The Curious Case of a Bollywood Beauty

Khushboo, a Muslim actress turned atheist is deified and worshipped. What does this say about our obsession with stardom?

Nakhat Khan grew up in a conservative Muslim household in Bombay. In the late seventies, her mother’s friend, a film producer, asked if she would let Nakhat play a small part in a film as a child artist. Her mom, a conservative Muslim, reluctantly agreed to let her act in the film.

What started as a one-film endeavour continued into long innings. Nakhat saw early success as a child artist, receiving accolades for her role as a twelve-year-old stricken with cancer. Encouraged, she continued with films and dropped out of school when she was in eighth grade. But, there were few takers for the grown up girl in Bollywood, the hub of Hindi cinema. The young struggling actress wouldn’t have dreamt, even in her wildest dreams, of what was to come.

Thirty years on, Nakhat’s destiny has dramatically changed. She moved from Bombay to Madras to work in South Indian films where she became the heartthrob of millions of fans. Known by her screen name Khushboo, she is a popular film star who acted in over one hundred Indian films. She continues to host popular game shows on TV, and produces Tamil serials and films.

Khushboo, meaning fragrance, sizzled the silver screen, titillating millions of fans with her voluptuous curves and buxom beauty. Her male fans leered, jeered, ogled and drooled at her celluloid avatar. Some fans were so inspired by her well-rounded bosom and bottom that they created a brand of hot steaming idlis (round, soft and fluffy steam cooked rice dumplings served with spicy chutneys) called Khushboo Idli.

Thousands of enterprising street vendors took the opportunity, made and sold millions of hot steaming Khushboo Idlis, served with spicy chutneys. New age food bloggers posted recipes online and created YouTube videos showing how to make the perfect Khushboo Idli.

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Some fans revere Khushboo. So great and enduring was their reverence for her that they felt she was worthy of being worshiped as a goddess. They pooled in money, collected donations and constructed the Khushmambika temple in Tiruchirapalli, a small south Indian city, where she is, till date worshiped as Goddess Khushboo. Breathing life to their whims and fancies, her fans reincarnated her from a sexy siren into a divine deity with a custom built temple.

As a little girl praying to Allah, Nakhat would never have imagined that one day she would be added to the repertoire of Gods and Goddesses in India’s polytheistic mythology. However, unlike other goddesses of yore, many of whom are merely sidekicks to their male compatriots, Khushboo’s entrée into the annals of India’s polytheistic Goddom was rather unusual.

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Khushboo relinquished Islam. She is now a self-professed atheist. But she is a living, breathing goddess to her fans who conduct prayer rituals three times a day – morning, noon and night – in her temple. In the sanctum sanctorum, the priest chants special mantras and offers a fire lit with camphor to honour Goddess Khushboo’s deity. Fans burn incense, offer coconuts and donate money, seeking her divine blessings. They take prasad food blessed by the deity, to be shared with everyone else in their family.

The President and treasurer of Khushboo Fans Association, along with other fans, use money collected from donations for social causes such as free education and free meals for the poor. But curiously, Khushboo herself has never visited the Khushambika temple nor has she sought blessings from her own deified self. This living breathing goddess has never made an appearance to her devout fans, who long to see her in flesh and blood.

Khushboo was loved not just by men. Women loved her too. Designs of saris she draped were sold under a new brand name – Khushboo saris. Millions of Khushboo saris were sold across the state of Tamil Nadu. But when she wore a sari with prints of male gods on it, there was an uproar.

Hindu groups demanded an apology from her for insulting Hindu gods and hurting sentiments of Hindus. Speaking to a newspaper, Arjun Sampath, the president of the Hindu group fumed:

The sari prominently displays images of Lord Rama and Lord Krishna, dearer to Hindus, while its border has the images of Sri Hanuman, who was a bachelor. This is not the first time she has shown wanton disrespect to Hindu beliefs. Hence, we demand an apology.

Curiously, despite being deified as a Hindu goddess, some Hindu groups choose to remember her as a Muslim who merely changed her name from Nakhat Khan to Khushboo. Despite relinquishing Islam, some Muslim groups invite her to Iftar parties hosted during the holy month of Ramadan to give lectures on Islam.

Being deified and worshiped as a goddess did not stop Khushboo from being the centre of controversy. In 2005, she was accused of outraging public decency and had twenty-two cases filed against her.

Why?

In an interview for an AIDS awareness campaign, Khushboo said, “It was not wrong for women to have pre-marital sex as long as they took precautions.” She also said that it was also “not fair of any educated youth to expect his wife to be a virgin”. Her male fans who ogled and drooled at her found that to be unacceptable. They were enraged. Some of them pelted stones at her deity, shouted slogans, burnt her effigy and desecrated parts of her temple.

Several cases were filed against her across Tamil Nadu in various courts under different sections of the Indian penal code. Even the high court rejected her appeal to dismiss the cases against her. Chief Justice of the High court of Tamil Nadu, KG Balakrishnan was not sympathetic towards her arguments.

It is difficult to digest her statement. We cannot accept her contention that she did not commit any offence

But India’s Supreme Court has dismissed all the cases against her. Supporting her, the judges cited Hindu scriptures and said that even Hindu Gods Krishna and Radha were cohabiting lovers.

In India, the popular adage “we are like this only” makes its presence felt in everyday life through religious, commercial and socio-cultural manifestations. The bizarre and mundane choices that millions of people make in their everyday life reflect a deeply complex society where women are objectified, deified, worshiped and harassed.

In this context, where a million microcosmic realities co-exist, thrive and conflict with each other, the curious case of this buxom Bollywood beauty makes for an extraordinary anthropological observation. In attempting to observe human obsession with star worship and examine the nuances of this peculiar phenomenon, we could perhaps find a Venn diagram showcasing the intersection of the bizarre, humorous and perverse.

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