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How Playboy can score in India

By borrowing a few techniques from Bollywood, the magazine could do well in a land of strict obscenity laws.

January 22, 2006|Swati Pandey | Swati Pandey is a researcher for the editorial pages.

DESPITE STRICT obscenity laws, stricter religious mores and a fanatical element that regularly pickets and threatens to blow up movie theaters running risque movies, Playboy Enterprises is considering an Indian version of its magazine.

It probably won't be the Playboy that Americans know. Playboy's international editions are culturally tuned to their respective markets, and the Indian version will no doubt be tailored to a society in which the softest of soft-core is requested in hushed tones.

Christie Hefner, Playboy's chief executive, told reporters in December that the Indian magazine would focus on "the lifestyle, pop culture, celebrity, fashion, sports and interview elements of Playboy."

But Playboy can still depict sex in ways that every Indian will understand, even without nudity. To do so, it should take its cues from the films coming out of "Bollywood."

Much of India's obscenity law, mostly drafted after its independence, resembles American and British law in that it defines obscenity according to gut feelings about what harms society and what counts as art. (One major difference is that Indian law makes an exception for religious material in order to preserve historic temples with engravings more daring than anything published in Playboy.)

But Indian law does not tolerate obscenity: The sale of pornography in any form, including mild nudity, is banned.

Man's World, one of the rare Indian "lad mags" lost in a sea of gossip rags, barely pushes the nudity envelope, focusing instead on lifestyle tips for upper-middle-class men.

India's immensely popular film industry has pretty much abided by the rules set forth in the Cinematograph Act of 1952, which establishes a certification process for films and a ratings system (films deemed risque are certified as "adult" and lose distribution options). Movies also must comply with other obscenity statutes. Certification doesn't protect them.

Years of strict censorship and obscenity laws have forced generations of Indian film directors to learn the art of the sexual metaphor. My parents never knew how to shield me from Bollywood-style sex. With American media, my parents easily knew when to cover my eyes, whether the offending moment occurred in "Dances With Wolves" or a "Friends" episode.

But Bollywood's metaphors for and other signals of sexuality became so common over the years that they didn't have to be deciphered to be understood. Sex meant soft, pulsating music; whispered lyrics; bangles breaking; women dancing in wet saris.

Not all the metaphors were good. For years, Indian directors cut to, say, a bee pollinating a flower, two birds fluttering, or lightning crashing to signal sexual activity. But erotic imagery that avoids nature porn has a strong hold on the Indian conscience. There are websites devoted to pictures of Bollywood actresses in wet saris and backless blouses -- even a photo gallery of actresses' armpits.

If Bollywood can eroticize an armpit, surely Playboy can do the same for knees, feet, elbows, hands or any other body part that evades the censor's cut. With enough Bollywood-style sex -- images that Indians have come to recognize as sexual -- Playboy in India can still be Playboy.

Indeed, Playboy should launch a "reverse" sexual revolution. Blame it on MTV India or the Internet, but the sex metaphors are dying.

Indian movies still have plenty of the old-school eroticism of bare feet and bare-midriffed and bare-backed women in saris. But they have trouble competing with the onslaught of music video stars in short, tight clothes thrusting and shimmying to bass-heavy beats. Instead of hinting at sex with genuinely sexy images, Indian films increasingly forgo the hints for unexciting displays of more skin.

Playboy can't compete with the visual and auditory assault of MTV-style images, nudity or no nudity.

But if it picks its images carefully and sticks to the old Playboy formula of sex and smarts, it can bring back the Bollywood tradition of subtlety.

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