An edited version of this post appeared in OpenDemocracy, here.
Five years ago, the Tamil actress Khushboo said something innocuous in the course of an interview. She expressed surprise that adult men expected virgin brides, and went on to say that it was prudent to use protection while one does the big nasty. I gather (the original interview was impossible to trace) she said so within the pages of a sex survey, a titillating cocktail of statistics, porn, and pop psychology that the news-glossies run in slow weeks in the hopes of drawing out a less repressed Indian. (Sample question: do you routinely participate in mixed-gender orgies with your spouse?) In a sea of salacious oh-no-you-wouldn’t content, Khushboo’s plug for protection and sex-ed appears (to me) remarkably level-headed.
Khushboo acknowledged people had sex outside of marriage in a survey based on that exact premise. The culture-warriors, of which species India has an infinite variety, understood that to mean she endorsed it. Of course, she might have added that people enjoy sex of every stripe, she might have recommended fornication fervently and described in vivid and scurrilous detail, and undoubtedly she now wishes she had. This might make her later fate slightly more comprehensible. Unfortunately for both of us, posterity has only recorded the most responsible of her comments, and has judged her extremely harshly for them.
The fracas followed a week later, a long time in news cycles; a flawless edifice built around the magic point where text starts to get flayed of its context for popular amusement. In the intervening time, Khushboo raised the ire of a fellow member of the Tamil film fraternity by successfully forcing an apology from him when he likened actresses to prostitutes. To the extent that actresses in Tamil Nadu are routinely sexually exploited, the noble hero was certainly right, yet I doubt his analogy was motivated by feminist concerns about equality of labour and the casting couch. This man had some politicos in his posse, as such men do, and they obligingly raised a ruckus on the flimsy grounds they were forced to work with.
Khushboo is emblematic of the gypsy-actresses of independent India. Bollywood is the nerve centre of a whole host of interconnected, osmotic regional cinemas; it leaches off talented folk and replaces them with its discards. This is especially true of actresses, and some of Bollywood’s most famous faces are South Indians and Bengalis who have learnt Hindi on the job. Actors travel less successfully, and have longer shelf lives besides; an actor can afford to stick around and hope to be discovered in his 30s, an actress must make a place for herself by 25. Khushboo was one such nomad- after a few years attempting to break into Bollywood during the ‘80s, the Gujarati traipsed down south to find better luck.
The peak of her success in Bollywood came young: as a child she starred in the Bachchan blockbuster Laawaris. The other highlight of her Hindi movie career was the song Bol Baby Bol. It is a typical product of ‘80s Bollywood: nonsensical lyrics (the singer offers to teach his audience how to dance the tequila), weird dances and weirder fashion. Any self-respecting Bollywood song routine demands, at a minimum, three wardrobe changes, and this one is an ever deepening sartorial disaster. Khushboo starts off in a baby pink sweatsuit, switches to polychromatic ruffles, and winds down in tinsel boots.
Despite her willingness to look like an acid-addled can-can dancer, Khushboo never got to make her mark on Bollywood. It was the Tamil film industry that gave her a lasting home and a measure of fame. I don’t understand Tamil well enough speak for her skills as a thespian, but I do respect statistics, and Khushboo acted in an astonishing number of movies in every south Indian language.
Unlike the average Bollywood starlet, south Indian celebrities are rarely nationally recognised. Pay scales, similarly, are lower the further you go from glitzy Bombay, especially for women. However, regional cinema has a devoted, often rabid audience, and popular actors from the southern film world usually consider politics their retirement plan. Actresses are less lucky and terribly treated, even in comparison with Bollywood, itself no bastion of equal rights and fair play. The ones who strike a chord get a decent run as such things go. Khushboo, for instance, has had temples and recipes dedicated to her in the course of her decade-spanning career. Even after her film career waned (and she turned 35), she had a thriving career as a talk show host and television ‘personality’, and was well ensconced in Tamil society and popular culture. That was five years ago. Since then, the woman has been lynched, threatened, humiliated and hauled around the legal system for observing that people had sex, that sex has consequences, and that it is best to protect against them.
