Freedom of speech: an alien concept?

Posted on January 2, 2015


The protests against ‘pk’ bring up the question: When the people themselves don’t mind, why are self-appointed people’s representatives getting all hot and bothered?

Centuries ago, a Hindu named Vatsyayana wrote a treatise that, if filmed, would never clear the Censor Board today. The erotic imagination of another Hindu named Jayadeva, whose Gita Govinda depicts an intensely physical aspect of Lord Krishna, is something you want to introduce to Alok Sanjar, the BJP MP from Bhopal who recently remarked that frequent sex can drastically reduce a person’s lifespan. And yet, here we are again, having to defend Hinduism from those who seem to think that the slightest hint of humour or heresy can bring crashing down a religion that has stood strong for millennia. I refer, of course, to the controversy around the Hindu director Rajkumar Hirani’s pk. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad wants it banned, and its members, along with those charming chaps from the Bajrang Dal, have taken to tearing up the film’s posters and halting screenings. The reason? According to VHP spokesman Vinod Bansal, pk “keeps making fun of Hinduism.”

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For a moment, let’s forget pk. Let’s talk about a stretch in 3 Idiots, Hirani’s earlier blockbuster with Aamir Khan. Anxious about an exam, students of an engineering college resort to prayers. The narrator tells us sarcastically, “Today was Results day… time to make a deal with God.” And indeed, “deals” are made. One student performs an arati, to the accompaniment of a tinkling bell, in front of a wall filled with pictures of Hindu deities, and mutters, “God, take care of my Electronics paper. I’ll break a coconut.” Another student bows before a cobra, promising a litre of milk a day if ‘Nag Devta’ will help him clear his Physics paper. A third is seen stuffing a handful of grass into a cow’s mouth – he wants ‘Gau Mata’ to help him pass his exams. Another student halts in front of an idol and pledges Rs. 100 per month. The narrator stifles a laugh and remarks, “Rs. 100 won’t even bribe a traffic cop, let alone the Almighty.”

This is exactly the kind of “mocking of religion” that pk is being criticised for, but there’s more: the narrator in 3 Idiots, the one whose mocking commentary underscored those visuals, is named Farhan Qureshi. And where is that film’s “hero” through all this? Blithely asleep. Even the sounds of the mantras muttered during that arati, even that tinkling bell can’t wake him up – which is just another way of saying that he is beyond all this. So one has to wonder why no one made a noise, then, about a Muslim narrator’s amusement at what are legitimate Hindu rituals, practised in many parts of the country, and why no one brought up the fact that the Muslim actor at the film’s centre, the film’s messiah, was shown not needing the crutch of rituals. Not a word was heard, either, about the seeming lack of Christian, Sikh and Muslim students praying hard to their gods, participating in rituals that might have seemed similarly strange, perhaps even amusing, to Hindu eyes. Why, one might have asked, are only Hindus shown to be following practices that the rational/secular mind would find ridiculous?

But no one brought it up – probably because 3 Idiots was not overtly about religion. As the stretch depicting the blind adherence to rituals was such a small part of the film, which was about the ills in our education system, maybe no group thought it worthwhile to protest. But pk is much more obvious about its intent. It is a brazen attack – though “attack” is too strong a word for such a sweet-natured film – on religion, and therefore it announces itself as an instant target. In all likelihood, the film also became the focus of all this attention because it’s a big movie, with a big star, which means big attention when you speak up against it. It’s like what happened with Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam. The Muslim outfits that protested against it seemed oblivious to the fact that the film’s hero was a namaaz-performing Muslim who saves the world by foiling a terrorist plan hatched by other Muslims. You’d think those Muslim outfits would have celebrated the film’s choice to make the hero a Muslim – most other films with a similar theme would have opted for a Hindu hero performing these heroics. But no. The radicals almost always miss the point.

The other charge against pk is that it promotes “Love Jihad,” with a romantic track that revolves around a Pakistani man named Sarfaraz and a Hindu woman with the goddess-like name of Jagat Janani, the “creator of the world”. But the romance plays out neither in India nor Pakistan, but in the relatively neutral Belgium, just like My Name is Khan set the romance between a Muslim man and a Hindu woman in the US. The women in both these films are educated, liberal – there’s no evidence that they will convert to Islam after marriage, and neither did the strong-willed Hindu heroine of Jodha Akbar renounce her religion. Even in earlier decades, you can find films like Muqaddar ka Sikandar, where the hero is raised by a Muslim woman and is in love with a Hindu. And if you consider interreligious love stories with the gender polarities reversed, you have Gadar (Muslim woman-Sikh man), Veer-Zaara (Muslim woman-Hindu man), Raanjhanaa (Muslim woman-Hindu man), Ek Tha Tiger (Muslim woman-Hindu man). Did you hear many protests against these films?

WARNING: Hindu-Muslim making-out in the clip below…

All the movies mentioned above are hits – 3 Idiots, in fact, was the first film to gross over Rs 200 crore at the box office. You don’t make that kind of money without love from all sections of the audience, especially from Hindus, who make up most of our nation. And if they don’t mind this light-hearted mocking, then who are these others, from opportunistic political parties, to take up cudgels on their behalf? Don’t they realise that movies are like elections? People wait patiently in line, go to the counter, and cast their vote by buying a ticket. So when a film like pk becomes this kind of a blockbuster – it’s practically guaranteed to cross the Rs. 300 crore mark, the first Indian film to do so – then it means that it has been approved by an overwhelming majority. The people have spoken. On the one hand, you hear that the Maharashtra government has asked the police to “look into” the content of the film. On the other, the boxofficeindia site predicts that pk may the first film to collect Rs. 100 crore in the Mumbai circuit alone. You have to ask the question: Who’s really being offended here?

Once a film has come through the Censor Board, no one has the right to demand that it be pulled from theatres because it has offended them. Everyone is sensitive to something, and if you begin to factor it all in, you’ll never make a movie. You know this, I know this, and the outfits doing the protesting know this. Why, then, do they continue to get all hot and bothered? Is it because of the increasing “saffronization” of India, as some claim? Because the cultural climate is certainly different. In the 1970s, a film like Hare Rama Hare Krishna could get away with yoking the names of the gods in its title to scenes (and a smash-hit song, Dum maaro dum) that featured uninhibited pot smoking and pre-marital commingling. But a bigger reason is that our 24×7 TV channels and Internet portals need news, and when this news is related to a blockbuster film, then it becomes bigger news. And sensational, viewership/readership-attracting news as well – when protesting organisations, in their quest for cheap and easy and guaranteed publicity, proffer up such incendiary images of rioting and poster-burning. The sad news is that you know this, I know this, and the outfits doing the protesting know this.

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