This is a stylish book, taking a leaf from the world it explores, the world of high fashion. The writer carried out research during 2003-07, specifically interviews with thirty models, fieldwork at the annual Lakme Fashion Week(s), and tracking the growth of the Indian glamour industry. She wrote her PhD, but for the book eschews sociological jargon in favour of a lucid, quasi-light tone. Emphasizing that models are working women, the book offers a wealth of insights into their lives and varied experiences.
Tina (one of the models) asserts, ‘Modelling is a job like any other…. It is real work.’ Not only is the work fraught with uncertainties and informalities, but is a `temporary profession’, with few landmarks or rules of procedure. This leaves new entrants extremely vulnerable. For instance, Pragati, promised Rs 1,500 for her first modelling assignment with a garment company, was never paid; she recalls, ‘I just assumed that I have done work for you, you will pay me for it. I was very innocent.’
When Josy, from Kerala, set up Models United in Mumbai in 2002, a hundred models joined the union. They drew up rules regarding payment, hours of work, cancellation of shows, and sexual harassment. The industry was booming, yet clients and choreographers refused to meet the union’s demands, and it soon collapsed. With teeming young girls clamouring for a big break, models who demanded a fair deal found their assignments thinning. An international agency, claiming to protect the interests of models and promote their careers, explains how rates are set: ‘We see the work they are doing, their demand in the market, and what we can get away with.’
Gurpreet points out, ‘There are so many double standards here. But we have to bear it. We are not the ones who call the shots.’ Though models are integral to the industry, they are seldom respected as creative collaborators. Rather, as Swati muses, designers ‘don’t think of you as a human being really, just as a puppet whom they will mould according to their vision.’ Models like Mayuri from rural Assam are subjected to a further layer of viciousness: ridicule and intolerance because of perceived deficit in terms of cultural capital—English, modernity and urbanity.
The glossy image a model sells via her portfolio is invariably a far cry from her everyday reality. Modelling is an act: going onto the ramp, she transforms into the epitome of lazy poise and confident self-control. On exiting the spotlight, once again her demeanour changes; may be hesitant, timid, and ordinary. Yet, the playacting often spills like ink into personal life, and she confronts a duality—the (bad) girl in front of the camera and the (good) girl away from it. Models face stigma, are often judged as immoral, hypersexual, available; Gurpreet points out, ‘No man wants to get serious with a model. You leave modelling in case someone does marry you because he or the family will not tolerate it.’ Kamal says, ‘I knew this is what I love doing… I loved to walk the ramp but family being against, this being against, that being against… too much stress to handle.’
Conjuring up an interesting device, Bhattacharjya places sex workers at one end of the `stigmometer’, followed by models, bar dancers and nautanki actors, nuns at the other, ‘cold’ end. This linear rubric, based on the index of sexuality, to my mind, fails to capture the complexity of social stigma, which operates, for instance, at the intersections of sexuality and caste. It is a dangerous half-truth that sees bar dancers or nautanki actors (who are the butt of caste-cum-sexuality prejudice) as less stigmatized than models.
Despite the prejudice they face, several models do wrest a measure of control over their lives. Kavita from Agra enjoys cosmopolitan freedom and anonymity of Delhi. Realizing how haphazard and unstructured the fashion industry is, she set herself a plan, and works across TV, print and ramp to outplay the vagaries inherent in modelling.
For all its fascinating insights, the book presents its main protagonists’ lives only as snippets, spread across theme-based chapters. I miss the delicious fullness of life-narratives. So we may come across Noelle or Shivani or Pragati more than once, but are hard put to join the dots, scattered in different places. It’s nice to know, towards the end, that ‘one opened a restaurant with her savings as the sun set on her modelling career’, but who was she, and what enabled her to set up this new career? It’s sad to know that ‘one, the one who had opened the doors for my fieldwork, took her own life, hanging herself in her flat in Mumbai’, but it feels more like cheap melodrama rather than serious analysis: for there is no explanation, lead-up, or understanding why.
