Ranveer Singh’s exposed ass has become an issue of national concern. Ever since Paper Magazine featured a series of nude and semi-nude photographs of Ranveer Singh, social media went berserk. Two FIRs were filed against the actor on grounds of obscenity and hurting the sentiments of women. Vedika Chaubey, one of the complainants, appeared on national television and claimed that Ranveer Singh’s open arse is a “national issue.”
I too had shared the viral video clip of Vedika Chaubey, where she makes the outrageous claim about Ranveer Singh’s ass, primarily for comic relief. But comedy’s repressed unconscious is sombre truth. There are several reasons for Ranveer Singh’s naked body to irk the moral vigilantes and stir a national controversy. To understand the full import of the discomfort that this naked body has generated, one must locate it within the larger context of his stardom --- his quirky sense of fashion, his non-normative masculine disposition, and his on-screen persona that refuses to tread the straight paths of heterosexual romance. All these feed off each other and contribute towards the production of an iconic personality that exposes the limits and possibilities of masculinity, and redefines what it means to be a man in the Indian public imagination. I will locate the moral outrage against Singh’s nude photographs vis-à-vis some of these other aspects of his personality.
Ranveer Singh’s fashion is often loud, extravagant, and campy. He has been seen wearing Scottish kilts (resembling a skirt), flaunting a nose ring/nath, and sporting high heels with sequin pants. In the opening episode of Season Seven of ‘Koffee with Karan’, Karan Johar claims to have “outed” Ranveer Singh by divulging that he buys and wears clothes from the women’s section. Here is the first contradiction. Ranveer Singh possesses an ideal masculine body — his chiselled, muscular, Vitruvian body is what the dreams, desires, and aspirations of the average Indian middle-class man are made of. The image of such a body is sold by popular culture, the beauty and the fitness industry; it is everywhere around us — from gyms, to billboards, to television, and the big screen. Yet, when such an ideal masculine body appears in public wearing gender transgressive clothes or apparel that are too flamboyant to be contained within the status quoist demands of heteronormative masculinity, it generates anxiety and paranoia. This is primarily an anxiety of identification: the inability to accurately fix the body in a given place and assign it a singular meaning.
In his book, Muscular India: Masculinity, Mobility And The New Middle Class (2020), Michiel Baas notes that even though Salman Khan’s movie Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya (1998) popularized fitness training and bodybuilding, it is only Shah Rukh Khan’s six pack abs and lean muscular body in Om Shanti Om (2007) and Aamir Khan’s brawny physique in Ghajini (2008), that India witnessed a boom in gym membership and personal training. In Michiel Baas’ words, these films sold “a new bodily ideal among middle-class men in India, characterized by bulging biceps, rock-hard abs and visibly pronounced pecs.” At the 63rd Filmfare awards, when Ranveer Singh yells “marry me Shah Rukh” at Shah Rukh Khan from the audience, we realize that he is already wedded to him, aesthetically, in that his body is sculpted in the legacy which Shah Rukh Khan has left behind. However, Singh’s perfectly chiselled muscular body does not peddle the path of normative masculinity. His queer pronouncement, “marry me Shah Rukh,” alongside his gender transgressive and flamboyant outfits, upsets the normative expectations of such a body.
A closer look at Ranveer Singh’s filmography will reveal, that, this irony of claiming a masculine body yet stripping its normative connotations of virility and belligerence, animates the script of most of his films. Ram flaunts his oiled torso, dances and thrusts his pelvic in the “tattad tattad” song sequence in Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ramleela (2013), and boasts before his fellow men “meri mardangi ke baarey mein kuch bhi pooch sakte ho, report acchi hi milegi,” while simultaneously expressing disdain for the toxic masculine behaviour of his clan. Bikram Bose in Gunday (2014) and Alauddin Khilji in Padmaavat (2018) may appear roguish in their pursuit of heterosexual desire, yet their labour of love and lust weigh more on the side of the respective characters’ homo-social/erotic tendencies. The titular protagonist of Simmba (2018) might be a hypermasculine, brutal, and corrupt police officer but has a tender and sensitive heart who respects women, and is awkward in front of them. Jayesh Patel threatens to castrate himself as an act of protest against his misogynist and hetero-patriarchal father’s demand for a male child in Jayeshbhai Jordaar (2022). In all these and his other films, the physical appearance of Ranveer Singh does not complement the tenderness of his demeanour. Prathyush Parasuraman has rightly observed that Ranveer Singh’s filmography “feels like a corrective to the machismo that has become irretrievably fused with masculinity.”
