From 'Choli ke peeche kya hai' to 'Besharam rang', not much has changed
Since the 1990s, Bollywood heroines have been shedding their clothes and inhibitions steadily, chirpily doing raunchy numbers on screen; so, what's the fuss around Deepika Padukone's song?
The saucy, tongue-in-cheek question Choli ke peeche kya hai? (what is behind the blouse?) posed by the nation’s sweetheart of the 1980s and ’90s, Bollywood heroine Madhuri Dixit, sparked off a lot of anger back in 1993. Political parties took to the streets, All India Radio and Doordarshan banned the song, women’s groups insisted the song was sexist, and it was widely seen as “extremely vulgar”.
People largely had a problem with the double entendre lyrics and the strenuous chest heaves. The song at that time was seen as a bad sign, the beginning of a trend that would eventually lead to the downfall of the industry. (It may seem prophetic now, but the steady downfall of Hindi cinema happened over time for various other reasons.)
The protests at that time are similar to the brouhaha that has broken out over Deepika Padukone and Shah Rukh Khan’s song, Besharam rang, in the film Pathaan. The song is being actively slammed on social media as being obscene, but a new colour is being added to the controversy this time around. The colour of the bikini and sarong that Deepika wears in Besharam rang seems to have gotten the goat of some sections of society and people have filed police complaints, saying this is hurting the religious sentiments of Hindus.
Shades of outrage
However, if you cancel out the angst over the sartorial colour of saffron, which seems silly since way back Madhuri herself wore a sexy, saffron dress in the 1992 Beta to sway to the raunchy, sizzling Dhak dhak karne laga, beckoning the hero Anil Kapoor with her come-hither chest moves.
Much like Besharam rang, the picturisation of Choli ke in the film Khalnayak is pretty tame, if you compare it to the crude and lewd hip grinding in Samanth Prabhu and Allu Arjun’s Ooo antavaa song in Pushpa. Madhuri danced to the folkish number Choli ke… with impish charm and with the doe-eyed innocence.
Except for the chest heaves that the Censor Board did frown upon but did not clip, the song rates low on the sensuality index. So, much more amorous, and desperately suggestive moves would scorch up the Indian screens after that even as sanskari, goody two-shoes Indian heroines became open to portraying themselves as beings who throb with sexual desire.
Sanjay Dutt, who was actually in a relationship with Madhuri off-screen at the time when Choli ke was shot, does not even lay a finger on her during the song besides ogling her in a silly fashion. In fact, in the film’s plot, he as the khalnayak (villain) falls in love with her (she’s actually a cop in disguise) and then sets her free after kidnapping her, to join her Ram (Jackie Shroff). (That’s Bollywood, big on sacrifice — they love to have their heroes and heroines portray this strong moral fibre to make the audiences all misty-eyed, like the time Amitabh Bachchan as Jai sacrifices his life for his best friend Veeru (Dharmendra) in Sholay, walking off with all the accolades.)
Washed away by time
The pesky question of what was behind the blouse, and the song, disappeared in the whorls of time. Ironically, all the negative connotations connected to it seem to have disappeared as Choli ke was played in a White House Diwali party this year. This had Khalnayak director Subhash Ghai ruminating on how he had faced a lot of backlash with “social and political protests” during the release of the song in 1993.
“But that’s the beauty of art we live in. Sometimes you might feel that you have done wrong but with time it turns out to be a classic. I feel blessed that this song has become so iconic that it’s being played globally including the White House in Washington DC…” he tweeted.
Yes, the song became iconic, but not for the reasons Ghai probably believed. Actually, the song changed the image of the Bollywood heroine. In Bombay Before Bollywood: Film City Fantasies, Rosie Thomas writes that after Ganga (the name of Madhuri’s character in Khalnayak), “distinctions between heroine and vamp began to crumble, as the item number became de rigueur for female stars.”
Heroines wanted to be seen as sexy. Nothing could have been more direct than when Karisma Kapoor, clad in a skimpy outfit, sang Sexy, sexy, sexy, mujhe log bole (which the vigilant Censor Board changed to Baby, baby later) in the 1993 Khuddar.
