When bikini babes became the face of contemporary India

What inspires this post is a back to back run of two films. One from the 1970s and another from 2008. Glad that I had the sensibility to enjoy both & be non-judgmental. However, other than the storyline, settings, benchmarks of affluence, contextual happenings etc…my curious mind picked up a dramatic shift in vastra (apparel) worn and the personality thereof. It reminded me of how comfortably we as Indians, have settled to a new code of style in our grooming, albeit at a price. Price of shedding Indian and donning Western as our drape of beauty.

Let’s imagine the two time zones separated by economic, social, cultural realities. In both these zones, are two personalities of women that have flourished. One is a ‘Seductress/Apsara’ and the other is a ‘Poised Beauty/Goddess’. They both exist today too, however their symbols and semiotic codes have changed. In fact flipped.

The Apsara of yore often wore Western clothes. She was modern and often naughty (sometimes ethically bad). And many times presented as a vamp or the villian’s moll. If she wasn’t slotted there, she was the spoilt brat of a rich man & had to be brought to task. Much like the ‘Taming of the Shrew’. When subdued she turned docile and desirable in Indian wear. Indian mores. Indian way of life.

The Poised Goddess more often looked, believed & wore Indian. The sari or churidar-kurta was a stylish, elegant, youthful and a proud expression of Indian-ness. When actresses traveled abroad/attended get-togethers/award ceremonies, they wore their saris without a hitch. Sensuality was an undertone even then. Of course reflecting the spirit of the times too. Western wear on the other hand was too bold, daring and often signalled loose character.

In the midst of these stories were directors who were crafting the ethos of change. Bolder themes, liberation of women & menfolk from the chastity belt and so on. Partly reflected by portraying an attitude change & partly reflected in the attire worn.

Then one day in an almost expected way, the tables turned. Today the film industry resonates this more than ever. Heroines who aren’t sexy or won’t fit into body huggers, don’t reach higher levels. They aren’t perceived contemporary enough. They are not allowed to play with many roles. They are typecast. Probably the spirit of the times again. Forget the festivals & ceremonies. What does urban (young, modern) India want to see their women wear? Especially when out with friends or then at a party (not with family) or when at college or then at work or when they define ‘modern’ in the matrimonial columns.

Does this poshaak change mean something?

Two movies. Both of a modern India & very successful, namely Dostana & Main Hoon Na starred two very attractive women. Now (keep aside your personal favorite), what avataar of the women would you like to see again and again? Both personalities portrayed were strong, beautiful and sexy. Both were wooed by good looking men. So, who would make your day when you walk into the theatre or then pick as your soulmate. Someone hip and happening the Western way or someone sensual and elegant in the Indian way?

Strange isn’t it? The very set of clothes worn often by ‘bold’ actresses like Zeenat Aman/Parveen Babi….are now worn by the most celebrated heroines of the country. And Indian wear that more often adorned famed actresses like Hema Malini/Rekha…are typecast as period film wear. Often seen today on Vidya Balan of course who has been flogged for her inability to fit into Western wear well, hence labeled an old-world herione. What has any of the above got to do with their acting prowess? Not very different from the way we perceive our fellow womenfolk, friends and family I’d say.

When India was far removed from globalization (touching the masses), the world was India and its cultural mores was our most flaunted identity. With the world becoming a smaller place, lands that showcased economic progress and affluence became the new norm of quality life. Possibly attire, like the color of skin (with makeup) is the easiest to change. The easiest to adapt. To mark one’s entry into accepting and wanting to belonging to a perceived higher order life.

The human species is constantly seeking significance. Changing one’s inner core takes conditioning. However changing the outer skin (non behenji look) needs just a reasonably full wallet.

If I take a quick peek into Indian advertising, the symbols of modern India has much of the above. And often detergent brands, non-nuclear family settings, home care products…land up showing women in Indian wear. What is the message we are sending?

What is our physical identity today? What are we shedding and what are we proud to flaunt? If the future lies in India’s progress then will Indian wear become the new attire of a world looking Eastward?

I know I have merely skimmed the surface of a debate that deserves and can spiral into deeper/intense human truths. Like the denigration of skin color. Like the lack of status associations with our national language. Much more. I reserve that for another day.

Just leaving you with a simple point to ponder on. If we go by the saying, ‘Don’t judge a book by it’s cover’, then what’s the big deal whether people wear Indian or Western wear? Didn’t someone say beauty is not just skin deep?

So on an optimistic note, there ain’t nobody like the Desi Girl. Enjoy.

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  1. Was a wonderful read. Out comes my kurta tomorrow! =) (Need to find a woolen one though,to fit the weather)

  2. ..very interesting,
    …the other day this girl i know did not join her colleagues at work to go pubbing, as she happened to be wearing a salwar kurti and would not want to be seen in a pub wearing indian and looking behenji!!!

    …and ya the tables have definately turned!!….today item girls are considered hot and happening!!.. we now have the munnis and sheila ki jawani kinda of songs, being a super super hit among the masses…both young and old… you can just about hear them being played around every nook and corner….just dislike it when i hear 5 & 7 year old kids singing and dancing to these numbers… aren’t we responsbile for taking away their innocence at such an early age?

    • Sandhya Srinivasan |

      Thank You Revlon. These prejudices have seeped into us so quietly we can’t separate ourselves from these feelings. Being Indian is the entire package and apparel should be the choice of wearer, with due respect to context, ambiance & the norms of the land. Strange how we segregate people on everything superficial, but forget that real beauty is in behavior, attitude & spirit.

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