I remember laughing out loud the first time I watched the music video for "Sheila Ki Jawani." I remember being taken aback by Katrina Kaif – per usual a paragon of all things sexy – thrusting herself at me with her midriff and cleavage and legs deliberately bared, while simultaneously telling me, emphatically and with no room for doubt, that she knows I want it but I'm never gonna get it. I'm never gonna get her body. I remember delightedly grappling with the cognitive dissonance Sheila created, her tongue firmly in cheek.
"Main tere haath na aani" sounded to me like an empowering and explicit withholding of consent. And to see it sung by a scantily clad, pelvic-thrusting woman was to be told: Look, I can be as overtly sexual and "immodest" as I want to and still not grant you any further physical permissions.
I remember getting predictably addicted to the criminally catchy tune, but remaining pleasantly surprised by the very, very progressive message I perceived: Sheila will allow you some access to her body. Sheila will flaunt her body. Sheila will be totally thrilled for you to look at her body. But anything you do with Sheila's body will be decidedly, nonnegotiably on Sheila's terms. Don't even think about assuming otherwise.
In this morning's Times of India, Pooja Bedi made the argument that Deepika Padukone, along with the rest of Bollywood's leading ladies, has herself to blame for the culture of media-driven objectification that she is now vehemently protesting.
"If admiring and focusing on a woman's assets is a crime, all item numbers should be banned," Bedi wrote.
This comes in response to Padukone's livid (and now famous) assertion this past weekend that the media's objectification of her is disrespectful to women. This was specifically with regard to the Times of India article "OMG: Deepika Padukone's Cleavage Show!" that highlighted Padukone's cleavage in a surreptitiously taken video from a trailer launch event. "YES!I am a woman.I have breasts AND a cleavage! You got a problem!!??" Padukone tweeted. "YOU don't know how to RESPECT Women!"
While India's Twitterati and tinseltown alike came forth quickly in her support, critics were just as ready. And, picking eagerly at low-hanging fruit, many were quick to cite item songs in the argument that Bollywood's ladies are themselves complicit in the media's thirsty, relentless objectification of them. You've made your bed, Deepika, now strike a provocative pose and be gawked at in it.
The argument – which Bedi perched herself at the helm of this morning – seems to be that by consenting to being ogled at and exposed in certain contexts, these women have granted permission to their audiences to do so all the time.
Logically, Bedi's argument is sound. "If admiring and focussing on a woman's assets is a crime," then by all means, ban item numbers. Ban the fashion industry. Ban most means of money-making, really.
But here's the catch: Admiring and focusing on a woman's assets is not a crime. Doing so without her consent is. Doing anything to her body without her consent is, be that eve-teasing, harassment, rape, or circulating a particular video or photograph of her to millions of people who wouldn't otherwise have had access to it (the latter-most being a crime that Jennifer Lawrence and several of her Hollywood contemporaries famously fell prey to just a few days ago).
This isn't to say that item songs, a still problematic mainstay of Indian cinema, are absolved of their many, many flaws. They glorify objectification; they are a shameless money-making assault on good storytelling; they are usually just terrible music. But, for all their shortcomings, they have absolutely nothing to do with how the women starring in them should be treated when removed from their very particular context. To argue otherwise is to make the very dangerous assumption that every minor provision of consent can be extended to universality. That just because a woman has shown you her body in any capacity, she is "asking for" whatever else you choose to do to it.
In a nation where the gravity granted to female consent is already absent to a terrifying and life-threatening degree, this isn't an argument to which we should be attaching any credibility.
"We don't go into a hostile frenzy when cameras caress and capture SRK's and Hrithik's perfect six-pack abs," Bedi pointed out, in her own defense. "Why should it be different for a woman?" And for anyone who has ever railed publicly against female objectification, this is a familiar challenge.
Again, the question itself reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of why nonconsensual female objectification is dangerous: It is dangerous when it sets or reinforces a precedent for disregarding female consent or, more importantly, a lack thereof. Forty-two percent of Indian girls have faced sexual violence in some form by the time they're through with their teenage years. Ninety-two Indian women are raped every day. If the weight granted to male consent had also been under siege in India for centuries and if it claimed lives on a daily basis, I would raise just as loud a din in defense of Hrithik. As things stand, I think he'll be all right.
"Sheila Ki Jawani" was refreshing to see in the Indian mainstream because – as Padukone exemplified most recently – being a woman in India means being surrounded by an age-old, culturally persistent disregard for your consent. Myriad headlines remind us every morning that personal space is a myth; that yes means yes and no means violence; that if you want to live in a country where the female body is not a liability, you're in the wrong place.
Being a woman in India means your most mundane decisions – what to wear, what route to take to work, how many drinks to drink – are weighed down by the potential to become life-threatening at any moment, without your permission. We are constantly reminded – most depressingly by ourselves – to dress modestly and arm ourselves against a culture whose mind-set, apparently, is that if you can see a female body, you can have it.
"Sheila Ki Jawani" was thrilling in its outright and preemptive rejection of what is now Bedi's argument: that being consensually exposed to the female form in one context gives audiences the right to consume it in any other. This is a mind-set that has made victims of thousands of Indian girls and women across the nation, to gruesome and horrific degrees, when those around us assume that because we are allowing them to see our bodies, we are also allowing them to do anything more. And Sheila's emphatically inaccessible jawani was the perfect antidote.
But, as of this morning, my initial elation at Sheila's sexy and indubitable feminism has been brought crashing down by one sobering revelation: In order for Sheila's message to carry any weight, one would have to stop staring at Katrina for long enough to hear it.
And that, of course – being heard and not seen, being listened to and not completely objectified, being given any agency with regards to how her body is devoured and when and by whom – is a luxury the Indian woman has yet to be granted.
I remember laughing out loud after voicing the (admittedly unpopular) opinion that "Sheila Ki Jawani," while not unflawed itself, sounded to me like Bollywood's closest existing approximation of a feminist anthem. In a perfect matching of form and function, it was an item song to defend all item songs.
Moreover, it was the perfect defense for Bollywood's leading ladies against their hoards of drooling voyeurs: Yes, I am showing you my body, Sheila says. Yes, I'm aware that it is supremely attractive. No, that does not mean you can touch it, that doesn't mean you can photograph it, that doesn't mean you can monetize it, devour it, or otherwise claim it.
And don't you fucking dare tell me otherwise.