Isn’t it time that somebody took the publicity-hungry Union Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss aside and asked him to sit down and belt up? Almost from the time that he has been sworn in, the man has been a constant embarrassment to the health ministry, the Union Cabinet and India’s liberal society.
Ramadoss’s latest stab at the headlines consists of his demand that Indian film stars should refrain from drinking on screen on the grounds that their example may inspire millions of impressionable Indians to dash out of cinema halls, searching for the nearest bar.
This comment is in keeping with Ramadoss’s record. A few months ago, he asked movie stars to stop advertising potato crisps on the grounds that they were unhealthy. Lest this request be regarded as not newsworthy enough to ensure the headlines and TV coverage that Ramadoss so enjoys, he added a nudge-nudge-wink-wink reference to Saif Ali Khan. A leading movie star who endorsed crisps had suffered a heart attack, he informed us.
And then, of course, there is the smoking controversy. The good doctor first came to national prominence some years ago when he demanded that movie stars be banned from smoking on screen because this set a bad example. Further, he added when television channels telecast old movies in which the smoking scenes had already been shot, channel heads should take care to remove such scenes, continuity and logic be damned.
There is so much wrong with the stands that Ramadoss continues to take that it is hard to know where to begin.
But a good place to start might well be context. Does this man not read books? Does he have no experience of the world outside of Hindi cinema? Why is he so obsessed with movie stars?
Re-reading his statements, you get the sense that his entire grasp of political philosophy has been gleaned from ‘Neeta’s Natter’ and that his notion of widespread reading consists of a few well-worn copies of Stardust. Such is his obsession with the movies that he cannot see beyond the clouds of cigarette smoke that sometimes swirl around Shah Rukh Khan’s face. So well-informed is he about the lives of our film stars that he knows when Saif goes to hospital with an angina problem.
But then, Ramadoss is from Tamil Nadu, where the distinction between cinema and politics is often obscured. So perhaps his Stardust sensibility has its roots in the politics of his home state. And certainly, nobody can deny that young Anbumani, a previously little-known politician, celebrated only for his genetic good fortune (his father is the leader of a small party, an ally of the DMK in Tamil Nadu), has risen to headline-grabbing status on the basis of the pot-shots he has taken at the likes of Shah Rukh and Saif. Smoking onscreen may or may not be bad for movie stars and their audiences but, by God, it’s been good for Ramadoss. It’s turned him into a national figure.
But because, no matter how transparent his motives and how narrow his frame of reference may be, Ramadoss is a member of this government, we are obliged to take him seriously. Which is why his demands deserve some kind of intellectual refutation.
The first and most obvious point relates to Ramadoss’s view of the Indian audience. Perhaps he has been swayed by the way in which MGR moved off the screen and into the chief minister’s house in Madras, but Ramadoss appears to regard Indians as credulous buffoons, so impressionable that we will emulate anything we see on screen.
You have to be pretty stupid to hold this view. If we did what our movies showed us, then we would all be good boys who loved our mothers, always told the truth, realised that crime does not pay, and recognised that the only way to court potential wives is to sing songs to them while dancing around trees or — more recently — posing near Alpine lakes in Switzerland.
I sometimes wish cinema had the kind of effect that Ramadoss claims it does. If this were really so, then we could solve all our problems by making virtuous movies, secure in the knowledge that Indian audiences would go home and faithfully emulate the virtues celebrated in those movies.
Sadly, real life is a little more complicated. Hindi cinema is fun, but it is not a medium for mass hypnosis. We are not zombies who blindly follow everything we see on screen.
Then, there’s this whole business of leading by example. The first plank of Ramadoss’s argument (to the extent that it is a coherent argument) as we have seen, is that cinema shapes society. But the second is that anyone in the public eye has an obligation to behave in a manner that Ramadoss approves of so that he or she sets a good example.
If this is true — and it’s certainly a stronger position than the cinema-as-mass-hypnosis nonsense — then you have to ask the obvious question: why does this apply only to movie stars?
Surely, politicians have a similar — if not greater — obligation to serve as role models for society? And yet, have you ever heard Ramadoss making similar demands of any of his political colleagues? Have you heard him asking ministers to give up smoking? Has he demanded that potato crisps and fried food be exiled from Cabinet meetings?
I accept that it might be awkward for him to insist on honesty or to oppose polygamy, given the nature of his allies. But surely, all the health-type stuff that he spouts for the TV cameras applies as much to politicians — who are on TV as much as Shah Rukh Khan, judging by Ramadoss’s own example — as it does to movie stars?
But you won’t hear a cheep out of Ramadoss on this subject. He is not going to take the risk of picking on people who are likely to give him a tight slap and send him packing. Movie stars are soft targets. They can’t fight back. And they give him the headlines he wants.
The next time he wants to make a point about heart disease, Ramadoss should pick on the many ministers who’ve had open-heart surgery (starting from the very top). And the next time he wants to get self-righteous about smoking, he should talk to those Cabinet colleagues who cheerfully puff away day after day.
To pick on Saif and Shah Rukh is not a mark of moral leadership. It is a mark of weasel-like cowardice.
And finally, there’s the old argument about liberalism and artistic merit. You have to be a cultural illiterate to believe that every character in every TV show and every movie is meant to be a Ram avtaar, a model for citizens to follow. The point of fiction is that it tells stories. There are good characters and bad characters. We like some of them, and we hate some. To insist that every single character conforms to a made-up moral code that rules out cigarettes, beer, potato crisps and God alone knows what else, is not just silly: it also demonstrates that you have no idea what cinema and drama are about. It’s all very well to read ‘Neeta’s Natter’. But sometimes, Ramadoss should try and understand the movies as well.
I don’t want to make too much of the liberalism position because it is self-evident. Take Ramadoss’s argument to its logical conclusion, and filmmakers will be banned from showing bank robberies on screen on the grounds that this may give ideas to potential thieves. No rapes, no murders and — oh yes! — no corrupt politicians will ever be shown in movies because of the detrimental effect on society.
Contrary to the impression generated by his many television appearances, I don’t believe that Ramadoss is actually an idiot. I’m sure he understands the liberal argument perfectly. The problem is that he doesn’t care. As long as he can hit the headlines, he will say whatever it takes.
Last week, Sharmila Tagore, in her capacity as head of the Censor Board, suggested that Ramadoss should waste less time on this kind of publicity-generating nonsense and devote his attention to doing what the Health Minister is supposed to — fighting the menace of bogus drugs, for instance.
Of course, she’s right. But even if Ramadoss has no interest in doing any good at his ministry, would he at least do us one favour?
Could he please, please just shut the hell up?