Oomph quotient shoots up
More rambunctious songs followed, raising the oomph quotient focussing on pelvic thrusts, vigorous rear rolls and shakes like the ones in Tip tip barsa paani, which came a year later in 1994 in Akshay Kumar’s Mohra (this film also had that song which became offensive to women’s groups: Tu cheez badi hai mast mast). But, the song went on to become a rage and was played in tea shops in every nook and corner of the country.
In Tip tip barsa paani, Raveena Tandon raises the male fantasy levels to a peak, cavorting sexily and with a desperation in the rain (she also does a pole dance in between and makes some manic moves to ostensibly arouse the hero Askhay Kumar).
This song became so “iconic” to Bollywood (clearly Hindi filmmakers were losing steam) that Katrina Kaif later did a copy of the same song making all those hip rolling moves wrapped in a thin saffron coloured (there!) saree to the same, but much older, Akshay Kumar in Sooryavanshi. But, Raveena Tandon probably thought she was being cool doing that number at that time, wanting to be Ms Desirable of Indian cinema, much like her earlier compatriot Zeenat Aman.
Zeenat Aman has done her share of numbers in the rain like Bheegi bheegi raaton mein, in which she is seen messing with Rajesh Khanna in the rain, clad in nothing but a flimsy nightgown. Zeenat truly had enjoyed the sobriquet of ‘Sexy Queen of Bollywood’, though she was a leading lady in her movies. Her Aap jaisa koi meri zindagi mein aaye in Feroz Khan’s Qurbani had males hot-footing to the cinemas.
No raised eyebrows
But, they were never accused of being vulgar somehow. Or, even when Helen danced in front of a band of leering dacoits to the salacious Mehbooba mehbooba, or as she tried to seduce a stern looking Amitabh with cabaret moves in Yeh mera dil yaar ka diwana in a bedroom in Don, nobody raised an eyebrow.
Back in 1992, Madhuri’s Dhak dhak karne laga in a saffron dress, however, was initially heavily criticised. But it was all brushed off as the actress, a leading heroine of the time, was considered a good dancer. It was probably passed off as her being sexy in a ‘good way’. In fact, that song had far more explicit suggestive moves than what the leggy, sportive Deepika has done in an awkward way in Besharam rang that has got right wing groups in a tizzy.
In Bollywood, Ram Gopal Varma upped the glamour quotient in Rangeela with Urmila Matondkar wearing nothing but a mere white slip and running on the beach, throatily singing Tanha, tanha yahan pe jeena. But by the 1990s and the turn of the century, heroines were in fact tumbling over each other to bag an item number in films so that they could show off their well-toned bodies that they had worked on while sweating at the gyms.
Katrina Kaif led the pack with Sheila ki jawani (Tees Maar Khan), Chikni chameli (Agneepath), and Kamli kamli in Dhoom 3, while Malaika Arora made a living in Bollywood doing item numbers. Besides managing to make some sexy hip grinds on top of a moving train with Shah Rukh Khan in Chaiya chaiya, she is also known for her badass number, Munni badnam hui. Gyrating to the desi beats with Sonu Sood, Malaika set a benchmark for item queens with this song.
An accepting audience
By now, the audience was more accepting of its heroines to show some oomph. It was okay for women to express their physical desires. Like Preity Zinta’s erotic dance dream sequence Jiya jale with Shah Rukh Khan before she was to marry him in Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se. That song besides being beautifully and evocatively shot is powered with sensual energy.
Though this song does not objectify women, Bollywood has been built on this legacy. The master filmmaker, Raj Kapoor unfairly portrayed his women wearing flimsy sarees sans blouses and also in white so that if they got under a waterfall, like Mandakini did in Ram Teri Ganga Maili (Kapoor’s ultimate fantasy) one did not need 3D glasses to see the poor actress in all her glory.
In this milieu, considering the history of Bollywood, having a top heroine like Deepika, who is a talented actor, trying hard to look sexy and desirable doesn’t seem out of place. Always looking for meaty roles (she was excellent in Piku) in between acting in glam, hi-powered films like Pathaan (she can hardly refuse SRK since she started her Hindi film career with him), all Deepika is doing is being in sync and in step with the multihued world of Bollywood, warts and all.
So, what is the fuss really about?