Malavika’s Mumbaistan: Is the Party Over?
Page 3 had come to symbolise all that was shiny, commercial and aspirational in Mumbai; if it was a mood, it was buoyant; if it had an attitude, it was “in your face”... But it could be argued that even if the pandemic had not upended the Page 3 Ball, its days were already numbered, with the rise of social media.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”
— Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
“Isn’t it time you wrote a column on the death of Page 3?” a friend enquired recently. What she was alluding to, of course, was not any particular newspaper column or page, but that melding of unbridled confidence, consumerism and celebrity culture that had followed in the wake of India’s economic liberalisation in the Nineties.
You remember the Nineties, don’t you? When it seemed as if India was on the radar of every big international corporation and capital for its markets; when beauty pageants began popping out Indian Miss Universes faster than the city’s most-celebrated fertility specialists; when once high-minded mainstream newspapers reserved their most seductive voice for their supplements, where who wore what and left the party with who would be given equal column space as the day’s headline; when nothing succeeded like excess and Mumbai was the mecca and the money machine for a multitude of shiny new professionals — fashionistas, gym instructors, etiquette coaches, wellness gurus, lifestyle consultants , party animals, celebrity chefs, TV anchors, event organisers, wine critics, starchitects, model coordinators, talent scouts, and food stylists.
Hostesses would thoughtfully caption and deliver high-resolution pictures to newspaper editors, in time for the next day’s edition, the morning after their big bashes even before they’d wiped off their mascara; A-list businessmen would open their hearts and homes to anyone with a camera and a microphone with abandon; and divas would plot their next photo spreads and the downfall of their rivals in the gossip columns with Mafiosi precision.
Page 3 had come to symbolise all that was shiny, commercial and aspirational in Mumbai; if it was a mood, it was buoyant; if it had an attitude, it was “in your face”. And in its favour, it could be said that it fostered a great churning and breaking down of barriers. No longer was fame and fortune the preserve of the wealthy or high-born — Page 3 meant that you could just as well be a gallerist or a tattoo artist, as long as your hair was interestingly streaked, and you had the right attitude.
Paris had its Café Society and New York its Andy Warhol and Studio 54 sets, and throughout history there have been categorisations of social groups and styles such as The Jet Set, The Beautiful People, Hippies, Yuppies, Old Fogies, Foodies and Hipsters — terms afforded to collections of people or trends that represent a homogenous lifestyle, in a public context.
So, what had preceded the advent of Page 3, in a new city just beginning to find its feet on seven recently joined islands?
Certainly, you could say that with its nightclubs and bistros, cabaret acts and jazz yatras, Mumbai had exuded a cosmopolitan, artsy vibe. In the south, English theatre groups were making waves with their ideas and offerings and next door at Kala Ghoda, the Progressive Artist Group was making its presence felt. At Café Samovar, a whole breed of new-wave filmmakers, poets, journalists and artists could be called a quasi-cultural movement in its own right; at the other end of the city, Prithvi Theatre and Bhaidas auditorium were fostering a flourishing parallel cultural scene of their own; and, of course, the Juhu Gang of hip young film folk attracted comment and coverage; but none of these had quite galvanised or defined the city as much as the Page 3 phenomena, on account of the media and monetisation opportunities that it offered.
Because, unlike the new wave art film movement or English theatre groups or the Juhu Gang, Page 3 was backed by big bucks; it had been the goose that laid the golden egg and the party looked like it would never end.
It could be argued that even if the pandemic had not upended the Page 3 Ball, its days were already numbered, with the rise of social media. Once the bold and the beautiful realised that the tools for their hype and PR lay in their own manicured hands, things began changing.
Now, businessmen, socialites and self-styed celebrities could achieve world domination with the click of a button and an air-brushed picture of themselves with their latest cat, cars or quotes directly on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.
Overnight, this resulted in a Tower of Babel where everyone began posting, clicking, uploading and live streaming their private lives, all at once, in a race that seemed to be won by the quickest, loudest, craziest, zaniest, or most extreme.
It was a virtual free-for-all platform, and it could have gone on forever, except for a few factors — firstly, it militated against India’s deeply held values of austerity. After all, it is not for nothing that the Father of the Nation is admired as much for his simplicity and non-materialism as his non-violence. Conspicuous consumption and unbridled exhibitionism of one’s lifestyle has long been frowned upon in these parts, and Indian culture and traditions have always extolled people to embrace self-denial and abstemiousness; but more importantly, the rise of the BJP-RSS, the Moral Police and armies of trolls began to make the existence of Page 3 an untenable proposition.
Liberalisation might have ushered in the ways of the West, but the fate met by the likes of Vijay Mallya, Nirav and Lalit Modi and later Rhea Chakraborty were lessons not lost on anyone.
Gradually aware of backlash in a country where the have-nots far outnumbered the haves and the socio-political environment signalled otherwise, people began to think twice before sharing pictures of their lavish weddings and exotic holidays, their bespoke wine collections and Birkin bags. So, even before Covid appeared on the scene, only the very tone deaf or desperate or foolish wanted to be seen partying or celebrating or having a good time; Page 3 began to asphyxiate; then came along Covid and hammered the last nail in its coffin.
So, what will replace Page 3 if or when things go back to normal? My take is that having spent the past year-and-a-half indoors and largely alone, people will be reluctant to go back to their old party-hearty ways. The looming threat of infection and illness will make many continue to embrace more private lives, contract their social engagements and confine themselves to more selective lifestyle options. Celebrations will be more contained and survivor’s guilt, along with concerns for the environment and inner well-being will call for new ways of life and style.
Of course, I could be wrong. Deprivation and hardship during World War 1 gave rise to the Roaring Twenties across the world, and in that regard, Page 3 might once again rear its head.
But I’m certainly not holding my breath on that one...