Why the bikini is badnaam
25 Nov 2007, 0031 hrs IST
The bikini has never had it easy in these parts. When the Miss World contest was held in Bangalore in 1996, the city erupted in protests. Women’s groups objected to the commodification of women’s bodies, fundamentalist groups raged that it was against Indian culture while Left groups accused the Karnataka government of selling out. To avoid further conflict, the organisers shifted what they suspected to be the root of the problem to the Seychelles - the bikini round.
A Miss World contest today is unlikely to be mobbed by picketing crowds, but the anxieties around the bikini continue. The organisers of a Miss India Bikini 2007 contest were recently surprised when three Bollywood celebrities one after the other turned down their lucrative offer to walk the runway in a bikini at the contest. Next, a young actress announced that she would never wear a bikini like her mother, also an actor, who had made “the biggest mistake” by wearing one in a film forty years ago. Now this young lady hardly qualifies as a prude having recently done some remarkably explicit scenes in a regional film. So should we be surprised to hear such regressive comments? Not really.
When in Bollywood, do as Bollywood does. Such clichés are the staple of Bollywood. The bikini in some form or the other has become an acceptable part of Bollywood’s grammar, but the bikini-wearer herself is still a pariah. Women in the glamour industry won’t bat an eyelid while shooting in bikinis for international assignments, but will valiantly resist in India—or at least state their reservations loudly in public - acutely aware that such an act will amount to transgressing some unspoken cultural boundaries.
In the eyes of the public, the bikini-wearer is often seen as having crossed the final frontier of Indian values and traditions, and becoming one of “those women” - sexually aggressive, “characterless”, out of control and endowed with all the qualities of Western female sexuality that the bikini symbolises.
As many young women in the glamour industry have found out the hard way, those who accept a bikini assignment are often singled out for all such work in the future - condom ads, swimsuit calendars, item numbers - and spend much of their time fire-fighting the consequences of the act or warding off dodgy offers. Given this ground reality, it is no wonder that women in the industry have to repeatedly state their essential goodness and Indianness by periodically denouncing the bikini.
This does not, of course, mean that Indian actresses or models don’t shoot in such garments. Indeed where would Bollywood and the world of beauty pageants be without them? Either the garment itself must be a disguised version of the bikini - a bikini blouse with a sari or a modern choli, something that can be justified back home as “in India only”. Or it must be couched in some language other than that of freedom and choice.
Even if they spent months pursuing the Yashraj item number or bikini shoot, they must underplay their eagerness or willingness and dramatise the trauma and difficulties they had in doing it, or tom-tom the aesthetics of the maker. “It was an exam, I had to do it. No choice,” beauty pageant contestants will shrug. “I only did it because I knew they would make it classy not vulgar,” the item girl will say. “The role demanded it. It had to be done,” the actress will insist. “I was fooled into it by the photographer,” a young turk might genuinely rue. (All this before they visit Tirupati, wear a multitude of gems to ward off planetary obstructions, walk to Sidhhivinayak barefoot, marry a tree if they are manglik, observe karvachauth or do whatever it takes to demonstrate their love for tradition and culture.)
The problem with such denouncements is that they only add to the arsenal of the moral police who believes that women’s “character” has everything to do with what they wear. The message is that “only bad women wear bikinis”. The implication is that women who wear such clothes get sexually harassed, and have no one to blame but themselves. They ‘asked for it’.
A bikini has nothing to do with being good or bad and statistics on crimes against women show that what women wear has no bearing on sexual harassment faced by them. Yet the fear of being associated with bikinis only compounds these dangerous misconceptions, adding a greater burden to women to take responsibility for their own safety.
Ultimately though, it is impossible to not sympathise with the realities women in the industry live with and the stigma they constantly struggle to keep at bay. Who knows what Sharmila Tagore or Dimple Kapadia went through in their personal lives after wearing their famed two-pieces?
How many blank calls they got, stalkers they had to encounter, sleazy grins from co-actors they had to endure or sullen silences from lovers, accusing looks from elders and no-eye-contact from male relatives? Wearing a bikini is part of the performance alright. But at the end of the day, after pack up, they go back to real lives with real relationships built on the damning sexual moralities of Indian society in which women are always up for trial.