Yo Yo Honey Singh attended music classes at the Trinity School in London and Sunny Leone likes watching The Simpsons in her spare time. These are facts that one must consider while deconstructing the impact a proven pornographer and an alleged misogynist have had on the Indian psyche. A shrill gender debate, it would seem, has plagued both these entertainers somewhat evenly.
Energy catalyst in many a sweaty discotheque, Yo Yo Honey Singh perhaps didn’t keep in mind the importance of timing when he agreed to a 2012 New Year’s Eve concert in Gurgaon. Still horrified by the brutality of the December 16 gang rape that transpired on a Delhi bus, Singh’s hip-hop lyrics were justifiably seen as encouragements to a generation of young men intent on sexual violence. It didn’t help matters that someone had discovered an adult-branded 2006 single Singh had reportedly sung.
Reacting to the content of the song seven years after it first appeared online, a division bench of the Punjab and Haryana high court recently branded it ‘shameful’. On Friday, the Punjab police went on to book the singer under various provisions of the Indian Penal Code’s Section 294 (singing, reciting or uttering any obscene song, ballad or words, in or near any public place). The fact that ‘Balatkari’ has never seen an official Indian release is fast proving to be a defence too feeble. The guilt associated with the pleasure of listening to Singh’s music has come to acquire dimensions of public shame.
Sunny Leone, who found social acceptability in 2011 when the Indian mainstream chose to give her access to the Bigg Boss house, appears just as intimate with the limits of national acceptance. Apart from a trendy swimming pool, it would be prudent to note that the Bigg Boss prison also had access to many a national camera. Leone, who had until then remained the guilty pleasure of post-adolescents with the luxury of a broadband connection, was suddenly a topic for discussion in our living rooms.
In India, do as Indians do
Soon after Leone exited the Bigg Boss house, Pooja Bhatt offered her the lead role in a sequel to her popular hit Jism (2003). Bhatt, whose claim to fame in the 1990s was playing the cherubic figure of a girl-next-door in films such as Daddy (1989) and Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin (1991), seemed to know well the advantages of a dissonant identity. The actress and filmmaker had in 1993 appeared on the cover of a glossy movie magazine, painted in just a birthday suit. Ektaa Kapoor seems to be continuing that tradition of moral contradiction. Alongside churning pedantic family dramas for generations of Indian housewives, her Balaji Telefilms is also pointedly choosing to represent a provocative sexuality with investments in films like LSD: Love, Sex aur Dhokha (2010) and The Dirty Picture (2011).
It seems somehow fitting that the production house would want to include Sunny Leone when filming their flagship 2013 release Shootout at Wadala. Leone’s item number in the film, ‘Laila’, gives a notoriously vulgar pornographic star an outfit similar to the ones donned by Kareena Kapoor in numbers like ‘Halkat Jawani’ and by Katrina Kaif in the chartbusting ‘Chikni Chameli’. Much like these leading actresses, Leone too is given the agency to tease her male audience, but is seen subtly retaining the firm right to turn down the advances of an enthusiastic John Abraham and Tusshar Kapoor. Leone, who is perhaps familiar with the suspicions her earlier explicit career might bring, is seen confidently navigating a room filled with eager and drunken gangsters, all of who surprisingly know where to draw the line.
To make a case that Leone offends Indian sensibilities would be short-sighted. It probably does seem disconcerting to know that the Canadian pornographic star was named Karenjit Kaur Vohra at birth and that she had applied for an Indian overseas citizenship prior to the filming of Jism 2 (2012) because her parents happened to still live in the country. When in India, though, Leone seems to do well what the Indians do. Yo Yo Honey Singh’s conduct in the country could similarly be considered as emulative.
The Satanic Verses
Circumstances almost seemed to predict Honey Singh’s demise. Four days before a socially irreversible tragedy befell a bus in the Capital, several posters were seen plastered on the city’s walls and flyovers that had a bare-bodied Singh animatedly staring at the heavens. The posters clairvoyantly exaggerated the title of the bhangra rapper’s latest album, ‘Satan’, as also the date of its release – ‘12/12/12’. As far as a terrified Delhi was concerned, this was a message too eerily subliminal. Anurag Kashyap, new Bollywood’s maverick mouthpiece, had also reportedly produced ‘Satan’ and was seen promoting a short video that sought to represent the music’s ethos. The video, directed by Lebanese-American David Zennie, sees Singh tame hundreds of men with violent cracks of his whip and sudden turns of phrase.
Kashyap’s controversial interest in Yo Yo Honey Singh was in no way an exception. Producer and actor Saif Ali Khan reportedly paid the Hoshiarpur-born Singh a staggering crore for the rights to include his ‘Angrezi Beat’ in the soundtrack of his 2012 film Cocktail. The Hindi film industry was probably evolved enough to notice that even though the videos of the singer’s chart-topping numbers like ‘Dope Shope’ featured scantily clad models and actresses, the lyrics earnestly implored women to respect the solemn vows of monogamy by not looking at men other than the song’s artists and perhaps its listeners.
India isn’t peculiar in its public disavowal of edgy hip-hop lyrics. In albums such as Like Water for Chocolate, American rapper Common makes problematic the relationship that one’s inherent sexuality shares with its expression. Social conservatives in the States took great umbrage when Michelle Obama invited the expletive-friendly rapper to read his poetry at the White House in 2011. Honey Singh, it could be argued, demonstrates a similar adaptability with material that he says always comes catered for an Indian and predominantly Bollywood audience. It seems hard to fault these tailored songs since their meter is never unwieldy and their content never seems to openly promote sexual violence. In a music video recently aired on MTV, a seemingly unrepentant Singh demands that an outraged society make it possible for him to return. In order to prove his point, Singh is seen literally burying a previous self that the lyric suggests was only being misunderstood. The song in its audio-visual entirety seems to suggest that an Indian society, which is otherwise comfortable with manifestations of an open sexuality in its mainstream films, is now effectively only shooting its British-educated messenger.
The internet and technology does not make it possible for either Sunny Leone or Yo Yo Honey Singh to erase a past that wouldn’t seem palatable to an Indian audience. But both these public figures are seemingly trying to show that they can not only keep up with the times, but also respect the specificity of space. While stars like Sanjay Dutt have become familiar with the burden of history in Bollywood’s hundredth year, legends like Amitabh Bachchan have proven that even a few minutes of screen time in a Hollywood film like The Great Gatsby is enough for an Indian to comfortably crossover to other shores. By giving space to Sunny Leone and Honey Singh, the Hindi film industry seems to be admitting that future entertainment remains possible despite a past defined by sometimes questionable excess.