Deepika’s saffron bikini and ‘Besharam Rang’: A shameless misreading for jingoism

In the video where Deepika Padukone appears in five different costumes, with the saffron bikini making an appearance for less than 20 seconds, what the video definitely did not intend is to call saffron a “shameless colour”.
Deepika Padukone, Shah Rukh Khan in the song 'Besharam Rang'
Deepika Padukone, Shah Rukh Khan in the song 'Besharam Rang'
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With the recent release of the music video ‘Besharam Rang’ from Shah Rukh Khan’s upcoming film Pathaan, it is time for us to arrive at a consensus on one matter — she may sure be a gorgeous global icon who can effortlessly pull off a gunny sack for a dress, but Deepika Padukone doesn’t seem to understand the basics of fashion etiquette. Who can blame the several rightwingers, politicians, and the general uncle population for raising a hue and cry over her orange/saffron bikini? It is fashion’s golden rule that there is a time and place for everything, and orange/saffron is a colour that should be donned only by very specific people on very specific occasions.

For the uninitiated, let’s give you a crash course on when and where saffron (or any similar colour) is allowed. Firstly, are you by any chance a Hindu or Buddhist sage seeking enlightenment, meditating on the calm riverside of Ganga or the snow-capped mountains of the Himalayas, away from the cacophony of jingoistic performances? Respectfully, everybody knows saffron is your colour, you do you. 

Sometimes though, you may also be excused for wearing the colour if you are an accused in a criminal case (whether it be a bomb blast or sexual assault), and have decided to spout communally inflammatory remarks seeking to incite violence against minority comunities. If this is the case, go ahead, cover yourself in the colour and pontificate. The save-the-saffron brigade will turn the other way. 

At other times you may simply be seeking frequent ticket-free train travels, and may have arrived at the infinite possibilities offered by saffron robes as a solution. Understandably, this too is unlikely to trigger the self-proclaimed protectors of all things orange. Besides, of course, yoga gurus who wear little more than a saffron loincloth and indulge in public gymnastics are also bound to receive a free pass.

But no matter what, one simply does not wear a saffron-hued bikini for less than a minute at the fag end of an average music video, and then have the audacity to look stunning. Are you listening, Deepika?

Nose-cuttings to stomach-kickings

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Sadhvi Pragya, one of the country’s most prominent saffron wearers, was among the many who had taken deep offence to Deepika’s bikini. Asserting that this insult to the saffron colour will not be tolerated, the BJP MP recently made a clarion call in Hindi, “Kick them in the stomach, destroy their businesses, and never watch any of their films. As soon as they are kicked in the stomach, they will run away from the country.” She also warned the makers of Pathaan of dire consequences if the scene in question was not deleted.

Pragya’s threat came close on the heels of Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Narottam expressing his outrage regarding the song, threatening the filmmakers to change Deepika’s costume in the scene if they did not want to face a ban in the state. “The costumes used in the song are objectionable. It is clear that this song has been filmed with a corrupt mentality,” he alleged, going on to accuse the Bollywood actor of siding with the “tukde tukde gang” in the “JNU case”.

Deepika, in fact, is no stranger to vicious attacks over decisions made by her films’ directors. Her 10-minute visit to the Jawaharlal Nehru University nearly three years ago, where she stood in silent solidarity with the students who were beaten up by masked goons, has not helped her case.

Even before this incident, a controversy surrounding the alleged ‘distortion of facts’ in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s period drama Padmaavat had led to violent threats against her by extremist groups. If Sadhvi Pragya’s recent threat of ‘stomach kicking’ was metaphorical, the threats from the Shri Rajput Karni Sena at the time were quite literal. Using a reference from the Ramayana, one of the members of Karni Sena had threatened to cut the actor’s nose off. There was even a bounty placed on her head.

The actor has since made some futile attempts to win back this lost love. At the 75th Cannes Film Festival in May this year, she sat next to a Union Minister — best known for his remarks against a group of people he referred to as “desh ke gaddar“ (traitors of the nation) — and claimed that India at present [under the BJP] is “at the cusp of greatness”. The effort clearly hasn’t borne fruit, especially as she now performs alongside a superstar whom the same self-appointed culture protectors have been trying to pull down owing to his identity as a Muslim man.

A concoction of jingoism and misogyny

At its most superficial level, the furore against ‘Besharam Rang’ comes from an incorrect (or deliberately twisted) understanding of the song’s lyrics. ‘Besharam’ and ‘rang’, both Urdu words commonly used in Hindi, translate to ‘shameless’ and ‘colour’ respectively. The phrase in the song “Besharam rang kahan dekha duniya walon ne” loosely translates to mean that “the world hasn’t seen my true colours.” In the video where Deepika appears in five different costumes, with the orange/saffron bikini making an appearance for less than 20 seconds, what the video definitely did not intend is to call ‘saffron’ a “shameless colour”.

But obviously, the backlash to the song isn’t simply about a deliberate misreading of its lyrics, the presence of a Muslim superstar, or even the Hindu religious significance associated with the colour saffron. It is also unabashed misogyny. Jingoism thrives on traditional social structure and gendered hierarchies, and the visibility the song accords to a successful woman exercising her agency and freely expressing her sexuality clearly doesn’t sit well within this framework.

In fact, a significant section of those offended by ‘Besharam Rang’ have been more concerned about the sensuous nature of the song than the presence of saffron in it. Among them was a retired IPS officer who uploaded many zoomed-in screen grabs of the actor from the video and tweeted, “What kind of a husband allows or tolerates public molestation of his wife for a few bucks?” The tweet which has since been removed by Twitter was obviously directed at actor Ranveer Singh, Deepika’s real-life partner, who the former officer seems to believe is responsible for her career decisions.

The biggest irony here is that Ranveer himself had just recently been at the receiving end of a massive backlash over his nude photoshoot for a magazine, with an FIR registered against him for “hurting the sentiments of women.” For a savarna heterosexual man to be at the receiving end of such furore was unprecedented, but still not surprising. Despite his privileged background and apolitical stances, Ranveer’s positioning as a Bollywood hero who seemingly does not subscribe to heteronormative ideals of behaviour — whether it’s his fashion sense or his unabashed hyping of his wife — makes him a tricky figure to label. And as always, anything or anyone that goes against the norm is quick to be disowned by culture protectors.

There is not much to be said about Pathaan as a film, which is several weeks away from being released. But the backlash triggered by an orange bikini, on screen for no more than 20 seconds, lends to an in-depth study of India’s current political landscape.

Views expressed are the author's own.

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