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.