Starlets as Item Girls #OBSCENITYDEBATES
This is the second research note from Silpa Mukherjee, one of the short-term social media research fellows at The Sarai Programme.
Dances have remained an integral part of our culture, life and films for all times. But for a long time one has failed to see any worthwhile dance in our films. I remember those days when we used to see fine dances incorporated in our films, People went to see films to enjoy the lively dances of their favourite dancers…It is a pity however that nowadays vulgarity and obscenity have crept into the costumes and movements of dancers. There is more of acrobats and less of aesthetic value in the dance compositions. It is high time that our producers returned to the golden era and made movies with pure Indian dances.
-Prem Kumar from Rohtak writes to Letters, Screen, July 30, 1999, Page 6.
A look at the censorship documents for Shool (dir. E, Niwas, 1999) prepared by the Central Board of Film Certification reveals that out of the 23 deletions in the film (certified for Unrestricted Public Exhibition), the equivocal linguistic terms of the fifteenth deletion stands out:
Deleted the pelvic movements and vulgar steps (emphasis mine) of Shilpa Shetty’s dance on the song “U.P., BIHAR LOOTNE” / 4:23.
Item numbers have always been dubbed as “vulgar” and “obscene” for the way they frame the dancing body. Time and again official efforts (in the form of film censorship) have been made to contain the sexual content of the numbers because visible female nudity causes discomfort to different groups of people. While in the 80s and early 90s it was easier to restrict such outlaw dance numbers to the B film circuit, which often circulated through pirate video networks, the contemporary media convergence has enabled the item numbers to have multiple screen lives. This is curiously enmeshed with the glamour associated with a high-end lifestyle and a different kind of stardom. In this post I engage with small time female stardom; the case of contemporary starlets who attempt to make it big by getting entangled in controversies over obscenities, and the role played by social media in intensifying these debates.
In my previous post I had mentioned in brief the controversy over Sunny Leone’s bare breasts in the song Babydoll from her film Ragini MMS 2 (dir. Bhushan Patel, 2014). YouTube had a “teaser” version of the song along with the official trailer of the film. The teaser, which still circulates via YouTube and pops up with the first search for the song, was designed with spectacular montage effects, digitally simulated checker box patterned effect lighting, gold-spangled graphics which read “YOU ARE NEVER TOO OLD/ TO PLAY WITH THIS/ BABYDOLL” and levitating bodies clad in black. It was uploaded by T-Series on February 12, 2014 well in advance of the films official release date.The quick edits of the teaser did not reveal the actor’s breasts in the bathtub sequence. She also appeared to have worn a black bra, lying amongst bodies in black in the top angled shot that followed.
At the same time, a series of posts (blog as well as journalistic) trending on Facebook highlighted Sunny Leone’s desperate attempts to obliterate all signs of her previous life as a successful porno actor. She vies with other starlets in Bollywood to carve a niche of “respectability” for herself. News of her apparent discomfort in shooting a topless shower sequence in the film proliferated on social media . Meanwhile owing to the popularity of this song on YouTube, a Bhojpuri remix of Babydoll goes viral on the same portal. The remix reached a viewership of more than 6,000,000 in less than a month and the users started sharing it on Google+. The reason for this was the use of Photoshop in the Bhojpuri remix to erase the black bra from Leone’s breasts . The teaser along with the hype garnered by the remix, the music release party of the film held as a special event in Mumbai in which Sunny emerges from a golden bird cage to dance live (the highlight of the visual register of the film version of the song), were enough to draw audiences to the theatrical release of the film.
