The Centre Spread Unevenly

In this excerpt from Lucknow Boy, our former editor recounts how he came to edit Debonair and his juiciest adventures thereafter
The Centre Spread Unevenly
Narendra Bisht

Some time in the middle of 1973, a young entrepreneur named Susheel Somani, owner of the G. Claridge printing press—one of the best in India­—­launched Debonair. It was floated as a monthly ‘men’s’ magazine, which the promoters characterised as the Ind­ian Playboy. Rediffusion, run by Arun Nanda and the late Kersi Katrak, was the hottest advertising agency in town and they produced a series of mouth-watering ‘teaser’ ads. I don’t know if there was any awards system at that time, but had there been one, the Debonair campaign would have won hands down. The ads naturally aroused huge expectations about the product, tinged with slight unease. Where were the indigenous ‘centrespreads’, ie semi-nude female models, going to be procured from?

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Early venture Vinod Mehta remodelled Debonair into an elegant magazine with great features, fiction and a clean design
Susheel Somani hired a self-styled and self-titled British journalist, Count Anthony Van Braband, to be the editor, and Ashok Row Kavi as his deputy. They didn’t have any problems with the female models snag. Since both were practising hom­o­­sexuals (Ashok is today a prominent gay rights activist), the pictorial content of the magazine concentrated heavily on muscular, pretty, fair, semi-nude men in figure-enhancing briefs. One or two girls were strategically thrown in but their function was to add to the sweaty loveliness of the poofy males. A girlie magazine, then, was being edited by two active homosexuals! Count Braband’s journalistic credentials were the source of some mystery, and rumour had it he had been recommended by a rich English widow living in Breach Candy who had a fondness for gin and experimental sex. Ashok Row Kavi’s professional reputation was much more solid.

It didn’t take long for the Debonair story to go sour. By the end of 1973, the owners were thinking of calling it quits. The Count disappeared. Ashok Row Kavi followed him.

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I had watched the progress of Debonair with interest, and when I heard of its imminent closure, I picked up pen and paper and wrote to Susheel Somani, offering my suspect services. I also attached a detailed note of how, if given a chance, I would revive the ailing publication.

For some weeks I got no response and assumed my proposal had been thrown into the wastepaper basket. Then, out of the blue, I got a call from Mr Somani, asking me to meet him at the Sea Lounge in the Taj Mahal Hotel.

What happened next was a miracle. Because I was desperate to get out of advertising, I pleaded with Susheel to give me just six months with Debonair. If I failed, he would not lose much. However, if I succ­ee­ded, I would rejuvenate the title, or so I promised, without dem­­­and for additional editorial resources.

I was hired. Salary? Rs 2,500 a month, plus a reasonable entertainment allowance. I was given a free hand to perform major surgery on the magazine with one condition: the semi-nude female ‘centrespreads’ would stay, and the semi-nude males would go. I agreed to the terms immediately.

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***

Dressed in white kurta-pyjama (no FabIndia then) and Kohlapuri chappals, signature togs during my Debonair days, I arrived at my new office housed in a printing press on Shahid Bhagat Singh Road. I knew the magazine was headless, but I had two able staffers. Both were female, one a middle-aged spinster, the other in her teens. They had little in common and quarrelled incessantly. What united them was a deep hatred for pictures of naked women. Colour transparencies carrying such filth would never touch their hands. Indeed, the spinster, sensing I might consult her on a nude matter, would flee to the bathroom with her boiled egg, and stay there till the danger had passed.


Illustrations by Mihir Srivastava

While the odds seemed stacked against me, I had one slice of unexpected luck. The art director turned out to be a prodigy, even though he was deaf and dumb. To call M.G. Moinuddin talented would be an understatement. Moinuddin began life as a linotype operator and gradually taught himself design and typography by reading book after book on the subject.

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A couple of hours after talking to him, I knew I had a genuine professional to assist me. Unlike Moinuddin, I had read no books on design. Nevertheless, I recognised at once that Debonair needed a completely new look. Accordingly, I spent hours at the American Library at Churchgate plundering back-issues of Esquire and the New Yorker and anything else I could lay my hands on. Close to my flat existed a lending library named Shemaroo. They are big boys now, but in 1974 Shemaroo was a cubbyhole. The owners reserved for me in dirty brown envelopes copies of Playboy and Penthouse. The hire-charges were by the hour. Any page whose design seemed striking, I photocopied. Soon, I accumulated sundry pages of neatly laid-out edit matter. The Sunday colour magazines distributed free with the London Observer and the Sunday Times also proved useful. Mea­nwhile, Moinuddin was collecting his own cuttings. We were a team.

