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India’s Flawed Prudence When It Comes To Nudity Needs To Be Addressed

Milind Soman, actor, model

A case has now been registered against supermodel Milind Soman for his nude beach run photo. His photo was reportedly in violation of IPC Sections 294 and 67 of the IT Act – both to do with “obscenity.” This news comes on the heels of actress Poonam Pandey’s arrest (and bail) for an “obscene” shoot in Goa. Read an opinion on it here. I had strongly condemned her arrest, especially in contrasting light of the praises that had been pouring in for Soman for his bold picture. But my campaign for equality in the treatment of Soman and Pandey was for the latter to be given the same freedom of nudity as the former. Not the other way round, as is now playing out.

As I saw it, Soman, by virtue of being a man, had certain privileges he could exercise, something other genders in India don’t. Could a woman have even dreamed of sharing a fully bare photo on social media, for the public eye? I shudder even at the possibility. But I didn’t resent Soman for the advantage he had, no. I coveted it. The choice of nudity should be a free-for-all movement. If Soman is gathering praise, then so should Pandey. That is the kind of equality we need, in my opinion. Not equality in cases being registered against them.

Also Read: As A Woman, I’m Envious Of Milind Soman For His Birthday Picture

Is it nudity or the idea of it that riles us up?

For Soman, it looks like history is repeating itself. His infamous 1995 nude ad with two others – his then girlfriend Madhu Sapre and a python – had stirred legal trouble, with the Mumbai Police charging them with “obscenity.” The snake was not charged, luckily. Soman and Sapre, meanwhile, faced a 14-year long ordeal before being acquitted by the court. He shared that image in May this year, asking “what the reaction would have been if it had been released today.” Well, guess he got his answer. Not much has changed.

To me, someone for whom a body-positive, physically liberated, free-speech society is the ideal one, the consistency of Soman’s run-ins with the law over “obscenity” isn’t positive. It paints a pretty grim picture actually, proving that India hasn’t budged from its watertight ideas of morality in 25 years.

What is it about nudity that rattles our collective mindsets so much? What is it that outrages the Indian modesty? In Soman’s 1995 photo, as in his 2020 one, the most predictably outrageous bits of the body – the privates – are shielded from view. So surely, it can’t be the sight of a particular organ that we’re showing an aversion to. Is it then the mere thought of it? How weak an argument is that?

Also Read: Cheering Poonam Pandey’s Arrest Over An “Obscene” Shoot Reveals Our Double Standards

If Soman had been clad in a skimpy speedo – that would only have been barely visible to social media users on one hip, mind you – would that have been registered under “obscenity”? Since his dangly bits weren’t protruding anyway, what difference would his speedo have made except satisfy our conscience that the man was indeed wearing something?

And what in the case of Pandey? Going by reports, the actress wasn’t even fully naked during her video shoot. Why was she booked for “obscenity” then? If we have set the benchmark of “obscenity” at nudity, then shouldn’t anything lower count for less punishment? Our ideas of morality and righteousness and nudity are clearly incomplete.

Also Read: Remembering Betty Dodson: The Sex-Positivity Artist Who Helped Women Achieve “Perfect Orgasm”

Are We Even Equipped To Define “Obscenity”?

Interestingly, while our law has a righteous take on the action against people who are supposedly obscene, it doesn’t define with precision what “obscene” means. And is that even surprising? Adjectives are seldom objective.

The bail order in Pandey’s case rightly mentioned, “A professional shoot towards the making of a video or a film, in my considered opinion cannot be outright termed as obscene or immoral merely because some members of the public say so, or there is public outcry about the same. Films and videos are covered under the right to expression, which is a fundamental right granted by our Constitution.”

Therefore who decides how much nudity is obscene? What is the appropriate way of being in public? Who decides what is lascivious or what will outrage another’s modesty? There can be no one answer to these questions since the social diversity of human beings will never allow that. So if we’re talking equality, in what is a unique role reversal, Soman needs to be given the same consideration as Pandey.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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