I first came across Shobhaa De back in March, when Homi Andjania’s short film/public service announcement about female empowerment in India, starring Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone, started making the rounds on social media. Cue De’s NDTV article, “Dear Deepika, Great Hair and Exposed Bra Strap are Not Empowerment.”
De’s biting criticism of what she dubs director Andjania’s “vanity project” made me laugh out loud, almost quite literally. In a time where Buzzfeed India prominently features stories such as “Just Making Sure the World Knows that Deepika Padukone is a Flawless Goddess,” and “16 Times Deepika Padukone Owned 2014,” it was startling to see a critique of Bollywood’s golden girl. However, De’s critique brought to light issues of advocacy and feminism, representation and social capital, and I thought to myself that one must have, well, guts to appraise a “face” of feminism. An appraisal further complicated by the fact that De has been dubbed the “Jackie Collins of India,” a salacious author of steamy romance novels liberally sprinkled with sex, the underworld, and gender politics, set against the backdrop of a country where a large swathe of the female population struggles to empower itself – sexually, financially, or otherwise.
I glided through a few of De’s romance novels – Starry Nights, an erotic tale of Bollywood romance, modeled on silver screen and off-screen superstars of the 70’s; Sultry Days, a teen romance gone sour; and Bollywood Nights, an unflinching look into Bollywood’s seedy underbelly, teeming with organised crime and casting couches and infidelity (oh my!). Feedback on these works followed a similar trajectory – ambitious topic, unapologetic lens, yet with underdeveloped plots and characters. One reader called Starry Nights a “masala flick rendered onto a page.” Others commented on the one-dimensionality of the cast of characters.
Could this be the same woman that I had read on NDTV, had watched on Star World’s ‘Koffee with Karan’?
De is also the type of columnist/author/social commentator who will go on ‘Koffee with Karan’ and disparage India’s “pseudo-socialist hangover” that has been “glorified for the last sixty years, about how it’s wonderful to be poor.” On ‘Koffee with Karan’! If there ever were a bastion to the glory, glamour and ostentation of Bollywood on the small screen, surely it would be ‘Koffee with Karan’? Yet there was Shobhaa De, comfortably ensconced in the “polite” society that her words so artfully dismantles, and I was back to thinking that surely, surely this woman has chutzpah to be so bold. What makes her seem so impervious to India’s conservatism? And why does her forthright rhetoric not translate onto her fiction?
Could the erotic, salacious romance novels be in response to the region’s deeply entrenched discomfort with frank and open conversations about sexuality? After all, contemporary Indian erotica comprises a small literary circle, and few are as forthcoming with depictions of adultery, infidelity, sexuality, the female gaze – you get the idea – as De. Few would go on ‘Koffee with Karan’ and breezily appraise India’s “sixty-year-old hangover” with the “glorification of poverty.”
The juxtaposition of De’s social commentary on NDTV with her romance novels brings to my mind certain lessons that I learnt in my post-colonial theory classes, about the “discourse of the insider” and “dismantling the master’s house with the tools of the master.” I feel as though De speaks the discourse of an insider, having spent many years of her career within the glamorous (albeit seedy) world of fashion and Bollywood. She speaks knowledgeably of casting couches, hidden behind the veneer of the silver screen’s respectability; she knows the nips and tucks and hair extensions that go into creating the twenty-first century’s screen goddesses. She makes a compelling argument for how all politicians are actors, and praises authentic living, even the authentic living of self-proclaimed hedonists. She dismantles the dazzling, rotten edifice of the glamour industry and “polite society” while still living within in; in fact, she seems to flit in and out of those worlds with enviable ease. Her pedigree is her armour, her chutzpah belying a steely resolve to (in the words of Sara Bareilles), “say what you want to say.”
Shehtaz Huq is an English teacher in Rochester, New York. Her short fiction has appeared in Dhaka Tribune, The Daily Star, and The Marquis Literary Magazine.