An odd thing happened when model Milind Soman, the 'silver fox' of the advertising industry, revealed his early association with the RSS in his book, 'Made in India: A Memoir'. It turns out that Milind had attended shakha at the instance of his grandfather and to this day, cannot reconcile “the subversive, communal propaganda the media attributes to RSS shakhas” with his own experience.
Milind, as a result, has been dubbed “no longer hot” by 'femiliberals' － as if exposure to the RSS contagion at age 10 has somehow, four decades later, bloomed into a full-blown case of 'knickero-virus' and uglified him. Left-leaning Twitterati, outraged at having discovered a saffron snake in their collective bosom, trolled him (the only known cure for the virus, which calls for the victim to be tarred and feathered on Twitter).
Conversely, his sculptured features, incredible abs and 'chappan inch ki chhati' are an advertisement for the RSS. “Handsome men also join RSS??” tweeted a cute young thing. A wag observed, “If you attend shakha...you'll grow up 'hot' like Milind”. Left-baiters crowed in delight over the “epic meltdown” and “burnol moment” for the 'liberals'. Schadenfreude was given full expression, a kind of payback for 'woke' self-righteousness.
Milind, of course, is no stranger to trolls. He has been trolled earlier, for having found a partner a quarter century younger than him. The spring-autumn romance offended 'ageist' sensibilities, but the happy couple responded to snippy comments with wit and aplomb. As Milind has done to the 'liberal' trolls.
The weirdest response has come from the extreme right. Instead of celebrating the de facto upgrade of the RSS' fuddy-duddy image, they are embarrassed and outraged at the association of the sangh with a guy who once posed in the buff, with a python for a fig-leaf.
The famous 1995 advertisement for Tuff shoes, featuring Milind and supermodel Madhu Sapre in sneakers and come-hither looks, provoked a lawsuit by the moral police. Mercifully, the court dismissed the case, observing that “What may be obscene for a group of society may not be obscene for another group...too conservative an approach cannot stand the test of time”. Twenty-five years after the fact, Milind has moved on but the small-minded, retrogressive vigilantes have not.
Nothing outrages the self-appointed guardians of “Indian culture” more than a reference to the erotic Khajuraho-style temple sculptures found all over the sub-continent. A “vulgar” advertisement cannot be compared with “divine” temple art, they protest. The aesthetic of the human form, in their view, is defined by location and interpretation. Sculptures depicting orgies are fine, because they qualify as temple art and can be explained as evoking divine union. Two beautiful people in a glossy magazine are not, because they are selling shoes. Given that advertisements are recognised as an art form, that distinction doesn't hold good.
Courts of law, unlike vigilantes, don't see obscenity in the human form. Not too long ago, the Kerala High Court admonished the moral police for objecting to a magazine cover featuring a woman breast-feeding: “What may be obscene to some may be artistic to other; one man's vulgarity is another man's lyric”. Vulgarity, said the court, is in the eye of the beholder. If so, the perspective that the human form is indecent and has to be hidden away from sight, lest it corrupt society, is in itself vulgar.
Back to Milind. It is highly unlikely that, at the age of 10, he would have wrapped his head around political distinctions of the conservatives versus liberals variety. He grew up liberal, judging from his autobiography, and lived by his own rules. By 'liberal', we mean the average, apolitical dude who believes in live and let live – as opposed to the intolerant, RSS-bashing 'progressives' who regard dissenting viewpoints as heresy.
As liberals go, Milind Soman is the real deal. The assault on him comes from both quarters: illiberal progressives and hidebound conservatives. Both are haters, opposed to dissension and freedom of speech. Today's so-called liberals have their own secular version of blasphemy, every bit as bigoted as that of a moral police drawing on outdated notions of 'purity'.
Liberals can be found on both sides of the political divide. The point being that a liberal doesn't just respect gender parity, sexual orientation and secular values; she also respects freedom of speech and expression and most of all, the freedom to make choices.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.