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Updated: 08 November, 2020 07:02 IST | Paromita Vohra | Mumbai

They had never heard that old-fashioned phrase 'birthday suit'. Naked as a baby on his birthday, Soman made an uncle joke, running in the same direction as us all - age. That's kind of comforting, and beautiful also

Illustration/Uday Mohite
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Paromita VohraIn the US, Joe Biden was running for president. In Goa, Milind Soman was running nangu-pangu. He posted his running naked picture online. It went viral. When an offering is made to the social media gods, rituals must be carried out, and were. There were giggling fors, primarily for nature's great invention—beauty. The againsts were varied—why is he travelling in the pandemic, why is he so narcissistic, why are men praised for everything they do--but united in that they were proxies for another objection, that Soman had been in an RSS shakha as a kid, and written about it in an agnostic fashion, instead of performing the ritual purification of self-hate and repentance. And, there was the boutique dismissal—Protima Bedi did it earlier and better, streaking on a Goa beach, symbolising freedom, naturalness, no-shame, but also, of course, beauty (for a magazine cover). We can only wonder if she would have done this were she not beautiful or then would have been celebrated as much.

Poonam Pandey was also apparently shooting a nangu-pangu video in Goa, but she got picked up by the cops for this. In 2011, she had promised to streak if India won the World Cup, and didn't exactly. She did, however, leverage the fame to become an early Indian Twitter celeb, with a calibrated narrative of shuddh desi titillation, yaniki, "Ok tweethearts I've had my shower now I'm applying moisturiser on my skin".

The gender biases in who is found vulgar, and who isn't, are evident here, and were rightly pointed out. On release, Pandey uploaded a sexy Karva Chauth video with her husband (named Sam Bombay), confounding gender defenders of every hue. That which confounds us, surely sets us free, of fixed opinions.

Classically, women's public nakedness has been facilitated by men for the enjoyment of men. Some women have consented to this freely, others because they felt they had no choice but to consent. So, when women decide to unclothe themselves, for whatever reason, they overturn some part of the equation. This agitates people, as does women's assertion in any domain. However, men too overturn some equations in undressing, obliquely serving stigmatised desires—queer pleasure, women's pleasure. In that amorophous sexualness, that confounds norms, they are not aggressively masculine, but soften in submission to another's gaze.

This too has threatened people—Soman had his tryst with censorship, for posing naked but for shoes, with Madhu Sapre and a snake. This makes it slyly enjoyable that he often runs nange pair (barefoot). Beauty, rigidly defined by society and markets, oppresses us—as one who has not been considered beautiful, primarily because I am fat, I get this. But my love for beauty has shown me, it is not beauty, in all its variety we hate, but those norms, that are hard to change, because there is also some truth in beauty. Hence, confounding the norms, in myriad ways, is the only way to unsettle them, and liberate ourselves.

Soman captioned his naked picture: Happy Birthday to me. My younger colleagues did not get the visual pun. They had never heard that old-fashioned phrase 'birthday suit'. Naked as a baby on his birthday, Soman made an uncle joke, running in the same direction as us all—age. That's kind of comforting, and beautiful also.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at paromita.vohra @mid-day.com

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First Published: 08 November, 2020 04:28 IST

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