//Standing Up to Madras' Morality Police

Standing Up to Madras' Morality Police

A local screen legend is one of the latest victims of a decency drive many worry is getting out of control  
BY ALEX PERRY, The Time Magazine

Friday, Apr. 14, 2006
Kushboo makes an unlikely outlaw. The 35-year-old queen of "Tollywood," southern India's Tamil-language film industry, is breakfasting on croissants and strawberry jam with her three-year-old daughter on the executive floor of a five-star hotel in downtown Madras. Her salwar kameez, a traditional Indian dress, is embroidered with scarlet and gold, her nails are painted deep red and the silken hair that transfixed a generation of fans tumbles lazily to her waist. And yet, Kushboo confesses, she is on the run. "There are 22 separate cases against me," she says. "I'm accused of causing a nuisance in public and degrading the culture. I've had crowds of a thousand outside my house, burning my effigy and throwing rotten tomatoes and sandals. One magistrate has even issued a non-bailable warrant against me: basically, he wants me in jail." Kushboo's crime? Suggesting that in today's India, an educated man should not expect his bride to be a virgin. "Our society should liberate itself from the ideas such as the one that women should have their virginity intact when getting married," Kushboo wrote in a September article in a Tamil newsmagazine, instantly provoking an uproar in the socially conservative city.

Bangalore might be more famous today, but as a business and cultural hub for 2,000 years, Madras has long been a crucible of change. The first recorded battle for India's soul was fought here in A.D. 78 when, in a rare and fatal display of overconfidence, the apostle "Doubting" Thomas was speared to death by a Hindu warlord as he tried to spread Christianity on a hill close to what is now the airport. Today Madras has all the trappings of modern India: call centers, mobile phone factories, even an animation studio creating CGI cityscapes for Spiderman 3. But in its conservative culture, the city retains much of India's past. Over the last several months, an alliance of self-appointed moral guardians, including politicians, professors and policemen, have mounted a campaign against what they see as the tawdry modern ethics imported along with the wealth of the global economy. As well as vilifying Kushboo, they have banned jeans for girls at the city's Anna University; imposed a midnight curfew on nightclubs; and forced the arrest of two hotel managers after pictures were published showing a kissing couple and a girl drinking beer in the hotel's nightclub. Asked if all change is bad, G. Pavalan of the Dalit Panthers of India, a Tamil cultural and political group which organizes street protests against such outrages of public decency, replies: "Well, no. But yes! Kushboo likes free sex. Here we like to build a social wall around our women. Our culture is very disciplined." Madras Police Commissioner R. Nataraj says his men arrested the hotel managers in response to the "hue and cry" the photographs created. "People are conservative here," he explains. "They hold onto their values."

Some question whether Madras traditions are as restrained as their advocates suggest. Kanimozhi, a documentary filmmaker who is campaigning against what she sees as the new conservatism's attack on freedom of expression, points out that the ancient sex guide, the Kama Sutra, is a Tamil book, and that Tamil temples are full of erotic sculpture. She suspects a more sinister, chauvinist agenda: "It's like our whole society is moving towards a sort of Talibanization," she says. "It's scary. If a university vice chancellor is allowed to dictate what you wear because jeans are 'a distraction,' maybe one day he'll decide that girls per se are a distraction." Others question whether modern Madras is all that proper either. Dr. Lakshmi Bai of the Tamil Nadu AIDS Initiative says the city of six million supports a vast and largely hidden sex industry, with an estimated 83,000 female sex workers and 35,000 transvestite prostitutes. "If we think sex work and premarital sex is wrong," she says, "then we have to work with sex workers and teenagers. Just banning it is never going to work."

Kushboo, meanwhile, finds herself in a new role as a spokeswoman for modern, independent Indian women. "These people think women shouldn't have a life of their own," she says of her accusers. "But where are these guardians of decency when a 44-year-old man marries his eight-year-old niece and demands his conjugal rights? How moral does our culture and tradition feel to that little girl?" In a recent twist, Kushboo herself is suing the Indian edition of men's magazine FHM for publishing scantily-clad pictures of her. She alleges the photographs were doctored, featuring her head pasted onto an under-dressed body. "We are a conservative country. I'm a conservative woman, and there's nothing wrong with that. But when you have a whole city that can see a foreign assault on decency in the mating scenes on [nature documentary channel] Animal Planet, it's not hard to see something is very, very wrong."