Ranveer Singh’s nude photoshoot for Paper magazine has apparently insulted the modesty of some Indian women, if you were to believe the FIR filed by a Mumbai-based NGO and a lawyer against the Bollywood actor. I can make a list of a million other things happening in the country every day that would amount to insulting a woman. But the photo of a male actor without clothes would never make it to that list.
The complainant lawyer Vedika Chaubey, who is also a former journalist, clearly has a misplaced idea about what hurts a woman’s sentiment. But then it is the season of offence-taking in India. First it was religion, now it is nudity. What’s next? Naked animals?
Ranveer Singh’s over-the-top sartorial choices and his frankness about topics like sex are definitely performative and a part of his brand. But why does it matter? He challenges traditional, desi toxic masculinity. He is a performer who owns every bit of himself.
The idea the complaint seeks to perpetuate is that women should not have to see or enjoy nude pictures of men. Only men have the sole, exclusive right to do as they please. Even the language used by the NGO, one Shyam Mangaram Foundation, in its complaint letter adopted an authoritative voice with self-entrusted power to decide what constitutes ‘shame’ in society.
“Freedom of expression…doesn’t mean that you should roam nude in the society,” its letter to the Chembur police station read. The police registered an FIR under IPC Sections 292 (sale of obscene books, etc), 293 (sale, etc of obscene objects to young person) and 509 (word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman).
You can find the shoot distasteful or not pleasing to the eyes, but I do not think a woman’s ‘modesty’ — so termed by the patriarchal society — is so fragile that it could be ‘insulted’ by a man’s nude photoshoot.
It’s extremely rare that a male, mainstream Bollywood actor poses nude. Milind Soman and Madhu Sapre created a storm in 1995 with their naked photoshoot for Tuff shoes. The other instance was in 2020 when Soman faced an FIR for running naked in Goa on his 55th birthday.
While Soman has remained a brand of his own since the Made in India song video by Alisha Chinoi, he still isn’t as mainstream as Ranveer Singh–a Yash Raj Films (YRF) product, and married to another Bollywood powerhouse, Deepika Padukone.
Ranveer wears his flamboyance on his sleeve, unlike most other cinestars. He was the first mainstream Bollywood actor to endorse a condom brand.
That ad steers clear of objectifying women and focusses on loving sex and being prepared. It also shifts the responsibility for safe sex in an interesting way. The #DoTheRex campaign was hugely popular, more so because, finally, someone said it–sex is not just about increasing population, STDs, or unwanted pregnancies; it is also about enjoyment.
In his Koffee With Karan episodes, Ranveer never shied away from talking about his dating life or the sexual side of it. In a country like ours, a mainstream actor doing that helps people shed their own barriers, and own up to their sexualities and quirks and kinks.
Even the actor’s clothes, memed constantly and initially criticised, have created a space for more quirky, gender-fluid clothing. That does not take away the fact that his positioning gives him the kind of power the queer community would never get. But again, who else had dared to take risks like him when he could have played safe?
Lead the way
A nude photoshoot by a man raised hackles. But it also probably gave confidence to a lot of people to do something similar. If not to be published or shared, then simply to be oneself.
He discomforts society at large because he does not adhere to our notions of what an actor with a shredded body should look, dress, or act like.
If one reads the interview accompanying the shoot, things become clear–we are definitely a nation of hypocrites. We want a man to lead the way. But only if he conforms to the kind of masculinity we are comfortable with. Otherwise, he insults the ‘modesty’ of masculinity, disguised as ‘the modesty of women’.