Susheel Somani had mandated the inclusion of two nudes: the more ambitious, domestic ‘centrespread’ and the syndicated foreign variety purchased from King Features for Rs 40. I had decided early on to lift the concept of the holding one-to-one interview from Playboy. The rest of the magazine I would fill with upmarket literary, social and cultural stuff, plus an exhaustive reviews section. The design for the rev­iews section I copied mostly from the two British Sunday papers. Even before I sat on the chair, I accepted an inescapable reality: the Indian nudes in Debonair would be abominable. Cheap is a better word. Hippies, film extras, whores, out-of-work cabaret dancers and occasionally girlfriends of photographers. We paid the princely sum of 250 rupees as model fee. And got what we paid for. This core deficiency I planned to compensate for with an ‘intellectual’ features section—highbrow, radical, lively and written, hopefully, by the best and the brightest.

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My Lucknow friends believed I was screwing every Debonair centrespread. In fact, they were convinced sleeping with me was a prerequisite for appearing in the sacred space. Those I didn’t seduce, I had the pleasure of watching being photographed au naturel. (Is that what you did or what your friends thought you did? Not clear.) One school buddy who came to my flat was sorely disappointed to see me without a luscious babe in my arms. “Where are the girls?” he asked, as he went looking from room to room.


Rustled Before the ubiquitous porn on the net, Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler shared the market for adult magazines. The first two were references for Mr Mehta when he relaunched Debonair.

In planning and commissioning the first issue, I faced a major hurdle. No one was prepared to contribute to Debonair. The early exit of the previous editor and the induction of one who had to his credit just two dubious paperbacks, one of which eulogised prostitutes, did not inspire confidence. The writers I contacted fobbed me off with let-me-see-your-first-issue excuses. I was left with no option but to write the entire issue under various pseudonyms. A junior copywriter I had hired at Jaisons pitched in with one article.

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I dispatched a begging letter to Tiger Pataudi to which, surprisingly, I got a positive reply. Once the main interview was fixed, the features were relatively easy to put together. ‘The woman I fantasised about’, the last page diary ‘Psst...’ which I logged under Gikki (a family pet name), ‘The new morality’...all came from a single pen. Mine.

Quotes and brief excerpts—courtesy Colin Wilson, Norman Mailer, Nietzche, Henry Miller, Eldridge Cleaver, Masters & Johnson, The Economist—were liberally sprinkled. I became the sole books critic and for the lead review I critiqued Gore Vidal’s novel Burr. Pocket cartoons were filched, with credit, from the New Statesman and the New Yorker. I could and should have been booked for wholesale robbery.

For reasons outlined earlier, the centrespread was an exp­ected disaster in terms of aesthetics, photography and tits. Therefore, I ended my first editorial with the following excuse: “Just before I sign off, can I ask all you wonderful guys who keep asking for a ‘bolder’ Debonair to be a little patient. Believe me I am on your side. But give us some time. In the interim get some culture in!”

Illustrations by Mihir Srivastava

In April 1974, when the first issue under my editorship hit the stands, the verdict ‘not bad’ did not displease me or the owners. Moinuddin had produced the first drawingboard-conceived and designed publication in India with flair, style, coherence and a visual neatness never seen before. The use of large quotes and blurbs, the extensive utilisation of free space, screen on text, clearly designated sections, five-letter drops, mini illustrations to provide relief, graphics, new bodycopy font, pleased the rea­­der’s eye. Panna Jain, India’s foremost designer at the time, said to me, “Fantastic. But I wish it wasn’t a nude magazine”.

Enter Ruskin Bond. Just as I joined Debonair, we started serialising Ruskin’s novella, The Sensualist. The Sensualist was a departure for Mr Bond, as he modestly explains: “Just now and then I let my hair down and ind­ulge in a little gentle ribaldry, but you can relax.... I am not about to offer you a plateful of porn. The Sensualist is a story of a man ens­laved by an overpowering sex drive, but it takes him on the downward spiralling road to self-destruction; you could even say it has a moral.”


Frills & Thrills Girlie magazines in the ’50s and ’60s, like those arrayed here, had to operate under strict controls. Titillation was an art defined by codes.

Alas, the moral escaped the att­ention of some people. “On a summer’s day,” says Ruskin, “while I was enjoying the shade of a maple tree outside my Mussoorie home, a policeman appeared before me with a warrant for my arrest. It was a non-bailable warrant. The policeman was not from the local station. He had come all the way from Bombay to apprehend me. There was an obscenity charge hanging over me and the warrant declared that I was absconding from the law.”