The film was categorised as Restricted to Adults and released with four minor edits (replacement with blurred shots of bare breasts in the bath tub) but no deletion or edit was added to the bare breasts in the sequence in which Sunny Leone drifts up and lands on a pile of hands dressed in black . The sequence was found in major theatres. My own experience of watching Ragini MMS 2 on the big screen in a semi-decent multiplex, PVR Priya, Basant Lok, New Delhi was no different than others. The much publicised item number was the opening credits song and within thirty seconds into the number, the bare breasts came as a surprise. It created a huge uproar in the audience; a flurry of whistles and hooting was followed by a rather opprobrious rocking of several seats. But the most preposterous act was yet to come. The desire for repeat viewing and recording the previously unseen, inflamed by the availability of cheap digital technology in smartphones is such that a fellow audience member had to be disgraced and booted out of the theatre by the security guards. After much ado about the different versions of Babydoll on YouTube, T-Series uploaded the uncensored braless version of the song as the “FULL VIDEO SONG” a day after the release of the film.
As Lev Manovich points out, the most important feature of Web 2.0 programmes is their design for “remixability” and “hackability”, the interface culture propagated by social media platforms like YouTube seamlessly blur the distinction between screen personas of users; the “official” and the “unofficial”  . In this zone of extreme ambiguity, the spectator-user is unsure of the authenticity of the YouTube videos, whether they are uploaded by the official channel partners of YouTube or anonymous hackers, or amateur fans (bearing fake user names of their favoured stars), YouTube’s unique design, “Broadcast Yourself” allows anyone (with certain kinds of techno skills) to upload or modify anything on it. Thus for a film like Ragini MMS 2 that capitalises exclusively on an item number for its publicity, one does not know for sure if the black bra in the first teaser upload was YouTube’s own brand of censorship or if the final upload is by an unidentified hacker-user restoring the braless version under the guise of a fake T-Series profile.
A month after the release of the film, Sunny Leone’s Babydoll was again doing the rounds on social media: several photos and a video shot at a private party in Pune where the starlet had allegedly demanded 40 lakhs for a striptease performance of the item number for some diamond merchants from Surat had gone viral on the web. Sunny Leone tweeted her denial of the act and claimed that the images leaked on the internet belonged to an event from her past in the U.S. There was an effort to immediately remove the video from YouTube but by then the ‘event’ had acquired its Streisand Effect  . Multiple video compilations with blurred images of the starlet’s striptease began circulating on YouTube, Dailymotion Video, xossip.com, etc. as pornographic content. This created sizeable viewership that could easily match the numbers who watched the film version of the item number.
Owing to online video’s unique quality of redirecting and remediating the new spectator-user’s taste by curating a window of similar options to click on and view, I found another viral video of Sunny Leone dancing live to Babydoll in a five star hotel for a private audience. It was tucked into the list of similar videos that were custom generated by YouTube in compliance with my previous search. The said video uploaded by one Shailendra Tiwari in July 2014 received some 227,066 views. The comments on this video caught my interest.
The comments create a virtual conversation amongst YouTube users (most of whom use counterfeit usernames) which is also redirected to other web pages and social networks via the “shares” in the comments. The emergent assemblage generates a web discourse on item numbers and obscenity created by multiple users who engage in producing value judgements (and others who do not) on the dance (while obscuring their original identities). Andreas Treske argues that online video never exists alone; it creates a “videosphere” around it . He notes: “We most likely view online videos in a browser, which acts as a kind of container, a frame inside another frame…the single video on a webpage is always surrounded by an environment of things in their place…(The term ‘things’ here means anything that can be coded, that can be described or produced through software code.)…the page recreates the function of a video jukebox.” Videos on YouTube are also found embedded in another medium; email, Facebook, blog, Pinterest, Twitter, other photo and video sharing sites from which YouTube remediates its multiple networks of YouTube users, bloggers, social networkers etc . Thus a single YouTube video with its spectator-users’ comments, associated blogs, other links, “suggested videos” as well as the multiple other social media pages/platforms from which the YouTube user might have been redirected to the said video form an assemblage of debates floating on the web. The YouTube mixes of Babydoll, Sunny Leone’s multiple viral videos, and discussions about its obscene form (or not) by multiple users of social media have created a web discourse on starlets, dances and obscenity.
