Moral Policing – Jism 2 and Vagina Monologues face the music

by tybmmjourno

The controversial poster of Jism 2


Mandakini, in a controversial still from Ram Teri Ganga Maili

Jism 2 received its fair share of publicity (undue? Not in the film industry!) when Sunil Prabhu, Mayor of Mumbai wrote a letter to BEST General Manager O.P. Gupta, asking him to remove the ‘obscene’ Jism 2 posters from their buses (according to the Hindustan Times report, August 3, 2012). All the posters were taken down from 70 buses. Mr. Prabhu’s justification for the same was this – “Such obscene display of a woman’s body on public places leads to the disintegration of our society and should be banned.”

The poster had the silhouette of a nude woman draped in a diaphanous white sheet against a black background. The contours of her body are visible through the damp covering, suggestive yet subtle with implied eroticism. It is reminiscent of the (in)famous white sari scene in Ram Teri Ganga Maili, where Mandakini frolics under a waterfall in the song ‘Tujhe Bulaaye’. Despite its ‘vulgarity’, the film is now considered a classic, more so as a veiled critique of the political double standards regarding social causes.

To come back to the issue at hand, the mayor’s appeal found favour with Pratibha Naithani, social activist. “This is a good step taken by the administration. Why should children and women be forced to see a nude woman’s poster?” Her rhetoric question seemed to imply that gazing upon a naked woman seemed the sole prerogative and occupation of men.

Mumbai is not new to censorship or moral policing. It lurks like an unpleasant reality in the back alleys, only to emerge on a Valentine’s Day or to protest against ‘objectionable’ material, which seems to be importing Western values. Despite being touted as India’s most cosmopolitan city and the heart of the Hindi film industry, there remain precedents for restrictions on freedom of expression. The ‘moral disintegration’ of society remains a constant reason and finds resonance in prior cases of censorship.

The cast of the Indian adaptation of the Vagina Monologues

A month ago, the Marathi adaptation of Vagina Monologues (titled Yoni Manichya Gujagoshti) was not permitted to perform at a Borivli auditorium. Vandana Khare, who translated, distracted and produced the Marathi adaptation, expressed disappointment on the matter. More so, since they had performed previously in the same hall. “It is just a refusal to address issues of sexuality,” she said.

The theatre manager had defended their stance, stating that every show that has to be performed at the auditorium needs to be appropriate for all ages. This piece of news may have been met by approving nods or disapproving scowls. Perhaps even plain indifference, depending on perspective. The common citizen would argue that the state government could devote its time and resources to better use.

These two instances had me raising my eyebrows. I had never seen more instantaneous government action or group solidarity regarding any other social issue like better roads, public transportation or the safety of women. But when a poster or a theatre performance is perceived as a threat to our social fabric, it does not take long for agitations to congregate. Suddenly, women’s rights become of prime concern and Indian values, an institution to be aggressively defended.

‘Obscenity’ is used liberally and public property is vandalised when demands are not immediately met. The film and the play received more than its fair share of attention. Jism 2 did not garner critical acclaim or audience appreciation, whereas the Vagina Monologues (and its adaptations) has performed for years in the metro cities, constantly facing censure.

Having its first performance in India, in March 2003, the play frequently courted controversy.  The Chennai performance in 2004 was banned, despite planned guest appearances by Jane Fonda and Marissa Tomei. Mahabanoo Modi-Kotwal, before one of the productions of the play earlier this year, said that the Chennai performance was cancelled because the authorities did not want to incite any kind of violence among the public.

“Although how a group of perfectly non-violent women were capable of inciting violence remains a mystery to me.” she said. “And also, we came to the conclusion that the city which banned us obviously had no vaginas. Which means they only had assholes.” The audience tittered at that line. I did too, not so much at the punch-line, than at Ms. Kotwal’s delivery of it.

I have yet to see Jism 2, but having seen Vagina Monologues, I can say with utmost confidence that the play, though a possibly noble attempt, does not merit such immense coverage. Yes, the play speaks of the woman’s most intimate organ, either allegorically or blatantly (mostly the latter). But instead of creating a removing the taboo and creating a comfortable acceptance of the area, the play ends up catering to the elite and is sensationalist in its approach. It lacked an overall Indian identification (performing mostly Western skits), while possibly contributing to the stereotype that only the ‘Westerners’ would talk so freely about their private parts.

Despite its subjective objectionability, no member of Indian society was compelled to watch the play. As is the case with Jism 2. The posters may have been criticised for being openly displayed in the public domain. Why is this degree of attention not given to the posters of B-grade films that we see regularly plastered on walls?

Is it a thing of elitism? An attempt to humble the English-speaking class when the lesser-known regional films (at least in mainstream English press) slip under the cynosure of the media glare?

There needs to be greater acceptance of sexuality in our country. ‘The Land of the Kamasutra’ is an argument that evokes sniggers among the cynics. But do you really blame them?

Change the outlook. Grow above the pettiness. Beneath the razzmatazz of a glittering, ‘shining’ India lies an uglier truth of female exploitation. Accept it. Change it. We will have a forward-thinking nation. A better one. Surely that is not such a terrible thing?