When Marilyn Monroe was asked "you mean you had nothing on?" about modelling in the nude for a calendar before her screen debut, with a straight face, she said, "of course, the radio was on." Sadly, Indian filmmakers and stars have neither the ready wit nor the willingness to offer such intelligent repartee. They quickly hide behind empty words like 'aesthetics', 'commitment' 'credibility' and more from the hard disk of their concocted vocabulary of convenience when quizzed about using nudity – partial, indirect, suggestive, in their films.
Not all Americans however, are as straightforward as Marilyn Monroe was. This writer discovered The Journal of Spiritual Nudity on the Net. In an article, Lawrence G. Walters Esquire takes great pains to convince the reader how people involved in the "Adult Entertainment Industry sacrifice their own privacy in order to provide education and entertainment for those who choose to share in their intimacy." Really? Because the visuals in the web-zine are anything but spiritual. The detailed photographic illustrations of the nude female form have nothing to do with education but definitely offer 'entertainment' of you-know-what kind. So, it is nudity at its naked best (pun, unintended) veiled with the adjective 'spiritual' to attract a wider audience through cleverly designed tautology. The Southern California Professional Model Management places labels on the nudity they expect prospective models to choose from before enlisting. Among these are – Artistic Nudity, Bikini Audition, Body Check, Body Double, Commercial Nudity, Full Nudity, Implied Nudity and Explicit Nudity. There is also a slot called Casting Couch, advising young girls not to walk into this trap because it offers no guarantee to sure success.
Back home, for more than a year now, the box office returns from Hindi mainstream cinema have been zilch – well – almost, but for Raaz last year, a spooky ghost film that sowed the seeds for the thumping success of Bhoot today. Raaz had a lot of oomph courtesy Bipasha Basu, mainstream cinema's new sex symbol. Nudity is not new to Indian cinema. It came into being more than two decades ago in V. Shantaram's Channi starring the late Ranjana, a famous actress of Marathi cinema. It was a sick scene where a psychopath makes love to the nude corpse of the heroine. This is called necromancy in psychological lingo but the film flopped and the audience was saved from being witness to this celluloid perversion. The story goes that during the shoot of Raj Kapoor's Satyam Shivam Sundaram, the male unit members forgot their work the minute Zeenat Aman walked towards the camera in her itsy-bitsy ghagra and an ethnic choli that revealed much more of her generous cleavage than it concealed. Raj Kapoor actually had to threaten a cinematographer's assistant with notice because the man, not very young, kept on making mistakes the minute he set eyes on Aman's voluptuous body live and in slow motion.
Rohini Hattangady reportedly did a nude scene in Govind Nihalani's Party. The film was never released. Later, its premiere on DD had the scene clipped. Sarika was persuaded by the late Jalal Agha to do a nude scene in his film. The scene was shot but the film was shelved. Padmini Kolhapure did a scene in the buff in Gehrai, a plagiarized version of The Exorcist. Padmini was then an adolescent girl and this could have spelt ruin for her. But the film flopped and everything was alright with the world. Way back in the 60s, a beautiful actress called Zahira played the title role in Call Girl. The posters of the film displayed her nude back and there was a big hue and cry about this poster. She insisted this was a 'body double' and the excuse stuck for all time to come. All actresses, from Seema Biswas in The Bandit Queen to Monisha Koirala in Ek Chhotisi Love Story insist that the director used a body double for the nude scenes. The Monisha story blew up in the media, where the model who doubled for her, vouched for Monisha's statement. But the skin shows did not help in pulling in the crowds to the theatres. The sole exception has been Shekhar Kapoor's The Bandit Queen which was a box office hit wherever it was released. But the nude scene was not the reason. Ketan Mehta's Maya Memsaab had Deepa Sahi and Shahrukh Khan making love in the buff for a split-second scene which the censors did not bother about. But when a film glossy went to town about his 'affair' with Deepa, Shahrukh walked straight into the editor's office – she was a lady – and bashed her up! The police hauled him up and he never did it ever again. This film too, was a super flop.
What does showing a lot of skin – the complete display of the human figure in the nude – mean for Indian cinema? Is it a welcome sign of cinema's 'coming of age?' Or, is it a desperate attempt by the industry to regain its hypnotic power over the masses? Ethics and commerce is no longer a happily married couple. So, the 'aesthetics' argument does not stick. The argument offered by the actress who keeps saying that she did it 'for the sake of the script/role/film' does not hold water either. And as for Indian cinema's 'coming of age', the fashion channels at home (and late night flicks on HBO, MGM and Star Movies) beaming near-nude bodies swaying shapely hips down the ramp do not exactly stand the test of the 'naiveté' or the 'innocence' of its viewers, cutting across age, sex, culture and education. Jism tried to marry sex to a lot of bare skin-show by both the male and the female leads. Vikram Bhatt tried every trick in the book – a lot of skin show, Bipasha swaying out of the waves in a dress with generous doses of peak-a-boo put in, John Abraham baring his torso and holding her in a clinch every now and then and some extra-heavy doses of kinky love-making with the woman on top. The trick worked. As this goes to the Press, one cannot but stop wondering about unanswered questions on male nudity. With Deepak Tajori's Oops slated for release any minute now, the first Indian film that explores male sexuality, perhaps some questions may be raised, while the rest will remain unanswered.