In this case it is not the proximity to the “obscene” body that raises the issue of morality in the virtual public domain but its availability for wider circulation. Social media contributes through freezing moments of the live dances, and aids in the proliferation of these images (morphed or otherwise) via several channels of distribution. This creates a new fan imagination of the item girl’s body that may not be accessible live but whose image can be streamed, played, replayed and possessed as a download.
While it seems to be a case of virtual defamation for starlets whose private performances are leaked and consequently viewed repeatedly and discussed over social media, the virality of images which are seemingly of a private nature attain a certain ‘pornographic quality’ that showers the starlet with a brand of short lived but highly energetic stardom that is quite different from the mainstream. One can recall the long standing legal battle that another starlet Mallika Sherawat went through (and the popularity she earned through the process) when she was slapped with an obscenity case in 2007. Sherawat had performed live to a medley of item numbers wearing a skin suit sequined with a silver bikini thong in JW Marriott Hotel, Bombay on New Year’s Eve claiming that she was unaware of the programme’s live telecast on news channels. The original footage of the event was removed from YouTube when the starlet expressed her annoyance (she wasn’t informed of the public circulation of the footage of the private party) but a user uploaded the news channel footage of the event after the case created a buzz in the media; this was an extremely low resolution video which still managed to receive more than 185,000 views . Degraded video aesthetics marked the video text as forbidden; the rawness of the image stands as a incitement. Lucas Hilderbrand quotes an anonymous art horror film scholar to suggest that the aesthetics of video are often intentional as well as incidental (signposting the stealthy nature of the recording process) to signal the “illegality” of the tape, “something that you are not meant to see simply because the image quality is so bad” as it performs the dual job of standing as a deterrent as well as enticing the spectator  . This is the peculiar quality that underscores low res viral videos which by virtue of their graininess hint at the provocative nature of their content. Sherawat’s career took a turn for the better after the controversy. She bagged an item number Mayya Mayya in Mani Ratnam’s Guru in 2007, her first notable item number and claim to fame.
If low res aesthetics have strong links with low brow pornography which is banned by the state, decried by the right wing and certain feminist groups alike, high resolution, gloss tinted images of starlets as pin-ups offer the promise of quick (often global) stardom. It then becomes a marker of a high-end lifestyle and entertainment that only few can afford. I am referring to nude or semi-nude photos of starlets on the covers of adult entertainment magazines that have an international market. A quick look at the career graph of the starlet, Sherlyn Chopra helps to substantiate this. Chopra was banned from Twitter because there was a feeling that the obscene images she uploaded on the micro-blogging platform would lead to a controversy. Chopra is the only Indian celebrity who was banned from Twitter when her nude photos on the site displeased a rights group in Bombay who also threatened her with legal action against obscenity. Chopra, a small time item girl seized the headlines of leading film journals when she became the first Indian to earn the title of The Playboy Girl, earning a Playboy cover for herself. Owing to the hubbub created since 2012 over all the social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Imgur, 4Shared, and Metacafe over Chopra’s nude photo on the magazine cover, the recently digitized entertainment magazines like Playboy and Indian film journals like Stardust widely circulated the Playboy photo shoot of the starlet on the web.
Social media pages provide what Bernard Stiegler terms as the “new screen”, the architecture of which requires a collaborative effort; “a bottom-up production of meta-data” by the users  . The logic of bottom-up design of infrastructure is significant for my work because it allows me to examine spaces where fans build a star by creating a virtual fan club/community on social media sites. At the same time, the basic feature of Web 2.0 is that it focuses on an increasing practice of self-staging and self-stylization, multiplying the possibilities of public self-thematization  . Thus social media including Twitter, personal homepages and blogs have become new sites for the proliferation of small time web stardom. This condition of Web 2.0 is pertinent for starlets who manage their own social media pages by uploading content (often provocative in nature to gain quick stardom, but one that appeal to the masses).
Sherlyn Chopra’s much awaited and already controversial 3D film Kamasutra (whose promotion is being done exclusively through the two item numbers of the film performed by the starlet) is yet to release. Her provocative global stardom is different from Bollywood’s A circuit female actors. This is a stardom proliferating through peer networks of her fans on social media and the starlet’s constant personal interactions with these fan pages.
