New Delhi: In the latest issue of men's magazine FHM, Executive Editor Kabeer Sharma described Pakistani women thus: "Their freedom, or the lack of it, has churned out PhD theses comparable only to the size of McDonald burgers."
Little did he imagine that the burger would soon turn into a bomb and the effects of its explosion would be heard across the border.
The magazine has created ripples globally — not because of what Sharma wrote, but for its cover that has controversial Pakistani actress-model Veena Malek posing in the nude.
Even while Malek is facing the wrath of her conservative countrymen, Sharma is being accused of being part of the media with its own selfish motives which many times turn lesser-known names into instant celebrities.
Sharma maintains he has been wronged. He said, "We are clearly saying that if it affronts anyone's sensibilities, they should not buy the magazine." At the same time he is not worried about the legal battle ahead.
He sets the record straight in an exclusive interview to Gulf News.
GULF NEWS: What was the thought process while deciding to approach Veena Malek for FHM?
KABEER SHARMA: It wasn't us. Veena approached us. She had done a shoot with photographer Vishal Saxena (who later did the FHM shoot) and sent us those photos, probably to show that she was in good shape. They both pursued us from October 22 to November 14. We conversed and until then we were very clear about not shooting a cover with her. But she was very pushy and willing to do pictures that would get people talking.
So, finally, FHM gave in to her insistence?
We do 12 covers a year and have shot big celebrities including Katrina Kaif, Deepika Padukone, Neha Dhupia and Vidya Balan. They have all been happy and attended our parties. It's important to understand that yes, there has been a certain amount of interest in Veena in India and to some extent she does personify the new woman and has not been scared to speak her mind. But it would be wrong to imply that we were dying to shoot her. For us, it was at par with any other cover.
Have you done any such nude covers in the past?
Some celebrities have posed topless for the cover. They include Yana Gupta and Mallika Sherawat. Vidya Balan has been shot in a saree with a bare back. And all these have been enormously acclaimed.
What kind of negotiations and details were discussed with Veena as a story and the cover?
Negotiations happen only when the other person is not happy for some reason. In this case, she exchanged emails saying she was extremely happy about shooting for us, so the question of negotiations did not arise. She was happy to go to a level to be on the cover and from November 19 onwards the concept was discussed with her. The shoot took place on November 23 in Mumbai in the presence of the make-up artist, the stylist and the production team. Throughout the shoot she kept insisting she loved the concept.
What was the real deal about the use of ISI initials on her arm?
When the make-up artist made the ISI initials on her arm and made the I's look like exclamation marks, Veena pitched in with her suggestion. She wanted the initials to be made bolder so that they could be seen on the camera. She was actively taking part in everything.
And was she okay to doing nude photos?
Yes, when we became clear about the concept, she had no hesitation. If she had any apprehensions or was unhappy, she could have said so and told us not to go ahead with printing the pictures when we emailed those to her after the shoot. She was ecstatic about them and wrote back saying she was "looking forward" to the issue. Even when I did an interview with her on November 27, she said she was thrilled for being considered for a cover.
So what happened after that?
The magazine came out on December 2 and from then till December 5 she gave a series of interviews with contradictory statements. Initially, she said she had not done the shoot and the pictures were morphed and later said she did the shoot but it wasn't that bold. In the interview, she has spoken her mind on issues including burqas, match fixing in cricket and nightlife in Lahore. But imagine after the controversy, she did a total turnaround saying she was unaware that ISI stood for Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence and thought it was the name of companies in India. This is ridiculous. She can't be so ignorant. She says something, denies it and continues doing so and remains in the news for 6-7 days. And finally, sends us a legal notice (for defaming her reputation).
You think Veena did it all for publicity?
I begin to suspect the motive of it because she has timed it all making the right contradictory noises. She loves the media, so let her give at least one evid-ence to them that proves she was either coerced into doing the shoot or was at anytime unhappy about it.
Did you at any point of time see what was coming?
No, how can you expect any such thing when a person is all along talking about "looking forward" to seeing the pictures in print. She even kept asking if we would throw a party to launch the cover.
How are you treating this controversy? Doesn't it obviously benefit the magazine because notoriety gets more readers?
I don't think it benefits the magazine because it has created a bigger controversy in Pakistan and we do not sell there or in other territories. Our reader base is in India. And if people attribute any commercial motive to it, then it is completely baseless. We do not want such fame. It's not good for the magazine. And that's why we are pursuing the legal matter seriously.
What is the prime motivator for doing cover stories that carry the label of sensationalism?
It has nothing to do with sensationalism. We have done covers in the past that have been accepted very well. The readers we look at are intelligent men. They are grown up, talk and understand the kind of women with strong minds that we portray. They don't see covers like these as that of a "naked woman". Unfortunately, people are talking only about a certain thing now.
Have you been in conversation with Veena since the controversy started?
She called up on December 3 to say that there was a controversy in Pakistan about the cover and she was having problems. I assured her that we were with her, but since the magazine was out there was nothing that could be done in that regard. She sent us a legal notice the next day.
Do you think the issue wouldn't have snowballed if she had not backtracked?
I don't know her psyche. There's a backlash in Pakistan, no doubt. But it's unreasonable and unacceptable that she should make the magazine the whipping boy. Earlier, there was a huge section in Pakistan applauding her for being bold, but then she backtracked and has created a difficult situation for herself.