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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Beauty and brains

The sex symbols of our age don’t just rely on their bodies; they use their heads as well

By now, all of you reading this column will probably have seen Dirty Picture. And whatever your views on the merits of the movie itself, you will agree that Vidya Balan was outstanding in her portrayal of a south Indian sex symbol who may or may not (for legal reasons) be Silk Smitha but is called Silk in the movie.

I have to confess that I haven’t seen the movie as yet but I did watch Vidya Balan captivate the audience at the recent Hindustan Times Leadership Summit. And the one phrase among the many witty one-liners she cracked has stayed with me. Talking about Silk and whether it was easy to identify with such a character, Balan confessed that what had really annoyed her at times was the fact that Silk was really only about her body. That she didn’t seem to use her head at all. And that, said Balan, made no sense to her. As Balan famously declared at the Summit, she liked to ‘celebrate and enjoy her body’ – but she always used her head as well.

If you ask me, that one phrase encapsulates the difference between the sex symbols of previous generations and the sex symbols worshipped by our own. Unlike the femme fatales of yore, who were all about the body, the sex symbols of our times use their brains as well.

Perhaps the difference is best explained using the example of Silk Smitha herself and contrasting her with a latter-day equivalent like, say, Mallika Sherawat or even Rakhi Sawant.

Silk Smitha may have been the break-out star of her generation, she may have sold a movie on the basis of her name alone, she may have made more money than she ever dreamt of, she may have been desired by millions. But for all her fame and her success, in the ultimate analysis she was a victim. She was exploited by the men close to her, she seemed to have no control over her own destiny, and in the end, she was in such despair that she took her own life.

In many ways, her life mirrored that of the greatest sex symbol of them all: Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn too was the biggest box-office draw of her time, her name sold a million movie tickets, and every red-blooded man in the world was in lust with her. But despite the power she exerted over men – including the most powerful of them, John F Kennedy, then President of the United States – Marilyn seemed strangely powerless when it came to staying in charge of her own life. She drifted from one disastrous relationship to another, sought comfort in drink and drugs, and in the end, when nothing seemed to work to numb the pain, she killed herself (or was killed by the Kennedys because she was An Inconvenient Woman, if you believe the conspiracy theorists).

Now take a look at the life of Madonna, who modelled herself on Monroe during her Peroxide Period. Even though she had launched herself as a singer before branching off into acting, it was sex that Madonna used to sell herself to the audiences. Her stage performances were more about raunch than rhythm ; she mimed masturbation on stage; wore outfits that left little to the imagination; hell, she even produced a book of soft-porn images of herself, titled Sex which rapidly became a best-seller.

But in all this, there was only one person in charge: Madonna herself. She had absolute control over her career, she decided just how titillating each stage show be, she decided which movies to sign, and she personally cleared every sexually-charged image of hers before it went out to the public. And every dollar that the Madonna machine earned went to Madonna herself.

Today, Madonna may be on the wrong side of 50 – though you wouldn’t think so to look at her – but she remains one of the wealthiest entertainers in show-business and firmly in charge of her own fortune which has only multiplied over the years. If you’re looking for a contrast to the image of sad victimhood that Marilyn Monroe projected in her last years, it really doesn’t get better than this.

In India, too, there are several contrasts to the Silk Smitha stereotype in our entertainment industry. First up is Mallika Sherawat, who has founded an entire career on her breast implants and the ability to churn out shocking quotes about sex on demand. She knows that all she has to offer is an in-your-face sexuality, but boy, does she make it work for her! The same goes for her small-screen equivalent, Rakhi Sawant, who has become a reality television superstar because she goes boldly where no TV starlet has ever gone before.

But while Mallika and Rakhi are really fringe players at best, even mainstream Bollywood heroines have taken control of their sex symbol tag and run with it. Take Bipasha, for instance, who made her debut in Jism and then went on to excel at what Hindi cinema euphemistically dubs ‘bold’ roles. Or Priyanka and Deepika, who see no shame in making the most of their sex appeal. And then, of course, there’s Balan herself, who has no problems ‘celebrating’ and ‘enjoying’ her body.

But unlike the sex symbols of the past, who never really seemed in control, these women are in charge of their own lives. And tellingly, it’s not their bodies that define them, but their body of work.

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