In the tragic farce tradition of Indian politics, the sordid incident dragged in a far deeper malaise than the shallow comment warranted. The motivating force behind the ugly incident is a deepening shadow over the once cosmopolitan Indian South, a growing regional xenophobia that fuels many of the peninsula’s conflicts. A more detailed analysis of the incident and the identity politics behind it can be found in Tushar Dhara’s essay “Reverse Culture Jamming” in the SARAI Foundation’s 2006 reader Turbulence. For the purposes of this post, suffice it to say that Khushboo, once a goddess in Tamil Nadu, became the focal point of a raging debate about ‘Tamil Culture’ and its vulnerability to ‘pollution’ from outsiders (whom the actress, owing to her Gujarati-Muslim origin, ostensibly represented). Criminal cases, on legally mystifying grounds, were filed against both Khushboo and Suhasini Manirathnam , her sole comrade-in-arms from the film community. The Madras High Court refused to go near the affair, despite the egregious attack on both liberty and privacy, forcing the Supreme Court to step in and finally dismiss the cases.
It took the intervention of the highest court in the land to uphold India’s constitution (and common sense) by confirming that opinions and facts aren’t illegal; to ‘prove’ that the alleged criminality hounding the poor women is utter baloney whipped up by crazed fanatics.
I could rant about this. I choose instead, as a Tamil woman and a lawyer, to celebrate even the little victories (half-Tamil, but close enough. I am Tamil through the paternal line, and I figure if they can appropriate me, I can appropriate them). I post this poem in solidarity with every woman who defies patriarchy: If men can’t fuck us while we have lives, fuck them! (better still, fuck someone else)
If you can’t fuck me while I read, fuck off.
You’re not the best of what’s been thought or said,
Not yet. But youth, with genius, is enough.
Menage a trois is greatness, not rebuff,
If you gain art from what art’s represented.
If you can’t fuck me while I read, fuck off.
I want you, and I want a paragraph
Of lengthy James, he does go on. My love,
Can You? I shouldn’t praise his length? Enough
Of him? The body of work’s living proof
We’re all rare forms, and living in the dead.
If you can’t A Little Tour in France me while I read,
I signal lusts by title, not handkerchief,
Since I’m the sex of all that I have read;
Sometimes I write this sex. Kiss me enough,
And well enough, that I may bear the snub
That reading’s not a sexual preference.
If you can’t fuck me while I read, fuck off,
Or rave how I’m a work of art enough.
S.X. Rosenstock, The Paris Review, 1996.
The latest news on the Khushboo front is the speculation that she is getting ready to join the Congress party and stand for public office. This seems a fortuitous alliance for the protagonists: she is the heroine of the moment, and one of her few political allies during the mess was Chidambaram’s lawyer son. The charismatic Khushboo, conversely, might help the flailing and insignificant Tamil Nadu Congress establish a foothold in the famously insular state. Her other political option is the regional DMK, also a member of the ruling UPA coalition. Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi is another rare Khushboo champion. Her feminist credentials, such as they are, conflict with important factions within the party: it was an influential DMK-lackey (and fellow member of Karunanidhi’s clan) who offered the ‘protesters’ a forum in the Tamil media. It might be stretching the (admittedly loopy) logic of public affairs in India to expect any propaganda machine to switch seamlessly from vilifying a woman to deifying her. Whatever her decision, the saddest consequence of the persecution is the likelihood that the actress’s radicalism, if it did truly exist, is by now well and thoroughly played out.
A List for Today
Five Feminist Classics
(nonfic, in no particular order)
1. Virginia Woolf, Room with a View
2. Susan Brownmiller, Femininity ( I haven’t read Against Our Will yet, though I have owned it for a while. Rape is a subject I try avoid. )
3. MFK Fisher, The Gastronomical Me
4. Ellen Willis, Don’t Think, Smile! (I have lost my copy of this. Despite the brilliance of Beginning to See the Light this will always be the one-that-got-away.)
5. Martha Gellhorn, The Face of War
This list is one my more mutable ones. It changes each time I think about it, and if I were to make it tomorrow at least one book would be different. Already, I am counting up the excellent writers it so merrily neglects (Winterson, Wollstonecraft, Sontag, Klein, Roy) as well as other books by the one it doesn’t. Oh well. As far as I can tell, these were the books that made me a feminist, for better or worse. Them, or, you know, Buffy and The L Word