Models are under relentless pressure to adopt a range of disciplinary practices, including strict regimen of diet, exercise and modes of body sculpting. Swati spent two years working hard on her ‘natural body’, losing weight to suit a Gladrags contest, then changed to a ‘TV body’ by gaining weight and undergoing expensive dental surgery. Mita got a nose job done, a painful procedure where the surgeon drilled and chiselled away at the bone on her nose-bridge, leaving her with bloodshot eyes and discoloured skin for several weeks.
The glamour industry creates a norm for feminine beauty which models exemplify, and which is then used to evaluate and control all women. India has one of the largest number of cosmetic surgeries in the world. Industry insiders claim there is no anorexia among Indian models, but Bhattacharjya cleverly calculated the BMI of 20 of her interviewees, and found all underweight. This norm lures many young girls into semi-starvation; Niharika recalls a hotel waiter telling her about his 13-year old daughter: ‘She considers you a role model. I don’t know what to do with her—she is dieting and doesn’t eat at all. She has been hospitalized.’ Niharika advised the girl to eat healthy, and the right quantity and combination of food; but how far will this advice go, pitted against the media blitzkrieg of ‘perfect’ fantasy bodies?
Feminists have long opposed the marketing of a beauty myth. In 1996, Vimochana, Women’s Voice, Stree Jagruthi Samiti and other women’s groups protested against beauty pageants and the global capitalist tendency to reduce woman and her body to ‘yet another commodity to be bought and sold… leading to increasing degradation and devaluation of women’s true strength and beauty.’ Feminist critique of the beauty-and-fashion industry forms a basis for solidarity with models—the exploited working class within—an angle Bhattacharjya touches upon, but does not explore in depth.
Unwisely instead, the author chooses to denigrate and stereotype older feminists, making sweeping generalizations resting on slim anecdotes: for instance, one older feminist was intolerant of a younger one’s cleavage-revealing clothes, therefore entire earlier generations of feminists were prudes! This kind of dismissal of earlier feminists does injustice to actual radical-cum-socialist feminist positions, which, since the seventies, have challenged patriarchal morality and misogynist cultures, and actively created autonomous politics and lifestyles. Respecting this, lines of continuity and disjuncture in feminist thinking vis-à-vis women’s bodies, gender, sexuality, and work could have been usefully traced, for a better understanding and sharpened perspectives.
There is fashion, and fashion. For many feminists, handloom kurtas and Urmul jackets may be a fashion statement; they may even work with women spinners, weavers, tailors, and embroiderers—several, themselves feminist—seeking to strengthen another kind of political economy, an alternative to dependence on global capital. The feature film Sui-Dhaga, showing a community of out-of-work weavers taking up the challenge of creating an ensemble and entering a fashion contest, is a step—or a leap of imagination—in a similar direction. Mannequin, for all its riches, shortchanges the reader in terms of its limited imaginaries of feminist solidarity, and an uneven grasp of political economy.
Bhattacharjya’s analysis grows disingenuous when she glides from the life of models to the life of the nation: ‘The girls were pushed to “grow up quick”, to transform from ugly ducklings to graceful swans, to perform not just gender but enact class and embody globalization… She embodies with her miraculous transformation how a nation too can transform. Get a “make-over”…Like Pragati or Shivani or Kavita can emerge swan-like with their new-found global knowledge, so can India.’ Is this statement ironical, or just incredibly glib? Bhattacharjya describes her own make-over: ‘In 2015… I am no longer wearing unbranded and inconspicuous jeans and a white shirt that I once thought was classy dressing. No, this time I am in an Anita Dongre russet-coloured kurta with an excellent drape and onion pink (cerise, as they say now) habutai silk harem pants that I bought online…’ We seem to be faced with a writer, who, in interrogating the fashion industry, allows herself to be seduced by its charms. At the same time, she is honest enough to note that globalization places some people on the upside, while it pushes others further into ‘exclusion, rightlessness, and invisibility’.
Thus, for all its contradictions and flaws, this remains a pioneering work, and worth a read.
Deepti Priya Mehrotra, an independent scholar and currently Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, is the author of Gulab Bai: The Queen of Nautanki Theatre, Nautanki ki Malka Gulab Bai, Burning Bright: Irom Sharmila and the Struggle for Peace in Manipur and Home Truths: Stories of Single Mothers (all published by Penguin India).