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Of shock and schlock

Provocation can score important cultural points. But the Akshay-Twinkle act was a damp squib by any measure

Written by Amrita Shah |
April 16, 2009 11:48:16 pm

In a world dominated by marketing and hype,a combination of fashion,media and celebrity has the potential to be at the vanguard of socio-cultural transformation. Hollywood actress Demi Moore’s nude portraits on the  cover of Vanity Fair,the first time,in a state of advanced pregnancy and the second time,in a ‘suit’ painted on by the world’s leading body painting artist,Joanne Gair — both photographed by the highly accomplished Annie Leibovitz — for instance,sparked off  a raging controversy when they appeared,in the early nineties. The pregnancy cover in particular evoked a flurry of protest by those who felt it was obscene.  

Looking back,one can gauge how the photographs in fact forced people the world over to confront traditional perceptions and ideas. They challenged prevailing concepts of childbearing and the bodily changes associated with it for instance,perceptions of power relations between the sexes,of gender definition,of nudity,shame and,above all,  concepts of what could be considered beautiful.  

Nudity or overt sexuality has often and famously been used as an effective tool to jolt society out of jaded notions. Madonna,a leading agent provocateur in this respect,turned misogyny on its head with her armoury of pointy bras and corsets and explicitly sexual videos. Other fashion-conscious pop and rock icons like David Bowie and Gwen Stefani,for instance,have used flamboyance and personal style to confront perceptions on androgyny and  materialism. Jean Paul Gaultier,the enfant terrible of the fashion world  put buxom women and elderly men and  pierced and heavily tattooed models in his shows to rousing effect. . 

If one were to judge Akshay Kumar and wife Twinkle’s cutesy act at the Lakme Fashion Week within this context,then there is little doubt that it would fare poorly on all counts. For one,it was badly executed. Akshay Kumar’s pronounced yet self-conscious swagger,his expression of proud bashfulness as he presented himself like a schoolboy with a trophy and Twinkle’s laboured attempt at unbuttoning made the moment excruciatingly awkward,like stepping into a bad bedroom moment.  

There were many,including the fashionistas gathered in the room on that occasion who might justifiably have felt that the act overstepped the bounds of decency. In reality,there was a funny,almost moralistic touch about the episode i.e. in the choice of the un-buttoner. It is unclear whether the decision to go up to his wife,Twinkle,was a planned or a spur of the moment thing by Akshay Kumar (reports claim the honours were to be done by a model on the ramp but the actor chose to break from the script). In effect it was a choice that seemed to root touchingly but somewhat ludicrously for monogamy in an industry known to harbour fickle relationships and by a star with a reputably chequered romantic past.  

Above all,there is the matter of intent. Whatever the unbuttoning act may have hoped to achieve,nobody has made the claim that it was intended to challenge social attitudes or to represent an idea,lofty or trivial. The act,in all its outrageousness was meant merely to publicise and sell a brand of denims that the actor was an ambassador of and which was titled with literal appropriateness,  ‘Unbuttoned’.   

So what,one may ask — what is so wrong with putting on a bit of a risqué act for commercial purposes?  

Nothing really. Certainly nothing to warrant a police complaint or harassment of any individual. And certainly nothing to clog up an already overburdened judiciary. And yet,take a look at the cases that make up a substantial part of the stuff that ends up on the scanner of the morality brigade : the Shilpa Shetty-Richard Gere clinch,publicity material for a Pooja Bhatt film,the goings on in the Bigg Brother house,etc. In other words: lascivious posters,a public smooch,a back massage on television etc. etc.  

The right to freedom of expression demands that all these be tolerated and allowed to exist. At the same time one cannot help looking at the list and wondering why it is that so many of the acts and products that run afoul of the moral police and which we as a liberal society end up defending can be described as plain schlock. Is it because our creative minds do not know the difference between cheap sensationalism and the truly experimental? Or have we come to accept puerility as the only possible counter to the puritannical elements in our society?

amrita.shah@expressindia.com

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