After a political outfit, Goa Suraksha Manch (GSM), lodged a complaint against athlete Milind Soman for running naked on a beach, the Goa Police registered a case against him under IPC Section 294 (committing an obscene act in public). Soman had shared an image of himself, ostensibly on an empty beach, in buff and in motion, to mark his 55th birthday. The picture passed Instagram’s notoriously tough standards for propriety. In fact, a middle-aged observer may be forgiven for feeling some pangs of envy: 55 certainly can’t look any better. And if in times like these when many of us are imprisoned by Covid and the pollution, Soman is managing to run with reckless abandon, more power to him.
It’s unclear what Soman’s motivations were for appearing in a state of resplendent undress, though a cynic will see it as an opportunity to grab the limelight and trend among his million-plus social media following. The GSM’s objection to the image was that it portrayed the seaside state in a poor light, as if one shot of a clothes-less profile means Goa is a tantalisingly permissive place for wannabe nudists. No doubt though, if people randomly started stripping wherever they wanted, it would lead to utter chaos. While Soman might be a very pleasant sight to behold, that doesn’t hold true for mostly everybody else. Besides, there’s something intensely creepy about forcing bystanders to look at one’s naked body without seeking their permission first.
Soman is no stranger to IPC Section 294. Twenty-five years ago he and then girlfriend were hauled up for an ad for Tuff shoes that showed them intertwined naked with a python, and said footwear. It snowballed into a huge controversy but the ad went on to become a cult example of provocateur advertising. The irony is that today, a creative that features adults minus clothes is unthinkable, no matter how original the storyboard. No advertiser will risk the wrath of political fringe elements like the Karni Sena. It explains why Tanishq, a Tata company, swiftly withdrew a heartwarming ad on interfaith marriage at the first threat of violence last month.
Explained: What is the measure of ‘obscenity’ in India?
Historically, nudity in India has been acceptable only in an artistic framework. Artist Subodh Gupta has smeared cow dung on his bare body and Sonia Khurana’s video installations have featured her nude. Nobody accuses them of titillation. The body as a medium of expression is perfectly legitimate especially among a younger generation of artistes who came of age at the same time as Instagram. The boundaries between photography, portraiture and sculpture have become increasingly blurred, as have conventional sensibilities regarding bareness. A viewer may see a performative quality in Soman’s naked image; the contoured muscles, the message of his passion, running. It makes one wonder, considering the surfeit of skin in mass media, in 2020, can streaking still be considered countercultural?
In India, perhaps. A video of a synchronised mooning by hundreds of people in front of Trump Towers in New York is doing the rounds on WhatsApp these days. The enthusiastic display of a sea of bare buttock-ed, ordinary people feels far from indecent. Rather, it comes across as an emphatic statement that citizens are united in their desire to effect complete discontinuity of Trump ideals. This style of protest, while anti-disciplinary, steers one towards the subversive power of irreverence. Occasionally, it’s these small but radical forces that turn into something transformative like Woodstock or the Arab Spring. If the point is to come up with new ideas about the nature of humanity, it is important to recognise the distinctions between depictions of the unadorned, human form.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 15, 2020 under the title ‘Milind Soman case: Skin in the game’. The writer is director, Hutkay Films
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