Readers Write In #89: Sreehari Nair and the mollycoddling of the art genius

Posted on July 25, 2019

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(by Madan Mohan)

I have thus far avoided writing about Kabir Singh, specifically about the reactions to it, except in comments on existing threads, finding the discussions to be altogether too acrimonious.  However, I have changed my mind and for that, you may thank Sreehari Nair’s piece for rediff entitled “What’s so obscene about Kabir Singh”   (https://www.rediff.com/movies/column/whats-so-obscene-about-kabir-singh/20190719.htm).  As more and more men succumb to the temptation to litigate for free speech in spite of not being denied it in the first place, I felt a so-called liberal counterpoint was in order.

Particularly since there has been very little of it in the first place.  All it has taken is for a few mainstream reviews criticising what the reviewers regarded as glorification of misogyny in Kabir Singh, to ignite the fuse.  The backlash against the backlash, as it were, has been more than twice as strong. The director Sandeep Reddy Vanga himself could not resist the temptation to wade into this discussion and in fact further inflame it by characterising critics as being more detrimental than even piracy itself.  He also said that not only should there be enough honesty in a relationship to permit lovers slapping each other but that any relationship that didn’t live up to his vaunted standards of honesty wasn’t true love at all.

Nair comes out in defence of the above comment of the director and it is this aspect of his article that I will tackle. Oh, I could think of a hundred other angles including, to start with, the fact that he has not even seen the film and has yet chosen to characterise all criticism of the film as taking the view that nothing that disrespects women can be art.  One wonders why somebody who found the time to pen such an erudite, if extremely disagreeable, piece of such considerable length could not find the time to either watch the film or, you know, actually read the reviews in question.  Maybe, like Sandeep Reddy Vanga, he couldn’t remember the reviews or the reviewers.

But we’ll leave that aside.  With reference to the director’s comments, Nair writes, “He is blessed with the sort of verbal inchoateness that is often associated with a certain class of talented artists.  When he says ‘Two lovers who don’t have the freedom to slap each other have never been in love’, he is only half expressing the primal emotions he is speaking out of.”

And, “The almost pandemic chastising of him seems to be a larger project that Manu Joseph calls the reformation of men – by women and some impotent men.  But when you force this reformation upon artists, when the rigid demand is made of artists to behave properly and say the correct things, you snuff out the very essence of what makes their trade so special.”

Hold it right there!  And yes, I know, I have snipped out a lot of other stuff in between but it’s a long, long article and I have left the link up earlier so I am not misrepresenting anything he said or quoting him out of context, at least not intentionally!  So anyway, he mentions two things that he characterises as rigid demands – to behave properly and to say the correct things.

The latter demand I can sympathise with (calling it as rigid) to some extent though I still cannot excuse Sandeep Reddy forcing his own idea of love down viewers’ throats which he, particularly as an artist, ought to recognise as something that tampers with the process of appreciating a work of art.  It is his failure there to not put his art before his ego.  But I will leave that aside because the first demand being characterised as rigid is a lot more mindboggling – to behave properly.

Er, is or is not an artist a human being living in civilised society?  No seriously.  Nair is hardly the first nor will be the last to stretch artistic licence to this mad extreme.  In this, ultra-romantic lovers of art like him are united with rabid fanatics (of their chosen artistic deities) in seeking forgiveness or shielding from criticism for any ACTS of an artist OUTSIDE his/her art world.  After all, to be allowed to not have to behave properly is a very broad proposition.

So what then?  Is unlimited debauchery and the rape and plunder of women permitted for artists because to not do so would snuff out the very essence of what makes them special?  Is it ok for artists to get stoned like mad and drive cars at Formula 1 speeds on ordinary streets and, albeit unwittingly, kill somebody?  In case you are wondering, I am talking about Motley Crue frontman Vince Neil who, being heavily drunk hit his expensive sports car into another vehicle and his co-passenger, the drummer of Hanoi Rocks, died in the crash.  And yes, Neil did jail time for that as he should have.  And yes, he did very little time on account of ‘good behaviour’ (the irony!).

It may seem as if I have stretched an at best careless turn of phrase in an article to a ridiculous extreme but I am in fact referring to the licence that was indeed permitted to artists…to behave badly (to put it very mildly).  Of course, the licence wasn’t granted merely because they were talented artists but because it was possible for corporations to make big money out of art and these artists were their golden geese.  So if Kim Fowley all but ran a sex racket, it was par for the course.  You could litigate rock music and Hollywood all day over this as also, I am sure, our own film industries.  You may well say that that is the point and that thank God these folks escaped the wrath of MeToo or else all this art would have never seen the light of day.  And that brings me, at long last, to the crux of the article.

No, no and no!  There is no evidence to suggest bad behaviour and great artistic talent are correlated, much less the notion that the former begets the latter.  If there is any dirt on Ilayaraja or A R Rahman, it has not come to our light in these many years and based on their stable marriage, we may assume, for now, that they didn’t indulge in debauchery to unlock their talent.  I have likewise never heard anything like this suggested of the late, great U Srinivas. Or Satyajit Ray.

Fine, you want examples not just of virtuosic talent but that rebellious, even rowdy element?  Well, how about David Fincher?  Or the Coen brothers?   In rock music itself, the legendary singer Ronnie James Dio didn’t do drugs and was married to Wendy till death.  I could go on.  And by no means are they exceptions.  If anything, with money drying up in the world of music in service of the consumer, the only ones who can survive the long haul are the ones who have their personal life sorted.  That’s right, no need for pesky critics to discipline them!

But even if the above wasn’t the case and there was indeed a correlation between bad behaviour and artistic talent, so what?  I love great art as much as any lover of the arts but why are we being asked to venerate their work to the extent that we are supposed to turn away and condone their, um, bad behaviour?  Surely an artist is as much liable to pay a fine for jumping a signal as you and me are.  And just as liable to go to jail if he runs over somebody.  That a certain somebody of questionable artistic talent didn’t go to jail is another matter.

I grant though that it is certainly possible to love art so madly that you want for them to be walled off into a separate universe with different rules even when they are not performing, so that there is no conceivable interference that could possibly snuff out the essence of their great talent.  The mollycoddling of the art genius, in short.  It is possible with a mad, obsessive love for art.  It is also possible when one speaks from a position of privilege.  Yes, that dreaded word, but I have no choice in this matter.  I can only say to Nair that perhaps if you were one of Kim Fowley or Harvey Weinstein’s victims, you’d be less inclined to see the expectation that artists do not behave badly as rigid and stifling.  If that’s the only way some people are capable of producing great art, that’s really too bad but maybe we have enough art out there in the world to get by without them anyway?