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. 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 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 as much in vivid and scurrilous detail. 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 had 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.
It was the Tamil film industry that gave her a lasting home and a measure of fame. I do not understand Tamil and cannot speak for her skills as a thespian; but I do respect statistics, and Khushboo has made an astonishing number of movies in every south Indian language, though she remained primarily a Tamil actress. This is no small feat for a born Gujarati: Tamil is a complex language and the accent is near-impossible for a non-native speaker, yet I am told she speaks perfect, uninflected Tamil in dulcet tones.
Unlike the average Bollywood starlet, south Indian celebrities are rarely nationally recognised. Pay scales, similarly, are undoubtedly 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 burgeoning 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.
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. Irrespective of 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.
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