Taking a stand

Posted on December 1, 2016

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The Supreme Court’s ruling on the national anthem is yet another instance of the movies being a soft target for tokenistic measures.

Why is it always the movies? Take smoking. There are many ways to bring down cigarette and liquor consumption. You can stop the sale of singles, force people to buy a pack every time they feel like lighting up. You can raise the cost of packs. What we get, instead, is a disclaimer at the bottom of the screen every time the villain’s henchman is caught chomping on a bidi. There is an artistic argument against this imposition. Woody Allen refused to allow Blue Jasmine to be screened in India with this disclaimer, saying that “when the scroll comes, attention goes to it rather than the scene.” But brush aside artistry and just consider logic. If the reasoning is that films are widely seen and that this tiny print at the bottom is an educational measure against a harmful act, then why not a disclaimer every time a rape occurs on screen? Or every time a man stalks a woman, trying to get her to reciprocate his love? Or every time thieves hatch a plan to rob a bank?

And now, the Supreme Court has ruled that the national anthem must be played in cinema halls across the country before a film is screened, and everyone present must stand to pay respect. Forget, for a minute, the arguments about personal choice, about freedom in a democracy. The screenwriter Aaron Sorkin put it best in these lines he wrote for the scarily prescient The American President, when an Obama-like liberal finally rose to respond to the accusations of a scaremongering demagogue. “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest.” That this Utopia is becoming (or has become) a pipe dream is no longer under contest.

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But why movies? There are many situations and avenues that warrant the national anthem, if the purpose is indeed to teach people the words. (That is part of the Supreme Court ruling’s agenda.) It makes sense to play the anthem every day at school and college. (Catch them young.) It perhaps makes sense before television news — this is, after all, news about the nation. It may make sense when our cricket team beats England. It may even make sense before certain films – serious films like Swades or Border that deal with “nationalistic” subjects. But how can the compulsory presentation of the national anthem before a Sunny Leone starrer be considered a form of respect? To expect “pride” from a ticket buyer who wants nothing more than to forget his troubles with overpriced popcorn and soda, and a mindless movie, is even more of a pipe dream. One could make the case that we are, in fact, disrespecting the anthem by associating it with a medium that – nine times out of ten – makes no bones about being “commercial.” In other words, after standing up for the anthem, you’re going to be sitting down for a cleavage-popping item number.

A bhajan belongs in a temple, and even if sung or played outside, it retains its reason for being only when it’s a festival or at an event that’s holy and pure, untainted by commercial considerations. The national anthem is not unlike a bhajan. It’s an expression of one’s reverence for the country. It stirs the soul, makes us feel patriotic even when things around us make us angry about the state of the nation. But enforced patriotism is simply transforming a private emotion into tokenistic public spectacle. You stand up not necessarily because you want to, but because if you don’t, you’re likely to be labelled a traitor, or worse, screamed at or assaulted by self-styled nationalists, which is what happened with the 45-year old poet, disability activist and writer Salil Chaturvedi, who did not stand up for the national anthem because he could not stand up. He was in a wheelchair.

Chaturvedi was quoted as saying, “I just don’t understand why it seems impossible for so many people to express patriotism in a non-aggressive manner.” And there are many ways to prove your love for your country. You could contribute to flood relief or volunteer in a tsunami-stricken area or ensure the domestic help has enough cash till she gets used to plastic – all of this is a form of loving, caring for, respecting the nation. Because a nation is its people. Love Indians, and you love India. But that, apparently, isn’t enough. Now you have to prove it every time you watch Rajinikanth beat up a hundred bad guys. Somewhere, Manoj Kumar is smiling and readying his next script.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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Posted in: Cinema, Op-ed, Society