K ushboo Khan has nothing in common with other star activists. She has no sophisticated body of work to her credit, never led a rally or spoken at UN forums. And she definitely does not wear handloom.
Her hugely popular southern films sold for their sexy sizzle and the Tamil TV shows she now hosts are a great draw but high on the kitsch. But what she does have however is something few Indian stars can boast of — intellectual maturity and a fearless spirit.
Look at it this way: why would an actress who has a temple built in her name by adoring male fans in small town Tamil Nadu risk it all by declaring with admirable candour that in this time and age men have no business looking for virgin brides? Or that since most couples in love have sex before marriage, they may as well stay safe and use contraceptives? And that sex education is a must for our youngsters?
Not only did the temple in Trichy get demolished by angry fans horrified by her ‘impure’ views but Dravidian moral brigades like Pattali Makkal Katchi and Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi dragged her to court too for corrupting impressionable minds. The legal wrangle which started five years ago led the Supreme Court last week to ask these fringe groups how many young people eloped because of the actor’s liberal views. And point out to the — that the right to cohabit is the right to life itself.
“All those who attack her, how come they have no problems with the views of Periya Ramaswamy Naicker who is seen as the leader of the Tamil movement?” asks writer and iconoclast Cho Ramaswamy. “He, in fact, said more radical things. He said men shackle women using the concept of chastity. He wanted men and women to live together in relationships of equality, and not necessarily within matrimony. Among those who are now attacking her are many who praise Periya at least once a month. I don’t agree with her but she has the right to comment as an individual. She is picked only because she is a soft target.”
When she was first attacked for speaking aloud in favour of more liberal sexual mores, the only support Kushboo had was from fellow actor and director Suhasini Maniratnam and a few others.
How Kushboo is perceived by the baying fan mobs shows the very hypocrisy that underlies the Indian society. The films she starred in capitalised considerably on her very voluptuous body (by current Bollywood standards she would be called fat). She was — and continues to be in a more matronly avatar — a sex bomb to be drooled over. Reading the sexually explicit fan comments over the net about her is an embarrassing exercise for any woman. The most favoured video clips starring her have her dropping her pallu and heaving her considerable bosom in a suhaag raat scene.
But while it is acceptable for her to drape herself around panting heroes in clingy cholis it is definitely not for her to speak her mind about very obvious contemporary realities. “The Tamil film industry, in fact the entire Indian film industry, is predominantly patriarchical. Also, over the last 70 years it has worked to erase the critical faculty of individuals. So it will create deities out of actors and also crash them to the ground on small grounds. Kushboo’s objective views will not be seen objectively but as a moral reflection on the whole society,” says CS Lakshmanan, assistant professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, who has researched the Tamil cultural and film history in depth.
Kushboo started out small in Bollywood, doing bit roles and then moving to Chennai in the 80s to test her luck at Kodambakkam studios. With her plain Jane face and packed figure she reached the top pretty quickly. She mastered Tamil pretty quickly and was fondly referred to as pooshnikai (pumpkin) for her buxom looks.
She stayed at the top for a considerable period with hits like Chinna Thambi, Vetri Vizha, Annamalai and Kizhakku Karai. The one incident that marred her stardom was her alleged affair with a much married Prabhu, the actor son of Sivaji Ganesan. The stormy relationship ended on a very acrimonious note with the star pushed to a hard corner by the Tamil film establishment. This was a tough phase when she had to nearly abandon the career she had fought hard for. Kushboo later married director and actor Sundar C with whom she had two daughters.
“She has taken some really tough knocks in life and fought back quite hard,” says film writer Sreedhar Pillai. “Her experiences have made her a bold individual.”
When younger, and more slender women, displaced her from the perch she moved to television, starring in hit serials like Kungumam and Marumagal. Currently she anchors the massively popular Jackpot on Jaya TV where her diaphanous saris and fitted cholis are the matter of much discussion in the cyberspace.
With her flair for communicating effortlessly with viewers, Kushboo is hard to write off as a screen presence.
When she was attacked for her views the Tamil film fraternity watched from the sidelines, the only support she got came from friend and cerebral actor-director Suhasini Maniratnam. None of the men who starred with her in her super duper hits spoke up for her.