At the second Brunch Dialogues in October 2012, former censor board chairperson Sharmila Tagore shared an interesting story on how popular culture influences people.
Tagore was on a shoot in a village when she needed a bathroom break. Since there were hardly any public toilet facilities in those days, her team found a home that had a bathroom. The family was glad to allow her to use the toilet but they refused to allow the lady playing the vamp – a reputable actress in her own right – to enter their house because she was the "bad girl" and they would have none of her.
Things must have changed in the last four decades or so since that incident but then I found Tagore defending her industry passionately during the protests over the Delhi gang rape when women’s rights activists blamed the film industry for the commodification of the female body. Tagore made an impassioned defence of why life should not imitate art and that Bollywood alone should not be blamed.
While I don’t disagree with her, I recall a recent report I had read about an incident in Pakistan. At a nikaah, an eight-year-old boy was disappointed when he did not get what he had come for. "Phere kab honge?" he asked his parents, causing a minor commotion among the guests.
But why blame the boy? He had been watching too many Indian TV serials in which weddings are amplified beyond what happens in real life. So if not for Bollywood, at least TV seems to have a huge impact on ordinary people and while I cannot stand the simpering, submissive heroines on almost every show on every channel (the vamps are more original!), I am beginning to think that the likes of Asaram Bapu and his ilk are influenced by the insipid and mealy-mouthed portrayal of women in our entertainment industry.
It’s either that or he may not have met real women in his life. The real women would be those like the 23-year-old from Delhi who fought hard against those six rapists. For the kind of beasts those rapists turned out to be, they would have violated her even if, like Bapu mistakenly advises, the girl had gone down on her knees and begged for forgiveness. But why would she beg for forgiveness? For going to a movie with a male friend? For being on that bus that night? Or for being a woman who was about to be raped by six animals?
No wonder then that our political establishment, too, has similar views. For I know many politicians who are devoted fans of the likes of Asaram Bapu and a couple of them have even asked me, in response to my columns, why was the girl out so late at night and on that bus? One of them even implied that she had it coming just because she had a boyfriend and so could have been immorally inclined.
The man who said that to me is well-known and usually refers to me as 'behenji' – a term I hate for the reverse prejudice it implies -- and is among the most-devout followers of Asaram Bapu.
I also have a problem with the likes of RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat who are self-proclaimed custodians of 'Hindu' culture and yet do not seem to be aware of the realities of society. I believe Bhagwat forgot about Khairlanji, a village next door to his own Nagpur, when he thought rapes happen only in India and not Bharat and might himself have been influenced by the retrograde portrayal of women on the big and small screens when he said rapes wouldn’t happen if women were devoted to their husbands (what about marital rapes, Mr Bhagwat?)!
But now I am glad to see that the protests in Delhi have had some effect. Recently, I caught the tail-end of a serial wherein a mother was asking for the right to kill her teenaged son when she discovered that he had been part of a gang which had been roaming the streets, stalking and harassing girls. "I should be allowed to rid the earth of the scum I brought forth into the world with my own hands."
Now that is art, finally, imitating life. And that is what Bharat Mata should really be like, Mr Bhagwat, Bapuji!