Shannon Philip in his book Becoming Young Men in A New India (2022), demonstrates how in the Indian public culture men are regularly desexualized while women are hypersexualized. This is the reason why men peeing on the streets are a frequent sight in India that is neither policed, nor censored, nor amounts to obscenity, while even the slightest skin show by a woman is enough to break all hell loose. In his ethnographic study, Philip has shown the extent of desexualization by using the example of multiple Indian men simultaneously using a single public urinal for peeing. Philip’s conjectures are important in that it allows us to see how the only time men are sexualized in public is through the moniker of violence. If men peeing on the streets are a sight that is overlooked, the other common sight is men jerking off or flashing their dicks before women, trans folx, and queers.
Ranveer Singh’s naked body militates against all these gestures of normative Indian masculinity. Here is a man who incessantly sexualizes himself and his body not through the rubric of violence, but pleasure. To my knowledge, Singh is the only Bollywood celeb till date to have appeared in a condom advertisement. He makes two very important announcements in the ‘Koffee with Karan’ episode: one, in which he has multiple sex playlists and he was full of energy on his suhaag raat. Second, he confesses his posterior passion and claims that he has a fetish for asses. He calls himself an “ass-man.” In Befikre (2016), the audience does get a full view of his rear side for a very brief moment. The article in Paper Magazine, which carried his nude photographs, concludes with his words: “I work fucking hard. I want to wear nice shit. Eat my fucking ass, I will wear nice fucking shit … Anybody who judges me can eat my fucking ass.” This relentless projection of the ass as a site of pleasure generates a paranoid response because conventionally anal pleasure is associated with sexual minorities. This is the second contradiction. As a man in a heterosexual companionate marriage, when Ranveer Singh asserts that he is obsessed with asses, he throws his spectators into an endless pit of moral and sexual confusion. This confusion does not sit too well with the heteronormative moral brigade whose only weapon is censorship. After all, how does one make sense of a male body that is cisgender but clothed in gender transgressive apparel, muscular but defies the codes of rigid masculinity, heterosexual but fantasizes anal pleasures?
Once the nude photographs of Ranveer Singh swirled through the various social media platforms, many people rightly observed that he is not the first Indian male celeb to have participated in a nude photoshoot. Aditya Pancholi, Jackie Shroff, Kabir Bedi, Milind Soman among others have previously posed naked in front of the camera. While Milind Soman did face obscenity charges, there was no hullaballoo about the others. Another time the buttocks generated headlines was 15 years ago, in November 2007, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s promise to his audience of offering a delectable view of Ranbir Kapoor’s ass was met with opposition by the Central Board of Film Certification. The director was given two options by the CBFC: either censor the towel-dropping scene in the “jab se tere naina” song sequence in Saawariya, which would have exposed the butt crack of the debutant actor, or pass off with an ‘A’ certificate. Bhansali had settled with the former option, thereby, disallowing the nation to take a glance at Ranbir Kapoor’s derrière.
However, if one closely observes the various memes that are flooding social media after the Paper Magazine article, one will realize that the controversy around Milind Soman’s nude pictures or the censorship debacle around Bhansali’s Saawariya is significantly different than the contemporary outrage against Singh. Many of these memes are brandishing him as either a homosexual or a gigolo. What is it then about Ranveer Singh’s naked body that has generated so much anxiety and irked the moral vigilantes? One could say that through his extravagant style and indulgence in campy fashion, as well as his choice of cinematic roles that break away from the script of the patronizing and chauvinistic hero of Hindi cinema, alongside sculpting a conventionally titillating muscular body contra the virile associations of masculinity, Ranveer Singh’s nude photoshoot is unique and remarkedly different from all those men who bared before him in front of the camera. Unlike those naked bodies, Singh’s open arse does not release a singular meaning because the impression of this body is complicated by a bewildering sense of non-normative fashion and other queer pronouncements.
When Ranveer Singh stands naked with his hands outstretched, or strikes a dancing pose by gently resting his hands in the air, or gazes gently into the camera, or tenderly lies upside down on a rug on the floor having exposed and exhausted everything, or rests his body sideways on his arm — waiting to be painted like one of those French girls — he softly, delicately, and vulnerably offers his body for consumption by everyone who is a connoisseur of beauty, art, love, life, and above all, pleasure. This is an audacious and dangerous feat, especially for the morally scrupulous and the meek-hearted. But Ranveer Singh’s nude pictures are a thing of delight for everyone willing to live life on its throbbing edges — with ecstasy, passion, trippiness, and spark.
(Rahul Sen is a PhD Candidate in the Department of English at Tufts University. His areas of specialization include queer theory, psychoanalysis, literary studies, and cinema. He was a Critical Writing Instructor in the Young India Fellowship programme at Ashoka University from 2017-20.)