Deepika Padukone v/s Times of India: Of captions and cleavage

Deepika Padukone, she of Finding Fanny, Ramleela, Chennai Express, Cocktail, Om Shanti Om and variously fame, is in the news for taking on the leading English daily of the country, Times of India.  She lashed back at a twitter post of TOI captioned “OMG so much cleavage” and later told NDTV that she felt violated.  TOI haven’t been wont to lie low.  They retaliated, first through an opinion piece penned by Pooja Bedi and then through this here article: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/entertainment/hindi/bollywood/news/Dear-Deepika-our-point-of-view-/articleshow/43084705.cms?.    Deepika’s stand against the big bad newspaper has received much support from the film fraternity.  She has pointed out that when she reveals skin in films, it is because the role demands it.  Indeed, if there ever was a time for her to act in a film that depicted the sexist underbelly of Bollywood, this would be it.  Perhaps, she could produce it herself if the subject finds no other takers.

Or perhaps such a film, or something to that effect, has already been made.  The Vidya Balan-starring sleeper hit of 2011, Dirty Picture, portrayed the life of Silk Smitha.  In the early portions of the film, the young, aspiring Silk is shown as trying to get an audition but, finding nobody willing to give a rank outsider and rookie a chance, goes down the skin route to find success but, ultimately, disenchantment and discontent.  My memory does not serve me well but it was probably in the 2012 Filmfare awards ceremony that the host, probably Shah Rukh Khan, joked that only Khan, Karan and Kleavage sold in the industry.

Maybe you should blame it on my memory again but I remember nothing but complete silence from one Miss Deepika Padukone on that subject at that time.  Sure, everyone knew it was a joke but following the logic put forth in the last week, was a joke on cleavage really necessary?  And was it not a cheap shot at an actress who had attracted the audience to her film for the quality of her performance and not her skin show?  And was it perhaps a subtle hint that an actress can only be defined by her cleavage even if she can carry a film on her shoulders purely on the strength of her acting skills (I may be reading too much into it but isn’t everybody doing that just now with regard to the cleavage controversy)?

So, is Deepika Padukone willing to be a spokesperson for the fight by Bollywood actresses against big bad media and their objectification of women?  Or is she only concerned when she herself is the target?  And if it’s the latter, should anybody other than herself and TOI really be interested in it at all?  And is she ok with any number of cheap jokes by fraternity members, especially if they are influential and she has reason to be loyal to them?

Readers have complained about the perceived arrogance of TOI in loftily declaring BCCL one of the largest media houses in the world in the above article and questioned their lack of responsibility as a leading daily.  That, I am afraid, also raises troubling questions about the tastes of the English news readership in India.  I do not recall a newspaper like The Hindu getting into trouble for printing distasteful captions.  So why is it that TOI enjoys such a massive lead in readership in the country if their standards are so bad?  Is it, ahem, because of such captions and, ermmm, the accompanying pictures?  Again, I am fully aware that I am simplifying it.  But it is precisely such simplistic logic that has been put forth in rants against the newspaper in the last week or so.

The other issue such a stand raises is:  are standards to be maintained only by news media?  Are the film industry and its performers not beholden to standards of any sort?  Yes, I get it, Deepika Padukone has the right to do as she pleases in her roles.  The question is does she necessarily HAVE to indulge in skin show? We have been hearing about this being a new golden age of Bollywood. So why is it that neither production houses nor directors feel assured that roles for women that do not have to involve a pretty face or require skin show can be written for actresses willing to perform them?  And there would surely be plenty such actresses in this new Golden Age, raring to take on roles with depth and substance?  In the apparently less golden 90s, I do not recall the actress Kajol being particularly renowned for either her looks or the alluring appeal of her embodiments.  So why is it that the leading ladies in Bollywood today rely heavily on their looks to grab roles?

This is not say either Deepika Padukone, Katrina Kaif or Priyanka Chopra do not make a sincere effort to bring their characters to life on screen.  But you only have to consider the case of Konkona Sen Sharma to know what happens, eventually, to actresses who don’t win in the skin race.  It is often said that art can only imitate life and films hold a mirror to the state of society as it is. So is it at all surprising that Bollywood is every bit as sexist and just as keen to objectify its actresses as the media?

It has been variously alleged that Deepika Padukone was seeking payments from TOI for a photograph they shot without her permission and this was her way of getting her own back.  Or that she was simply running a cynical publicity drill for Finding Fanny.  I submit that there may well be an alternative, simpler, explanation.  Although it is increasingly used as a publicity tool, Twitter is also (in)famous for knee jerk reactions and celebrity reactions.  Miss Padukone may have only indulged in one such.

Perhaps, her disproportionate rage at something that is, like it or not, rather commonplace in the media, was an outpouring of pent up frustration over the inability of her industry to regard her, even 7 years since her debut, as anything more than a sex bomb who can act (necessarily in that order).  Disgust at the fact that even after reeling off performances that won critical claim, it is indeed cleavage that continues to define her career in the eyes of a certain kind of audience, and a kind that is large in number.

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