The side-effects of speaking one’s mind

Posted on November 26, 2015


Why should everyone, including Aamir Khan, say the most perfectly worded, politically correct, lawyer-vetted things in public, even if they may think otherwise privately?

Before Aamir Khan, there was Kamal Haasan. Frustrated by forces that were preventing the release of his mega-budget production Vishwarooopam in Tamil Nadu, the actor said he was contemplating leaving the state, the country even, and settling down someplace more secular. The announcement was picked up by some sections of the media – not all, understandably. After all, this was but a Tamil actor, a Tamil movie. When even the devastating floods in Tamil Nadu have received but a drizzle of national coverage, how can the release of a film that will be seen mostly by south Indians be of national importance? This isn’t cynicism. This is truth. Because when Aamir Khan made a similar statement – about insecurity, about fear, about his wife wondering if they should leave the country and settle elsewhere – the entire nation, media channels everywhere, reacted as if the actor had ripped up the tricolour and used it as confetti in a song sequence in one of his films.

But this isn’t about how one artist’s anguish is deemed more important than another’s. This is about something much less exciting. This is about garden-variety freedom of expression – for if we examine the context, there isn’t really much opportunity for outrage. One, these statements came during a freewheeling discussion at an awards ceremony. It wasn’t a speech. It wasn’t an address. It wasn’t inflammatory rhetoric. Two, Aamir Khan is not a politician. He is not a Harvard-educated intellectual. He is not a political op-ed columnist. He is an artist, a concerned citizen, a Muslim married to a Hindu, a father, a human being – and some combination of all this came out in what he said. Three, he said other things as well. For instance, when political columnist Tavleen Singh asked a question about the Paris attacks and Islam, he replied, “A person who is holding a Quran and killing people, he may feel [he] is doing an Islamic act, but as a Muslim I don’t feel he is doing an Islamic act… He is a terrorist and we should recognise him as a terrorist. My problem is not just with the ISIS, but it is with that kind of thinking… This extreme thinking is what I worry about.”

Don’t we all worry about extremism, especially in these times, when every day deposits before us new horrors? There is certainly more fear today, in the common man, than there was even a decade ago. Not all of this is connected to (or can be blamed on) the government, of course, but given that we hear the voices of incensed fringe elements (which some claim are not really “fringe” anymore but mainstream) more than the Prime Minister’s, what is the average Indian supposed to think? Of course, the Prime Minister may be pursuing his development agenda – that may well be his first priority. But that’s also, to the average Indian, a fairly abstract idea. When we hear about increased GDP, we register something vaguely, but news of the Dadri lynching or of writers being shot dead turns us stone cold. Because this is concrete. This could happen to us. And we need someone at the top, a parental figure, to assure us that this was wrong, that this will not happen to us.

Hosted by

Barack Obama keeps assuring the American people. Expert followers of politics and foreign issues and economic development may have complaints about Obama’s tenure, but the average American, when faced with an incomprehensible tragedy, knows that his President will reach out and talk to him. The rest of the stuff is abstract, playing out in the corridors of power. This is what is concrete. This is what affects people at the ground level. This is what is important. And when the average Indian does not get this from his elected representatives, he turns confused, insecure, angry. He begins to wonder which the bigger instance of intolerance is: the Dadri lynching, or the half-hearted acknowledgements by the powers that be. He begins to speak out. This isn’t an attack on the government. This isn’t being unpatriotic. This is simply people giving vent to something they’re feeling very strongly about.

Of course, a celebrity like Aamir Khan is not exactly an “average Indian,” and it’s only to be expected that the media (and social media) picks up and picks apart whatever he says, despite the fact that it may be the exact thing you or I might say in an unguarded moment. But in a mature society, such a statement would give rise to debate. Some people will agree. Some people will disagree. Some people will term you heroic. Others will call you moronic. There can be no resolution to these things, but at least, we will have, on the table, various points of view. What use is democracy if this doesn’t happen? And if, instead, the Twitterati just take offence and begin lashing out, how does it help, except perhaps to give media channels something sensationally juicy to milk? Some people have pointed to the blockbuster success of the Aamir Khan starrer pk as a symbol of Indian tolerance. Look, we’re a Hindu-majority nation and we’re watching a movie in which a Muslim actor satirises our religion. But pk is make-believe. pk is entertainment. pk is a sugar-coated pill, and we could choose to suck on the sugar even if we spat out the pill. Would we have endorsed the same film to such an extent had it not made us laugh, had it been a dead-serious drama about Hindu godmen?

I do not speak as a committed Aamir Khan fan, though I certainly like some of his films and admire his commitment to deliver quality mainstream cinema. I speak as someone who’s tired of the expectation that everyone should say the most perfectly worded, politically correct, lawyer-vetted things in public, even if they may think otherwise privately. Despite his stardom, his clout, his riches, Aamir Khan is still a citizen of this country – an Indian who may not be “average” in any way, but still knows and feels the things the average Indian does. Why shouldn’t he speak out? Why should a film star speak only about films? When we applaud Aamir Khan’s focus on casteism and female infanticide on his television show, why not accord him the right to express what he feels about other issues far-removed from cinema? Why turn intolerant about someone else’s feelings on intolerance?

That, more than wanting to move out of India, may be Aamir Khan’s crime. He was honest about his feelings – from the conversation, these just seem to be feelings born out of emotion, not opinions formed through cold calculation – perhaps forgetting for a moment that there’s a social-media contingent out there watching and waiting like an eagle, ready to swoop down in a flash upon sighting something to prey on. It’s as if we have Facebook and Twitter accounts not to debate and argue, but to mock and maim. Nothing sums up this whole ridiculous “controversy” better than a sad little joke floating around, where a doctor says, “There is pollution in the city. Therefore your lungs…” And Anupam Kher cuts in angrily, “How dare you! This city has given you job, name, fame. How can you call it polluted? You traitor!!!” Moral of the story? Do not speak your mind in public. Be diplomatic, wave, sign autographs, keep smiling.

An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2015 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.