Freedom and Hypocrisy

In many art galleries in London, including the famed Tate Modern, you can see art that intentionally confounds you, even aggravates you. Some are downright silly and some are plain offensive. The notes next to these works encourage the viewer to question the premise of art. What is art? What is the role of art in our everyday life? Is X an art? This X being what you are looking at that appears silly, sickening and even insulting?

In those places, the role of art includes offending one’s sensibilities. Quite often, evolution in the Western culture and literature was wrought by questioning and even decimating the existing premises and assumptions.

Art has a very different and very limited context in India. Changes have often come from political and social movements and not through art and literature. People who cry foul when art is censored are those looking through the West’s glasses.

It should be clarified here that India is not wholly against radical views. Indian culture has always encouraged dissent, but these opposing, radical views have come through social criticism and public debate rather than literature.

Also, critically, there is a difference between how Islam perceives criticism and how other religions perceive it. Islam has so far been quite reluctant to permit criticisms on its Prophet and its holy book. There’s a Persian saying ‘Say what you like about the God, but leave the Prophet alone’, that captures this attitude. Devoid of many artefacts to map their sentiments onto, Muslims are left with their holy book and the Prophet, who himself has set examples by not encouraging any dissenting voice against him during his own life time.

Kamal must have known he had touched some raw nerves in his film as these protest voices were heard long before the film’s release. Some media reports indicate that he deliberately postponed showing the film to these groups and held the screening quite close to the film’s release, so that these groups wouldn’t have time to react and, even if they did, by the time they gathered forces, the first weekend would have been over and he would have recovered his money. I cannot confirm the veracity of this news. However, this much is clear: he could have screened the film to them two weeks prior to the release, held talks afterwards to reach an agreement.

Then, when the ban was in force, Kamal spoke a lot, a lot of them very melodramatic, suitable only to be used in films. He evoked nostalgia about his ancestral house and wondered whether it would be his by the afternoon. He polemically questioned whether secularism exists anywhere in India and whether he should relocate to some other nation that upholds it.

Ironically, the chief minister’s clarification on the government’s stand sounded far more balanced and logical. Those who opposed the ban and cried hoarse about freedom of expression targeted only Ms Jayalalitha and not many bothered to focus their ire on those fringe Muslim groups. Some even suspected a vested interest in the government’s decision. But the public saw it correctly. The social media was full of questions about Islam’s intolerance; many of them obviously influenced by the Right-wing thinking and extremely, and unfairly, critical of Muslims.

That’s what is going to be the fallout of this episode. The Shah Bano case in the late 80s and the ban on The Satanic Verses polarised the Hindu and Muslim communities in North India. These two events were critical in paving the way for the Hindu Right which culminated in the demolition of Babar’s Mosque. The Viswaroopam incident ended up polarising the debate as Hindu-Muslim in a state that’s historically known to be tolerant towards religious extremities. As writer Manushyaputhiran pointed out, this will only help the Hindutva forces who are going to fish in the troubled waters by frightening the Tamil Hindus about Muslims. The next parliament and assembly elections will show how adversely it has affected the Muslim community. Kamal is largely responsible for fanning this Right-wing sentiment by talking repeatedly about the danger to secularism in Tamil Nadu, just because his investment is at stake, which, in any estimate, should not have been more than 30-35 crores. His oft quoted 95 crores are as exaggerated as his emotional outburst during the press conference.

Despite all that, Kamal’s stand on sticking to his creation should have been laudable. Yet, at the time of writing this, an agreement has been reached between the protesters and the film-makers:  seven scenes are going to be chopped from the film.  There was a similar controversy in his previous film Manmadhan Ambu. A fringe Hindu group opposed to a poem Kamal had written in the film and the producers promptly deleted the recitation scene to pave the way for the film’s release. Immediately after this, in an interview, Kamal swaggered that if he were the producer he wouldn’t have obliged, but stuck to his ground. Well, now he is the producer and his ‘sticking to the stand’ has become quite evident.

Also, in the light of the decision to edit the film, his likening to MF Husain appears even more ridiculous. When there were oppositions to his ‘nude gods’ series, MF Husain left the country; he didn’t decide to drape gods!