“I can be naked in front of a thousand people… They just get uncomfortable,” Bollywood star Ranveer Singh recently told Paper magazine.
This is exactly what happened when Singh recently posed naked for a photo published in the same magazine. Social media exploded with both appreciation and outrage — but especially the latter. Memes and jokes poking fun at the images abounded; and many have accused the actor of male bashing. As if that weren’t enough, a police complaint was filed against him for “damaging the feelings of women”.
Singh is not your traditional male star. He’s endlessly energetic, flamboyant and takes on a frothy fashion style – velvet pants, sequined turtlenecks, jewelry – which Vogue magazine calls a “positive nod to the non-binary fluidity fashion is embracing today” .
In other words, says Paper, Singh has “challenged virtually every stereotype of masculinity in India’s still traditionalist society.”
“He has an ideal male body. But he dresses on the border of androgyny. He is not rigid and talk openly about sex. It does not fit into the notion of masculinity in India. It causes a lot of anxiety and also makes a lot of men feel uneasy,” says Rahul Sen, who is writing his doctoral dissertation on literature and sexuality at Tufts University.
The varying reactions to Singh illustrate what some call the “wild moral confusion” of India, where people harbor a strange mix of conservative and liberal attitudes. The most graphic examples of erotic temple art are found in many small town shrines. One of the oldest manuals of erotic love in the world, Kamasutra, comes from India. Model and dancer Protima Bedi hit a Mumbai beach in 1974 for a film magazine cover. Nudity is not uncommon: Thousands of ash-coated Hindu holy men belonging to a sect show up naked at religious festivals like the Kumbh Mela.
Instagram and TikTok are full of Indian men in “tiny boxers posing erotically suggestively showing off their bodies,” says Michiel Baas, author of the book Muscular India. “Some of them have tens of thousands or even more than a million subscribers. Some of their photos may elicit obscene reactions, but in general people respond to them with emoticons expressing admiration, power and printing,” he says. Also, most Bollywood stars took off their shirts for the action scenes.
But, says Baas, when Indian men like Singh stray from more standard, accepted ways of showing off their bodies — he finds the star’s nude photos in a ‘vulnerable way’ with a hint of 1970s aesthetics — this “often results in a kind of mockery that highlights how unusual it is for men to show their softer, perhaps more feminine side”.
“I don’t understand this debate. Nangapan (nudity in Hindi) is not new to India. In the case of Ranveer Singh: [it’s] her body, her choice,” says Shobhaa De, one of India’s most popular writers.
Yet prominent artists like MF Husain and Akbar Padamsee have come under attack for paintings depicting a naked deity and a man’s hand on a woman’s chest. Film sets and plays have been ransacked for depicting nudity. In fact, Singh isn’t even the first actor to pose in the buff. In 1995, Milind Soman and Madhu Sapre posed nude with a python wrapped around them for a shoe commercial. An obscenity case against the models dragged on in court for 14 years. By the time the two were acquitted, “Sapre had left India, the shoe brand had folded, and who knows what happened to the python,” says brand strategist Ambi Parameswaran.
A Mumbai-based advertising standards watchdog continues to receive complaints from the public about obscene advertisements. Last November, he received two: one about women in “revealing underwear” and the other was an “ugly ad…of two girls taking off their T-shirts to show off their lingerie.” The watchdog quickly dismissed both complaints.
“There’s more freedom and more confusion. Then there’s the moral brigade that’s both uneasy and curious. A wild moral confusion connects us all,” says Brinda Bose, author of Translating Desire : The Politics of Gender and Culture in India.
Two years ago, Chennai-based fashion photographer G Venket Ram found himself at the mercy of this confusion. He photographed a young nude tattooed woman as part of the body positivity movement, which calls for acceptance of all shapes and sizes.
He says he “gathered up his courage” and posted the photo on Instagram, where he has more than 90,000 followers.
“Most people loved it. Others weren’t so happy. They said, we had respect for you, how did you do that?” said Ram.
Then something strange happened. He lost up to 2,500 subscribers and won some 8,000 – all in less than a day.
“It was like a tsunami. Hordes of people followed me and didn’t follow me at the same time. Others ended up following me. The teenagers were delighted with the filming. It was a confusing experience.”
This year Ram shot a series called Bare with two models and posted some of the footage on Instagram. It was well received and there was no trolling, he says. More and more female and male models are open to posing nude now as long as the photos are aesthetically done, he says. Now he plans to shoot men in the buff. “Social media allows you to express yourself more freely than traditional media and advertising,” he says.
Vinod Mehta, who edited the now defunct Debonair magazine – India’s answer to Playboy – once recalled a story that highlighted India’s attitudes towards nudity and sexuality.
During the Emergency, when press censorship was imposed, Mehta was summoned by a federal minister in Delhi to ask to see the magazine’s broadcast center, which usually featured half-naked women. Mehta showed him half a dozen photos from which he intended to choose one.
“[The minister’s] the eye fell on the one who was 90% naked. He kept it aside. I asked if maybe we should skip the center spread. He was horrified. “No,” he said, make it decent,” Mehta recalled.
Then the minister kept the center extended [picture] “without authorization”.