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You’ve come a long way, behenji

india Updated: May 31, 2009 00:24 IST
Nivriti Butalia
Nivriti Butalia
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Make no mistake. Indian men will send political correctness into the gutter when made to split hair over what makes a babe a babe. Boobs first, then brains — unsaid tenet number one, as every PR guy worth his salt is aware.

Neetu Chandra till a fortnight ago was the Garam Masala actress who played a beggar in Madhur Bhandarkar’s ensemble drama Traffic Signal. Seemingly, all it took for Neetu to go from margins to headlines, in one week flat, were racy photographs splashed across city supplements. The photographs in question —racy girl on girl shots, both clad in bikinis and posing for a man mag shoot.

Just brains doesn’t work

Neetu may not, strictly speaking, fit into the ‘behehnji’ category, but the shoot did its bit to catapult Patna-born Chandra into the lusted-after, high-energy orbit.

And let’s face it: her acting prowess is not what the audience is most concerned with. Celebrity publicist Dale Bhagwagar says, “Neetu’s trying hard not to be a behenji …She’s in a transition period.” So if she makes the change quickly — Neetu Chandra, for one, has arrived. If not, the poor dear gets written off as a starlet who tried too hard.

PR spin doctors work their magic on many a small town actress trying to make it in the big league, but as Bhagwagar says, “Bollywood, sadly, doesn’t have publicists that look into imaging.”

The idle Sunday question: Was Chandra a behenji who had transformed into a babe overnight simply by discarding excess clothes on a Mumbai beach?

Behenji —Yes/ No/ Can’t Say

“She’s hot, she can speak English, she has a figure — yea, she’s a babe,” says 25-year-old banker Ashwin Suman.

Conversely, who is a behenji, then? Why, a term of respect, of course. And the ultimate compliment if certain Mayawati supporters are to be believed.

For Vikrant Tiwari, 24, management consultant and BJP supporter, “The behenji connotation is completely context-specific. “Coming from a Hindi background,” Tiwari says, “behenji is actually said out of reverence and respect. The adoption of the word in certain urban contexts to denote what is downmarket is perhaps classic arrogance against us Hindi-speakingwalas.”

Babe Must Haves

Padded bras
Neckline sensibilities
Attitude, not too brash, not too doormousey
Confidence in place n Slight hint of sluttiness
Inherent understanding of what’s appropriate

That said, you still might want to know, is the term behenji at all synonymous with women in salwar-kameez? No… but “maybe an ill-fitting salwar-kameez, ” muses Freddy Birdy, creative director, Shop Advertising. “That and bad English.”

And babes? How do you distinguish babes from bimbos? Broadly speaking, the way adman Prahlad Kakkar, sees it, there are three categories of women: Babe, behenji and BTM i.e. behenji turned mod! “It’s not the packaging that matters,” he says; “it’s the way you think that makes you a babe.” Which is arguably where sex-bombs of the Rakhi Sawant and Mallika Sherwat ilk score.

The fourth front

There’s also the category of the worryingly intellectual, says Freddy Birdy and who better to epitomise the slot than Nandita Das?

Subjective as it all may be, there is the section of rabid feminists waving fists in the air, beseeching the world and its reporters to “be bothered with topics less flimsy”. Nonetheless, we still chased up Sherlyn Chopra, a twenty-something model and actress who’s acted in a handful of skin-baring films. “I had to approach medical experts to make a few superficial changes,” confesses Chopra. “But the person inside me also had to undergo this metamorphosis.” she says soberly.

Behenji must haves

Ill-fitted clothes
Maroon/purple lipstick
Repressed sexuality
Oily hair
Visible stretch marks n Excess jewellery

One would then think the old naysayers were right, “Workplace and low-rise jeans? – not clever.” Picture young ones perched on staircases in their coffee breaks catching up on the day’s gossip. “ Butt-cracks reveal backsides the size of post offices, you feel tempted to put a letter in,” says a graying media professional who dabbles in pop psychology.

And you tend to second Freddy Birdy when he speaks of there being “nothing wrong with being a behenji.” Capitalising on an image that works for you then, is a smart move. Sweeping categorisations and random clubbing of women, into categories stays restricted to water-cooler conversation. The need of the hour might just be to take certain viewpoints with a pinch of salt.

How else can you interpret Chopra’s message “to behenjis of the world.” “Wake up and understand that it’s not cool to be a behenji,” she says. “Embrace your womanhood and sexuality. Don’t be ashamed of what you have and don’t try and cover it up. The world would be much more beautiful if there were more babes and less behenjis.

(with inputs from Tasneem Nashrulla)