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EYE SPY: Sex, lies, and videotapes

LiveMint logoLiveMint 09-05-2014 Somak Ghoshal

Recently, two videos made us look at love and sexuality in a way that may, at a glance, seem refreshingly progressive, given their target audience (Indians).

Bollywood stars Ranveer Singh and Celina Jaitly appear in two different campaigns, both ostensibly promoting free love—Middle India’s favourite bête noire. Singh, the new ambassador for condom manufacturer Durex, plays the part of a classic ladies’ man—virile but vulnerable in his sculpted torso and flowing locks. He capers around with an infectious energy, flirts with a retinue of women and, for a change, makes sex and seduction look like fun—just an obvious, if important, part of everyday life as opposed to being a dirty secret. “Do the Rex”, Singh urges the (presumably, heterosexual male) viewer, for maximum pleasure and to be awarded full marks for performance.

Now try imagining a woman, instead of a man, leading such an advertisement. Or better still, compare the Durex ad with this one for the “i-pill”, marketed as “an emergency contraceptive pill” for women. When a man indulges in sex, the focus, almost exclusively, is on pleasure, as the existing and ever-expanding range of condoms of varying shapes, sizes, thinness and flavours will attest. “Family planning” and “safe sex” are subtexts in condom ads, but these concerns pale before the overwhelming interest in enjoyment, which, no doubt, is a vital part of sex. In the case of female contraception, however, the rhetoric changes dramatically. These ads tend to feature miserable young girls, torn between shame and anxiety, and riddled with the fear of social disapproval: If women have unprotected sex, things can only end badly—in the form of unwanted pregnancy.

How many of us pause to wonder why the girl in the i-pill advertisement could not be shown as waking up after a riotous night of “doing the Rex” and then popping in the pill, just to be on the safe side, without being wracked with guilt and foreboding? Even the most well-intentioned ads do not necessarily reveal the most enlightened mindsets.

The point could not have been better demonstrated than by a recent music video, made by the United Nations (UN), in order to promote LGBT rights in India. Jaitly, who has always been an outspoken supporter of queer rights, appears in “The Welcome”, which opens in a house where a family is busily preparing for a wedding ceremony. Set to the tune of a Bollywood hit from the 1970s, the song that accompanies the video evokes a spirit of bonding and bonhomie that is a quintessential part of the Great Indian Wedding. No matter how hard the feelings may be among individual members of a family, petty personal differences are usually set aside for a while to celebrate that most hallowed and universally approved of social institutions: marriage.

In this case, however, the twist in the tale comes in the form of the son of the family walking in with a male partner, causing happy smiles to vanish and brows to furrow, if only momentarily, before harmony is restored as the matriarch of the family, presumably the grandmother of the boy, welcomes the couple into the house. Cue: quivering lips, tearful smiles, frenzied dancing. All’s well that ends in holy matrimony.

In a country where the law still criminalizes homosexuality, watching such a video can feel like a subversive act, and also intensely empowering, precisely for that reason. With the best of intentions, the video makes a case for the acceptance of homosexuality, using a male gay couple as an example, but it is not free of biases. For one, it remains entirely male-centric, virtually ignoring the existence of lesbians. And further, it tries to justify homosexuality by invoking a tired old cliché: that of hetero-normative behaviour. It is alright to be gay, the video ends up saying, as long as you stick to monogamy and solemnize your relationship by marriage. To be able to look beyond the supposed immorality of homosexuality, you have to make it look like something others can understand. There is no hope for the rest, who may be single by choice or circumstance, or simply, no champions of monogamy.

This is a position that has been endorsed by generations of Indian families, particularly by mothers, vividly embodied by Kirron Kher in the film, Dostana, where, after an initial phase of breast-beating grief on being confronted with her son’s alleged homosexuality, Kher’s character decides to come to terms with his transgression and accept his presumed partner as her son-in-law. She, then, promptly tries to seal their prospective union by giving her beloved son-in-law-to-be the jewels she has saved for her bahu, the daughter-in-law she had hoped for all her life.

It is not without reason that one of the most popular songs from the film bemoans, albeit jokily, that ma ka ladla (mommy’s boy) has gone astray. Being the darling male child in an Indian family can be a mighty burden—he is expected to be unquestionably masculine (read macho), ideally be the sole bread-winner (though not necessarily mindful of many other responsibilities), and has to ensure that the line is preserved, preferably through male offspring. At the same time, being the ladla, the apple of everyone’s eye, he may find it easier, maybe after a lot of storm and stress in the beginning, to circumvent these boundary conditions, which are imposed far more severely on Indian girls, in case he decides to follow a different path.

The visual history of same-sex love has been usually subsumed by the need to either eroticize the subject (think of the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe) or the impulse to capture them in the thick of the rituals of matrimony. The latter has gained prominence in the public domain with nations and states becoming increasingly open to civil unions for same-sex couples. There are exceptions, of course, but not too many. Recently, I discovered the work of Braden Summers, an American photographer whose project, All Love is Equal, records the ordinary lives of same-sex couples in different societies in the West and East. In these candid shots, we see men and women walking with their partners, expressing affection for each other in public, or simply hanging out, as any other couple would do, at home, on the streets, or in cafés. It is the utterly unremarkable quality of their being together that becomes the most poignant aspect of these compositions.

A fortnightly look at the world of arts, from close and afar.

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