A group of diners seated around a dinner table engaged in small talk would be an innocuous scene in nearly any film, but in the hands of Spanish director Luis Buñuel, things can only take a bizarre turn. In The Phantom of Liberty (1974), Buñuel depicts a group of people seated on toilets around a dinner table, leafing through newspapers and magazines that have been laid out before them. Almost no conversation, including a detailed discussion of excreta, is taboo—but they are forbidden to talk about food. Then, one by one, they begin to excuse themselves to go surreptitiously into a small room where each person in turn furtively eats his or her dinner.
This inversion of norms regarding what may be made public or must be kept private is a foreboding allegory for our media-saturated world. A contemporary Indian updating of Buñuel’s scene might involve a middle-class family gathered around a dinner table, oblivious to hardcore pornography playing on the television set, while someone excuses herself in order to guiltily watch Kyunki Saas bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi alone. Pornography, which was a private secret, now becomes a public secret—a truth that is universally recognized even though it cannot be publicly acknowledged. The coexistence of archaic laws that outlaw obscenity and markets that openly sell pornography via cheap DVDs, along with legislators caught by television cameras as they watch porn in assembly meetings, is testimony to this paradoxical distortion of the public–private divide.
New technologies and forms of media, and the activities they enable, have played an essential role in such distortions. Of these new phenomena, two are particularly ubiquitous: sting operations that use hidden cameras and other technologies of espionage to produce lurid accounts of corruption; and Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS) videos that use mobile phones to record sexual encounters and transmit them across cellular networks and the Internet. Although the former uncover public corruption and the latter reproduce private sexual encounters, the two phenomena share many important features. Together, they are symptomatic of a larger trend in media consumption, which focuses increasingly on scandals in which the public and private converge.
Consider two examples of these phenomena from recent times in India: the leaked Nira Radia tapes and the infamous Delhi Public School (DPS) sex video case. In the Radia scandal, we listened with glee to Nira Radia’s conversations with Ratan Tata, both about the distribution of mobile phone spectrum and her favourite Roberto Cavalli gown; we were fascinated and horrified in equal measure by political and personal sleaze. The broadcasting and consumption of these private conversations about matters both public and intimate was, in a sense, pornographic (even though it had nothing to do with sexual scandal). The DPS case, in which two students filmed themselves in an intimate encounter, did involve sexual acts; but it was also pornographic in ways that exceeded its content. An IIT Delhi student who put the video clip up for sale on Bazee.com was arrested, as was the site’s CEO, Avnish Bajaj. Ultimately, the real scandal was not the students’ private explicit acts; it was the way in which the video circulated, and how the subsequent legal drama played out publicly.
The DPS clip became a genre-defining video, and a range of similar clips have made their way into public consciousness. The previously unheard phrase “MMS scandal” has now become common. What’s more, sex videos such as the one featuring Congress politician Abhishek Manu Singhvi that emerged in 2012, or the tapes in which Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh not only discussed questionable political and business dealings but also told actress Bipasha Basu that age matters “between the legs”, now sit side-by-side with copies of the DPS video in markets such as Palika Bazaar that are known as porn distribution hubs.
One of the fascinating things about such cases is the relationship between the sexual or corrupt content of the recordings and the ways in which those recordings are made and distributed. In the case of sex videos, there is a sense in which the form seems to be more compelling than the sexual content per se. The proliferation of amateur pornography—a category that encompasses leaked homemade videos; MMS scandals; hidden cameras capturing people bathing or having sex; and sleazy sting operations involving celebrities, politicians, and godmen—which is voyeuristically consumed and circulated via mobile phones and the Internet, may seem surprising given the superabundance and easy availability of professional pornography. But it’s in large part the very amateurishness of these productions that attracts people. Unlike professional pornography, which so often strives to represent ideal pornographic bodies—blonde women with large breasts and men with gigantic penises—amateur pornography is often blurry, and viewers are at times barely able to make out what is happening. But these videos are fascinating precisely because they are, in some sense, so real; they immerse us in private acts,the reality of which is certified by the low quality of the images and sound. Moreover, in cases in which such videos are illicitly distributed, the very fact that they make public something intended to remain private seems to be one of their most compelling features.
