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Home >Mint-lounge >Features >Lounge Web Opinion: Deepika Padukone and the hunger game

The controversy that has tellingly come to be known as the “Deepika Padukone cleavage scandal" should actually be called “the entertainment website’s click-bait problem".

It started a few days ago when @TOIEntertain, the Times of India newspaper’s Twitter account for movie news and gossip, posted a video of Padukone with the tweet “ÖMG! Deepika Padukone’s cleavage show!". This tweet, posted by an unidentified grunt who was following the general tone of other tweets on the timeline, invited irate responses from the actor and wholesale strafing from the Twitterati. An ill-judged response from the grunt—he/she advised Padukone to take the comment as a compliment—didn’t help matters and only fed the Twitter storm, as sudden and fleeting as these things usually are.

No entertainment website has the spine to resist such click-bait videos and listicles as “Ten Wardrobe Malfunctions You Can’t Miss" and “__ __ (pick any name) like you have never seen before" (meaning naked). The more scandalous the promise, the greater its temptation—an old fairground trick that is being given new and dangerous shape because of the spread of the internet and the willingness of some websites to shed any pretence of being interested in female celebrities for their work (what a supremely silly idea) and cut straight to the chase.

Show business is often just that: a reminder for movie stars of their primary function, which is to generate and sustain pleasure among viewers, and to act out this function in sexualised settings through available media. Hence, the never-ending glut of come-hither photo shoots and videos of semi-clad or unclothed celebrities, especially female, in intimate and sexualised settings and positions, gnawing the edge of a bed sheet, clutching the rim of a towel, lolling by the kitchen counter in becoming pyjamas, or suggestively sprawling on a sofa.

As anybody in the age of the sting and reality television knows, this make-believe fantasy has greater charge if it is actually proved to be true. Wouldn’t you rather see David Beckham in his own underwear than in a photo shoot for Calvin Klein?

General expectations that an actor like Padukone will not have a problem with the world peeking down her cleavage increase because of her screen persona, that of a Westernised, urbane, sexy, easy-going and skirt- and gown-wearing woman. In her most recent role, as the Goan Catholic Angie in the movie Finding Fanny, Padukone appears in short dresses that reveal a wee bit of cleavage in which nestles a cross (an echo of Tina Munim’s character in Baaton Baaton Mein). Entertainment sections also regularly carry details of Padukone’s supposed love life, so any separation between what is on the screen and on the ground exists only in the minds of opinion writers, prudes and aliens.

The hunger for seeing movie stars, especially women, in states of undress, is almost palpable across the internet, where unwelcome bars at the side or bottom of otherwise supposedly respectable websites bait clicks through suggestive titles. Type in a female actor’s name in a search string and the default drop-down menu invariably says __ __ hot. The inability of celebrities to control the growing paparazzi culture, and their own complicity in their sexualised depictions, will mean many more such instances, but given the symbiotic relationship between stars and the media, not much of a backlash.

The Indian entertainment media faces several representational challenges with the new lot of movie celebrities, which includes Padukone. The current crop of A-list actors is from middle-class and affluent backgrounds that allow for more relaxed morals. They hug and kiss at press conferences without inhibition, they are more comfortable in their own skin on the screen and off it than their predecessors, are willing and able to carry off love-making scenes in movies without behaving as though their virtue is being trampled upon, and are relaxed about discussing their private lives. They “expose decently", as the old saying goes, with full awareness that the benefits are personal and pecuniary. Since they are in the business of show, they tell accordingly, and the public is all ears. Some of them make a lot of money. Some of them win awards. Some will go down in history. Some will exploit the media frenzy to remain relevant.

And some will, every once in a while, draw the line. It has become increasingly difficult to judge when a moment is manufactured for public consumption and when it is not¸ but it is hardly impossible. The Padukone problem has something in common with the recent celebrity phone-hacking crime in the US, whose face has become Jennifer Lawrence. (The Hunger Games star and Oscar-winning actor is only one among several marquee names whose intimate photographs have been released into the ether without their knowledge, but her clothed self features prominently in articles about the privacy invasion.) The controversies differ vastly in scale and impact, but they both point to the occasional tendency of the media and the public to hear a “Yes" when a woman has actually said “No".

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