Item numbers and their various mutations on the web and the discourses generated around them by multiple networks of social media users is a vast area of research. In my previous post I discussed the `new phenomenon’ created by the social media dispersion of item numbers and referred to it as the item number effect. Here I have focussed primarily on ‘minor stars’, their interactions with social networkers, the controversies that are stirred up and the censoring interventions made to control the online dispersion of these item numbers. In my future posts I hope to engage with the other stakeholders in the phenomenon; especially A circuit stars, music channels and the Bollywood DJs.
 Retrieved from National Film Archive of India, Pune, March, 2015. For further reference, http://cbfcindia.gov.in/html/uniquepage.aspx?lang=HINDI&va=Shool&Type=search
 “Sunny wasn’t comfortable shooting bare-breasted and conveyed her reservations to the key production team and to Bhushan. After some discussion, it was decided to use skin-coloured pasties with matching silicone for a nude effect and these allude to Sunny shooting the scene without a bra. She was okay with this as opposed to actually shooting topless.” Retrieved from http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/entertainment/hindi/bollywood/news/Sunny-Leone-bold-in-Ragini-MMS-2-Sunny-Leone-refuses-to-go-topless-for-shower-scene/articleshow/31841085.cms
 This article underlines Sunny Leone’s possible anxiety over her bralessness in the viral video. Retrieved from http://www.bollywoodlife.com/news-gossip/sunny-leones-bra-goes-missing-in-bhojpuri-version-of-baby-doll-song-from-ragini-mms-2-watch-video/
 Retrieved from the Cutlist Details for Ragini MMS2 as published on the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting website http://cbfcindia.gov.in/html/uniquepage.aspx?lang=HINDI&va=ragini%20mms2&Type=search
 Manovich, Lev. `The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life’ in Geert Lovink and Sabine Niederer ed. Video Vortex Reader: Responses to YouTube. Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, 2008. P-39, quoting Tim O’Reilly who originally defined the term Web 2.0
 Gabriella Coleman explains Streisand Effect in the following words: ““The Streisand Effect” is a well-known Internet phenomenon wherein an attempt to censor a piece of information has the inverse effect: more people want to see it in order to understand the motivation for the censorship, and thus it spreads much more widely than it would have if left alone. The phenomenon is named after Barbra Streisand’s attempt in 2003 to bar, via a multimillion-dollar lawsuit,aerial photographs of her Malibu home from being published. The photographer was only trying to document coastal erosion. Before the lawsuit, the image of her home had been viewed online only six times, but after the case went public, more than 420,000 people visited the site.” Coleman,Gabriella. Hacker, Hoaxer, WhistleBlower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. Verso, London, New York, 2014, P-53.
 Treske, Andreas. The Inner Life of Video Spheres: Theory for the YouTube Generation. Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, 2013, P-8
 Ibid., P-11
 I borrow Richard Grusin’s logic of YouTube as a medium that remediates databases of media practices of social networking. Grusin, Richard. `YouTube at the End of New Media’ in The YouTube Reader, ed. Pelle Snickers and Patrick Vonderau, Logotipas, Lithuania, 2009.
 The case was last heard of in 2013 when Vadodara court had issued a bailable warrant against the starlet. Retrieved from http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/warrant-issued-against-mallika-sherawat-for-obscene-dance/1139394/
 Hilderbrand, Lucas. Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright. Duke University Press, Durham, London, 2009, p-65.
 Stiegler, Bernard. `The carnival of the New Screen: From Hegemony to Isonomy’ in The YouTube Reader, ed. Pelle Snickers and Patrick Vonderau, Logotipas, Lithuania, 2009.
 Peters, Katherine and Andrea Seier. `Home Dance: Mediacy and Aesthetics of the Self on YouTube in in The YouTube Reader, ed. Pelle Snickers and Patrick Vonderau, Logotipas, Lithuania, 2009.