The Sensualist turned into a cause celebre. It was to India what the Lady Chatterley’s Lover case was to Britain. I seized the opportunity. In court, along with Ruskin, we produced doyens like Mulk Raj Anand, Vijay Tendulkar and Nissim Ezekiel to defend the literary merit of the novella. Mr Bond and The Sensualist got an honourable acquittal and Debonair got some honourable publicity as a publication which offered ‘literature’ as well as nude women.

I was on my way. It would be an exaggeration to claim that the lions of journalism and those on the literary firmament were lining up outside my office to offer their services. However, they no longer put the phone down when I called.

***

As I was settling down as editor, the Emergency broke. I got a call from Raj Bhavan, informing me that the Information and Broadcasting minister, V.C. Shukla, required my presence. I was asked to bring along all visual and written material slated for the next issue. I felt both flattered and anxious. Flattered because my presence and Debonair’s existence had been noted by those strangling the free press, and anxious because this was the first time I was coming face-to-face with officialdom.

I need not have worried. Mr Shukla was amiable, suave and curious. Under no circumstances, he commanded, were we to drop an issue, as some others had done; but we must be careful. He wanted to see the centrespread scheduled for the next number. I produced half a dozen transparencies. His eye fell upon one which was 90 per cent nude. He kept it to one side. I enquired if we should perhaps skip the centrespread. He was horrified. “No,” he said, “just make it decent.” Decent centrespread? I collected the photographs spread before him and prepared to leave. The nude transparency, the one he had kept on one side, Shukla pocketed without permission.

In 1974 Protima Bedi on Juhu beach, but not for Debonair
The next month’s centrespread was even more revolting. The breasts were covered with an ugly, dense dupatta. The Emergency had taken its toll on our naked women!

Did I defy the Emergency? Did I opp­­­ose Indira Gandhi’s repressive regime? Not much. I was not sent to prison, neither did I go underground. My single act of resistance centred aro­­und Kuldip Nayar, recently out of jail. I got the Emergency hero to write a column under the byline ‘Hindwasi’. Kuldip would send his badly typed, uns­igned piece to Debonair in a post-office purchased envelope. Opening it gave me a thrill. I was fighting the Eme­­rgency!

Actually, Kuldip’s Delhi Diary was pretty tame stuff, even if you read between the lines. In December 1976, he wrote: “The end of the year brings to my mind all kinds of thoughts. I would not like to relive 1976. Many things that happened have killed something within me. But then tragedy must show us the worst; but the worst redeemed by a vision of the beauty of goodness...the world is indeed worse than what we had imagined.” Only Susheel Somani and I knew the identity of the author.

From the sublime to the ridiculous. Kabir Bedi, then a rising Bollywood star, had emerged as the sole spokesman intelligently defending our magazine. In interview after interview, he asked if we were a nation of prudes and hypocrites. He welcomed Debonair’s brave attempt to make India proud of its heritage, like in Khajuraho. The naked female body was a thing to celebrate, he argued. Of course, only till such time as the naked female body did not belong to his wife.

I had got to know Protima Bedi well. She shared her husband’s views on the naked body; only she was genuine. So, when I got a call from her asking if I would like to have a look at some ‘lovely’ pictures of her in the raw, I could hardly contain my enthusiasm. The pictures were more than ‘lovely’, they were a knockout—bea­­utifully shot and composed, evoking

Pro­­­­tima’s scrumptious dark anatomy mag­­n­i­ficently. I quickly sent her a model contract form, which she signed. I barged into Susheel Somani’s cabin: “Your won’t believe it, but we have Protima Bedi’s nudes!” It was a coup.

In the ’70s, four-colour printing was a lab­orious process; you printed one colour at a time—red, yellow, black and blue. We had printed two of the four colours when Kabir rang. He did not sound friendly. Would I immediately return the Protima pictures, they were not to be used. Too late, chum, I told him, they are already on the machine, being printed.

The next day two Bollywood heavies—oily mou­stache, technicolour handkerchief aro­und neck, menacing rings on fingers—arr­ived unannounced. “Sahib ne bola photo nahi chha­pne ka hai.” (Sahib said the pictures are not to be printed) they thundered. One of them rudely stubbed his cigarette on my ashtray.

A couple of hours later, Protima rang. She was distraught. “Kabir is behaving like a bastard. He says his career will be ruined if the pictures are published. Can you help?” She disclosed her marriage was on the line. The last plea, break-up of marriage, got me. With great difficulty and enormous cost we pulled the centrespread off the machine. “I’ll make it up to you,” Protima promised. She never did.


A former India No. 7 in table tennis and third-class BA pass,Vinod Mehta edited two magazines, three daily newspapers and a weekly newspaper in a 38-year career

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