Amitabh, sensuality & the social sciences

One must first admit that Bollywood has been more insightful than social science in India.

One of the exercises I perform daily is to read the newspaper supplement for quotes. I love filmstars and celebrities when they play Socratic. Usually they don’t know the difference between a gold nugget and a goat’s dropping, but occasionally they come up with something provocative and profound. People like Irrfan Khan, Mahesh Bhatt, Kangana Ranaut, Kalki Koechlin have a bite — an acerbic confidence one enjoys. Filmstar Rajinikanth, who was a bus conductor before attaining superstardom was once asked: “What would you have become if you weren’t a bus conductor?” Quick came the reply: “Oh, a smuggler or a bootlegger.” Rajinikanth understood the limits and possibilities of a slum economy and realised at one level the equality of all occupations in terms of dignity.

I remember a quote attributed to Aishwarya Rai when Sunil Khilnani’s book The Idea of India was gaining currency. Responding to its popularity, Aishwarya is supposed to have said: “It is not the idea of India but the India of ideas one should respond to.” I am citing these examples because I am grateful to supplements for the little insights they so unexpectedly provide.
Recently, I was surprised by Amitabh Bachchan. As a senior statesman, I did not expect him to be provocative. The interview he gave seemed to be on the standard lines till I read the last two paragraphs. A touch of the important marked his final comments. He was defending sensuality after a comment that onscreen sensuousness, meaning item numbers, incite eve-teasing, even rape. Bachchan retorted, “Sensuality does not only occur in film item numbers. Nature, music, flowers, the classics in poetry has the power to be sensuous.” So far, so good. One can label it as vintage Bachchan and move on. But then he pulled out a literary equivalent of the googly or a doosra. He claimed, “I find the very act of social analysis sensuous. Dare anyone stop me from feeling so!”

The aside blew me for a second. I asked myself about a social analysis, social science being sensuous. I admit social science has been politically correct, even a mouse-like discipline determined to be scientific. But sensuous? That would have been a liberation of social sciences, even of social analysis. One is reminded at this movement of W.H. Auden’s critique of social analyses. “Thou shalt not commit a social science not submit to questionnaire.” Amitabh, well versed in poetry, must have sensed something about the nature of language, the body that appeared interesting. Let us create a straw Amitabh to help create the sensual social science.

One must first admit that Bollywood has been more insightful than social science in India. Bollywood as a creator of myth understood the tensions of modernity, the poignancy of creative balancing. It used the device of the double, of two brothers or two sisters from the same family who pursued different careers. One sibling becomes a cop, another a dacoit, one is rustic and the other becomes as urban as possible. The tension between the two and the resolution shows how India mastered such contradictions. Social sciences with their timetables of modernity had no such imagination. What then could a Bachchan be referring to? Could it be the similarity between gossip and ethnography? Or is it the quiet moralising behind the two? May be the better way to answer is by moving from Bachchan as text to pretext. In an open-ended sense, what would a sensual, sensitive, sensible social science mean today? Let us playfully write a script on his behalf, inventing an Amitabh for social science and turning a footnote, an aside, into a text.

Two things become crucial in a vision of this sort — the body as a sensorium and poetics of memory. The turning body evokes sexuality and sensuality and it can only do so if all the senses come to play. When an Amitabh talks of returning the “dictatorship” of the body to the women, maybe this is what he means, the right to sexuality and to the erotic. The erotic is an important part of the social. In fact, one often forgets the Tagore-Gandhi debate.

Tagore’s argument against khadi was its dull banality of replication. In village after village he wanted weaving to be sensual and the body to retain erotic because desire was crucial. Desire went beyond Gandhian idea of need and greed.

The relation between the body and society as a body politic becomes critical. The surveillance of the body, the idea of panopticonising food, the policing of sensuality groups like the Bajrang Dal have to cease. Once the body is seen as a sensorium, repression ceases. A child learns anew. The invention of alternative bodies becomes crucial for reform. The Indian national movement as apposed to the nation- state did just that. It invented the occult body, the body in multiple time, the organic body, the magical body and the ascetic body. A dream of sensuality, its harnessing, its self-control, its expression became a dream of free society.

The question of violence becomes unavoidable because violence needs social analysis — a therapy that goes beyond policing as in Kashmir or Bastar. The varities of violence threatens sensuality and, in fact, turns violence as a high into a form of addiction.

Terrorism is a consequence of transforming violence into an addiction, an excess which is what sensuality seems to question. In a mythical way, Bollywood and art in general did try to raise these questions about, issues of colour, taste, desire, creativity in a world without censorship. Our movies repeatedly emphasise that our society has not confronted the issue of violence and instead treating it as a problem, we transform it into a solution.

In an age which thinks too much of development, we have lost the axiomatics of the social in the sensual. Amitabh Bachchan, by inadvertently reminding us of it, has triggered a chance for a wider debate. Years ago Kaun Banega Crorepati helped usher in the information revolution. One hopes his comments do something similar to redeem the sensuous body.


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