Wax in Vain

Over the last week my gmail status has been "hot boys enge?". This is my excuse.

TWO WEEKS ago we saw Ranbir Kapoor draped atop a piano, caressed by a sheer curtain, romping about in a precariously tied towel of equivalent sheerness. The same weekend we saw Shah Rukh Khan cavorting tirelessly in what appeared to be stripper gear. Were the chiselled male bodies of Om Shanti Om and Saawariya, Bollywood’s attempt to actively offer women what they think they want — the overwrought male bodies that are suddenly everywhere? More importantly, did it work? Our random survey indicates that the Diwali weekend’s cinematic offerings of muscular male beauty seemed to have been remarkably uninteresting to women. As one woman put it, “Ranbir is cute but he might as well have been doing a Horlicks ad.”

Shobhaa De was one of the commentators who heartily applauded director Farah Khan for objectifying Shah Rukh Khan in Om Shanti Om. She wrote that emphasising Shah Rukh Khan’s abs was “a good move that got the chicks drooling.” Was Shah Rukh Khan himself worshipping at the cult of the body beautiful in Om Shanti Om or was he mocking Bollywood’s fetish for waxed chests and, as De put it, “nutmeg nipples”? One can only guess. But even ardent Shah Rukh fans in our survey were more inclined to deplore, than drool. There are two things you learn when surveying women about the sex appeal of Indian male celebrities. One, Bollywood is looming amiably over our collective sexual imagination, leaving barely any room for cricketers, sportsmen or politicians. Two, Bollywood seems to have managed to create male sex objects for heterosexual women, despite its more conventional efforts.

A few months ago Ekta Kapoor was on Koffee with Karan, along with the male leads from three of her most popular shows. “In Bollywood, the heroes are the subject and the heroines are the objects of sexual fantasy. In television, it’s the other way around. The men are the objects of sexual fantasy.”In an extraordinary television moment the three big, meaty men sat breathing softly, as Ekta explained with relish why she had picked each one. This one with his urbane sophistication, you would want to take to bed, she said. This one, would be cooed over maternally by older women but also fantasised about. Ekta, as usual, had got it right. Women are turned on by elusive qualities — incredibly difficult to bottle, impossible to mass-market. Perhaps that’s why everyone remembers Rakhi Sawant’s “office-porn” music video but can barely remember the classically handsome model who appeared in it.

This is probably also why actual male sex symbols are never just flavours-of-the-month.It seems like nothing new can be said about sex but what straight women find erotic remains shadowy and less apparent than men’s choices. Guru Dutt in Pyaasa, bitter and betrayed; SRK’s ‘aur paas’ scene in Dil To Pagal Hai; SRK in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge, saying he would never take advantage of Kajol because at heart, he’s Hindustani; his brooding seriousness in Chak De; George Fernandes in the 70s; Rahul Dravid batting; Milind Soman making lunch in Rules: Pyaar Ka Super Hit Formula; John Abraham in most contexts, Mithun Chakravarty disco-dancing; Saif Ali Khan in his dhoti comforting a weeping Vidya Balan in Parineeta; Jeeva in Tamizh MA.

A montage of what women say provides sexual frisson would make for a decidedly odd YouTube video.While this montage would include conventionally sexy moments, the erotic remains the last bastion of the politically incorrect. Sophisticated young lawyers desire the unpolished Other; the liberated want the masterful alpha-male; the bohemian wants the uber-competent; and the snappy dressers dislike men who seem to be overly interested in clothing. (“Shashi Tharoor is a turn-off,” one woman said vehemently).Men are appealing for their elegance, competence and restraint (Rahul Dravid and Shekhar Kapur came up) but the seductive capabilities of the flawed man is near universal.

Malavika Vartak, an activist in Delhi, says “everybody wants a man who has a problem. Women want to be able to walk into a man’s life and feel like they can make things magically better.”If there was a Lonely Planet guide to the sexual wilderness it would have to explain the word that crops up most often in women’s descriptions of sexy men — Intensity.SRK’s intensity is often cited by women, but it is Irfaan Khan’s brooding, bloodshot gaze which has women’s unwavering attention. “He makes a chhota recharge for Hutch sound like something I need right now,” says Anna Thomas, an analytics manager in Bangalore. Ajay Devgan is another star who scores high by this parameter which renders otherwise unattractive, even ugly, men magnetic.

NO ONE is denying the pleasure of gazing at a beautiful body though. “When I see those underwear ads on hoardings, my head turns. Those boys in white underwearare eye-catching and alluring. But it is not seductive. The eyes have some logic of their own. I would feel the same way about a length of purple silk. But they don’t appeal to anywhere lower than the eye,” says Polly Hazarika, a researcher in Bangalore.Women allow themselves a fascinating rapaciousness when discussing their unsuspecting, far from object-like sexual objects. Hazarika says, “One night I dreamt that Aishwarya was jumping off a cliff in her Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam costume. And I remember thinking, good, good, let her break her neck and I can marry him. That was before Abhishek got his hairband and that married man look.”

Anita Roy, an editor at Zubaan Books says, “I think what they did with SRK’s abs in Om Shanti Om was fascinating because it wasn’t being codified as gay. In the West the sexualised male body in cinema is only available in the gay tradition.” While we cheer our singing, dancing, crying men for unabashedly remaining their peacocky selves we must speculate that Ranbir was, perhaps, not dancing for the women at all.

First published here.


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