation. I see a lot of women going out, in pubs and discos here. Women are able to talk about sex without inhibition. Given our conservative Indian backdrop, women are slowly coming out. But I do have questions about this women liberation when cases like Stefani's accident are happening (this girl was chased and killed by drunken youth after a night party in a Chennai hotel). But at the same time, I think sex education is a must in our schools. When the schools fail to teach sex, parents should educate their children about sex. In my opinion, sex is not only related to body; it's got a lot to do with our minds. I can't understand how some girls could change their boyfriends every Friday. When a girl is sure about her boyfriend she can tell her parents that she's going out with him. When the girl has a serious relationship the parents should also allow it. Our society should liberate itself from such ideas that the brides should all be virgins at the time of marriage. No educated man will expect his bride to be virgin at the time of marriage. But when indulging in pre-marital sex, the girl should guard herself against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

I married a guy who I love. As we were sure about our relationship, we lived together even before marriage. Now it is six years since we got married. As we have two kids, our responsibilities have increased. As our children sleep in the same bedroom, my husband and me should find time for ourselves. But still our sex life is enjoyable. Married couples should be able to give each other happiness physically also. Satisfying each other is happiness. When they understand the other person's sexual desires, there won't be any problems in married life. Some couples make use of pornography to add spice to their sex lives. I don't see anything wrong with that. At the same time each one should understand the other person's likes and dislikes; comfort and discomfort levels. When women express their sexual desires they are looked down upon. This attitude should change. Sex is about two minds.

(As told to Peer Mohamed)
This guest column by Khushboo appeared on page No. 23 of INDIA TODAY's Tamil edition, issue dated September 28, 2005.

Thanks to factors of political expediency, the cult of culture policing has caught on. In their operations they are no different from those of the Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists. Or the narrow-minded parochial bigotry exhibited by organisations like the Shiv Sena. They have targeted English titles of Tamil films, ransacked the theatres and offices. They splashed black tar on English boards in the markets, accused women poets that dared to speak about their bodies as women of loose morals, unmindful of the obscene film songs written by male poets or the demeaning, glamourised depiction of the "chinna veedu" on big and small screen. Every move is with a political motive. For instance, Rajnikanth's problems with the PMK are well-known but the level of hostility can be gauged by the fact that when the Union health minister banned smoking onscreen few in Kollywood or Tamil Nadu doubted who the target was. It also spawns strange alliances. Ramadoss and Tirumavalavan, people knew, were strange bedfellows. The Vanniyar outfit of the former and the Dalit group of the latter have fought bitterly till a couple of years ago. Political expediency brought the two together. The rationale: a vacuum that pundits have predicted in the political leadership. Both see the DMK's dominance in Tamil politics waning and want to capitalise on it. Cho Ramaswamy, commentator, author, MP and editor of Tughlak, believes that "they have taken up culture policing with a view to emulate Karunanidhi who became popular with the anti-Hindi agitation". He says it is ridiculous because "times have changed. In an era of globalisation, no one is going to listen to your anti-English slogans".

It is ironic that the culture police call themselves the followers of Periyar, E.V. Ramaswamy Nayakar, the founder of the Self Respect Movement who had astonishingly radical views on women's issues. Periyar said, "The concept of female chastity is nothing but a conspiracy to keep women in bondage." So which truly Tamil culture are the protestors pretending to uphold. "If they agree that Sangam poetry (which portrays pre-marital and extramarital sex as normal) represented 2000-year-old Tamil ethos then what are they protesting against," asks Kanimozhi, Karunanidhi's daughter who has formed a forum for free expression with Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram's son Karthik.

India Today's Tamil edition wrote about teenage dating in Chennai and on unwed mothers in the rural areas 14 years ago. It was a Chennai doctor Dr. Sumathi Solomon who discovered the first case of aids in India. The disease is now a big threat to the country. "In a state that is facing a huge battle against aids we are still so hypocritical and are willing to indulge in slogan-mongering instead of tackling the real issues," says film director Mani Ratnam.

That an individual's opinion can be politicised and result in "incipient Talibanism" is a cause for alarm. The silence of the political parties that aspire to rule Tamil Nadu is more alarming. They may conveniently forget Voltaire's words, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." It is left to the people, the real democratic forces to ring the alarm bell and stand firm against such cultural policing whatever the reasons for it.

1 comment:

tanvi said...

I am doing a dissertation on moral policing and women. Khusboo controversy is one of the case stuidies I had taken up. This article was extremely helpful in my work. It must ppreciate your anlytical depth and ability to bring out complexitites of the issue here in a very engaging fashion.