Many years ago, I had the interesting fortune of being a student at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, when it was under the stewardship of a principal whose most memorable legacy was altering the college’s hemlines forever. Over a span of four years, out went the shorts, the minis, the sleeveless, and, according to rumours, any clothing in red (too tempting to the Devil), and in marched the one-man moral police. As we tried to uncomfortably fit into those sartorial straitjackets, I recall the priest walking past me one evening, surveying my brown khadi sleeveless top, and attaching his gimlet vision to the round neck and loose fit. He, then, told me off for wearing “such low-cut clothes” in college. Given the ludicrous inaccuracy of the accusation and the invasive gaze, I foamed at the mouth at the frustrated mindset of a dirty old man. And, yet, all these years later, a venerated newspaper, the grand Old Lady of BoriBunder, has somehow morphed into one, training its leering gaze on DeepikaPadukone’s modest neckline and near non-existent cleavage just because it can do so.
The paper in question has tried hard to distract us with women’s ‘voices’ on the matter. First came a columnist (an ex-model, ex-hack, ex-pulp fiction writer), spewing pseudo pop-cultural observations on equal opportunity objectification of male and female celebrity body parts. Except that the outrage wasn’t over the display of the body part. Then, came an ex-actress, ex-reality TV star and Page 3 socialite, who gave us a crash course on the nature of celebrity and the invasive baggage that comes with it. Except that the outrage had nothing to do with celebrities’ demand for privacy.
When that failed to quell indignant masses, another woman, a loyal employee and brand manager-turned-editor (because that is a logical career trajectory in a venerated newspaper), wrote another tome about the movie star’s hypocrisy and faux modesty given that she had chosen to voluntarily reveal a lot more in countless movies, photo shoots and live events. This article was helpfully embellished with many instructive pictures to acquaint us with Padukone’s cleavage and its frequent public appearances. Except that the outrage wasn’t about a revealing picture.
Why exactly are we then so outraged? With all the entitlement that a modern woman of means (especially one such as the plaintiff) has, surely she should accept a bit of papping as par for course? Put it down to vicious trolling and leave it be? Indeed, as we speak, there has been a mass scale internet leak of Hollywood actresses’ naked pictures with hackers warning Emma Watson of a similar fate after her UN speech on sexism. The caravan of female empowerment can’t stop for every barking dog, can it? Especially when the barking is directed towards rich, powerful and beautiful women who, anyway, have it all and shouldn’t be complaining about anything in the first place?
Except that women across the world know when not to expect better from men. Having grown up in one of the most privileged square miles in India, Napean Sea Road, in Mumbai, I recall a happy childhood dotted with groping in the bus, old men asking me if I had started my period and beggars flashing their ejaculating penis in broad daylight at Chowpatty. No surprises, then, that women are wired to watch out for the perverts from an early age.
Celebrities continue to watch out in the grown-up online avatars such as The Enquirer, Mirror, Perez Hilton, TMZ, People magazine or our home-grown www.rediff.com’s photo gallery. However, discovering one of the oldest newspapers in the country indulging in a similar lecherous perversion is akin to catching your friend’s trusted dad looking up your skirt. It’s a safe house that’s been breached.
And, in a country where many such safe houses are being breached daily within families, schools, public places and offices, it touches a raw nerve among ordinary faceless women. When a brand built over 176-odd years as a bastion of news, impartiality, mass-scale literacy and bilateral peace becomes the neighbourhood pervert, it isn’t just a war of one-upmanship between a celebrity and a media powerhouse; it’s an irrevocable breakdown of trust between womanhood and its supposed allies.
Padukone and her cleavage will survive this fracas, as will the newspaper. The cynics will smile smugly, secure in the belief that the entire exercise was a publicity stunt. And, women everywhere will remember that there is one more person they can’t trust not to violate them. Because in the online world of clutter and click-baits, it takes practically nothing for the grand Old Lady of Bori Bunder to turn into a dirty old man.
Deblina Chakrabarty is into TV content distribution, but her real passion lies in turning her sharp gaze on love, lust and everything in between.