Along with this fascination, however, comes a certain fear and disgust. In her work on MMS scandals, writer Namita Malhotra suggests that watching amateur pornography is less an erotic experience and more an uncanny one: a person watching such videos sees a relatively normal body occupying familiar physical spaces (sofas, living rooms, elevators, bathrooms, etc). Even though it is fascinating to watch a normal body in such settings, there is something too familiar about it; it is as if one is watching a mirror image of one’s private self trapped in the public format of the video. On some level, there is a realization that the video could have captured one’s own most intimate moments, and that these could have been distributed against one’s will.
Here, too, there are close links to political corruption. While we could justify our interest in sting operations by claiming that they are necessary acts of resistance to abuses of power, the fact of the matter is that much of the pleasure that we derive from such scandals has little to do with issues of public interest. There is almost something pornographic about them. In an important work on contemporary corruption, historian Ruth A Miller argues that the discourse of corruption has always been underwritten by an erotic charge. This is evident, for example, in the language used to describe the revelation of impropriety; we talk of “denuding someone”, “naked truth”, “pardaphaash karna” (to expose), etc. For Miller, one of the defining characteristics of the erotic is its disintegration of established boundaries. Such disintegration also characterizes the exposure of corruption, which often appears to be more compelling to us than the corruption itself.
Indeed, we live in an era fascinated by the violation of privacy, even if we don’t call it that. One of the paradoxes is that even as we see a rise in formal claims of privacy (from outrage every time Google or Facebook changes its policies to objections against the UID project), we are simultaneously engaged in ordinary practices that violate or negate our own and others’ privacy. Denials of privacy are written into Facebook’s legal contract, to which we freely agree; and they are also part of the unwritten social contract we accept when we inhabit the world of social media. The lurker, the voyeur, and the stalker are no longer beasts from whom we protect ourselves; they are identities that we all occasionally adopt.
In such a situation, it should not come as a surprise that the hidden camera has also been inserted into India’s legal imagination. Through a number of court cases and decisions, acts of private intrusion that might once have been either morally ambiguous or entirely taboo have now become publicly endorsed and celebrated. One of the most important of such cases was that of Aniruddha Bahal, who was prosecuted for his role in the revelation of the parliamentary “cash for questions” scandal. Bahal was one of the pioneers of public-interest sting operations; at Tehelka, he conducted some of the most famous covert investigations, including one into the fixing of cricket matches and one that revealed corruption in the granting of defense contracts. In the court’s decision, Bahal was hailed almost as a hero upholding his constitutional duties. In answering questions about whether citizens have a right to conduct sting operations to reveal corruption, the court held that the fundamental duties of a citizen include the duty to “cherish and follow the noble ideals which inspired our national struggle for freedom” (Article 51A(b)); it went on to say that one of the “noble ideals of our national struggle for freedom was to have an independent and corruption free India”. The judge in the case, Justice Dhingra, concluded thus: “I consider that the duties prescribed by the Constitution of India for the citizens of this country do permit citizens to act as agent provocateurs to bring out and expose and uproot the corruption.”
In all such cases, the courts are faced with the task of making sense of the phenomenon of sting operations and the capabilities given to us by the hidden camera. Although there has been a tacit recognition of the dangers of hidden cameras in a world that demands instant sensationalism of all issues, a new kind of citizen-spectator has also been propped up. The courts have given us a legal justification for the use of hidden cameras, and there has been a sort of incorporation of this technology into conceptions of a new Indian citizen—a techno-social being whose duties include surveillance. Thus, a technology that is morally ambiguous has been rendered normal by its insertion into the heart of our legal system, much as the violation of privacy has been inserted into the heart of the experience of cyberspace via social media. Buñuel’s dinner table is now a national banquet to which we are all invited.