In between lapping up the sixers and drooling over Shah rukh Khan stomping about in the stands, what do you feel when you see the bevy of barely clad, big-breasted blondes wiggling their bottoms at a billion people? As they swirl and twirl their little red skirts and flash their wide, gummy smiles — draping their white skin around some two-bit toy boy from Bombay — do they ‘cheer’ you up or make you mildly sick?
One of these evenings, as our imported cheer-givers rose in a collective whoop of manufactured joy, my 85-year-old uncle — otherwise staunchly liberal — frowned in faint disapproval. “What are these cheerleaders,” he asked scornfully, “do they think we live in an Archie comic?”
I thought that was a pretty astute reading of why some of us (I, for one) may find the spectacle of choreographed sexuality crass and, frankly, trashy. Somehow it evokes images of fat men and giggly girls in the baseball fields of middle America. It makes you wonder: when you have already got the uniquely Indian mix of cinema and cricket, why on earth would you need to infuse this heady cocktail with some strange, foreign ingredient? Before you call me xenophobic, hang on a minute. This isn’t a moral plea for the so-called preservation of ‘Indian culture’. We all know how much hypocrisy underlines that awful and overused phrase. But yes, there is something about cricket’s new calendar girls that makes me wonder why a self-confident nation needs play to copycat to some air-headed ritual from the American heartland.
But even if I think that the cheerleaders are (there’s no polite way to say this) essentially white trash, I find the attempt by sundry politicians to ban them — or dress them up in clothes that cover their knees — farcical and indefensible.
Not for the first time, the furious debate over IPL’s cheerleaders is a conundrum for all liberal thinkers. We do not want to endorse the Indian politician’s propensity to ban anything that invokes public debate. In principle, we won’t allow the government to mediate our morality.
We know it’s ludicrous that ‘vulgarity’ was first debated in a city whose major industry is defined by young women who pout, strip, thrust and twist for hungry, lingering cameras, as their over-ambitious mothers befriend lecherous film producers. Bipasha Basu’s ‘Billo Rani’ is more aggressively sexual than the faceless bimbettes from America; Kareena Kapoor's sultry, swinging walk in the recent promos of Tashan has her wearing as short a skirt as the women with the wiggling bottoms; and ‘item number’ has now become an acceptable, even necessary, pass grade for any woman who wants to be measured on the oomph scale in Bollywood. Who we are to moan and groan about so-called vulgarity? Have we looked at ourselves recently?
So, other than the fact that the cheerleaders are to Indian item girls what Kentucky Fried Chicken may be to Haldirams (we like our own masala better than some American, fast-food chain), we can hardly protest the pom-pom girls on grounds of ‘obscenity’. If we find their boogie-woogies offensive, by definition, we have to be as appalled by our homespun sexual athletes and their strutting performances. We can’t be a country that holds up Rakhi Sawant as an icon of womanhood (she has endorsements of approval from no less than Shobhaa De and Karan Johar) for fearlessly parading her sexuality as a means of social mobility, and then whine about some inconsequential troupe of babes called the Washington Redskins. If steamy, sexy, sultry have become perfectly acceptable adjectives, even compliments in modern Indian syntax, how can we get so worked up over a bunch of girls in short red skirts?
Indian sexuality — in films, advertisements, magazines, public discourse — is today as unapologetically raunchy as anywhere else in the world. And maybe that’s what’s at the heart of the cheerleaders debate — and it’s a point that we have all entirely missed. Is manufactured sexuality really a mark of liberation for women? Or have we just internalised all the worst clichés of post- feminist clap-trap in the name of emancipation?
In our attempt to break Indian women free from the conventional orthodoxy of right-wing moralists, have we just replaced one kind of stereotype with another? and with one that is as oppressive and unforgiving?
While our sense of selves cannot be defined by a culture that seeks to imprison female sexuality, must our sense of modernity be borrowed from a country that still debates whether women should have the right to abortion?
In her book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, American writer Ariel Levy first chronicled what she described as “women and the rise of raunch culture”. Here’s what her book describes as an average evening of American television. “I would turn on the television and find strippers in g-strings explaining how best to lap-dance a man to orgasm; I would flip the channel and see babes in tight tiny uniforms bouncing up and down on trampolines. Britney Spears was becoming increasingly popular and increasingly unclothed, and her undulating body became so familiar to me, I felt like we used to go out”.
Is Rakhi Sawant not India’s version of Britney Spears? Could this soon be how an evening of Indian television will look like? And will we then say: you’ve come a long way, baby.
Or will we just have turned full circle — to end up exactly where we started?
Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7