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At ease, soldier

india Updated: Dec 10, 2011 23:36 IST
Indrajit Hazra

We all know what you call when someone, preferably at the Tate Modern in London, drops his pants in the middle of a hall with hands-on-their-chins people watching as he (preferably she) empties his (or her) bladder (preferably bowels) to the haunting capella voices of György Ligeti's Lux Aeterna. Yes, we call it 'artistic expression'.

But what about when an artist gets really worked up about an advertisement she's seen on television that she wants yanked off because "it is is obnoxious"? Well, I'd go with 'artistic expression' again, actually.

Anjolie Ela Menon, no rank philistine or trasher of naked Husains, is livid with a TV ad showing a soldier sitting in the trenches and munching on a packet of 'Stop Not' snacks, uncaring about the gun-battle going all around him and the fellow jawan who plops dead next to him. Enemy fire rips through his packet of snacks that spatters to the ground.

The packet's 'spirit' is shown rising to heaven and the soldier, losing his mind on losing his favourite fried snacks, gets up, rushes out of the trench and shouts out at the invisible enemy to kill him in a maniacal, Dharmendra-meets-Parliamentarian rage. He's shot dead. But it turns out that this was exactly our brave jawan's strategy: to pursue his heaven-bound packet of 'Stop Not'.

The ad's funny to the extent of being loopy and having an upside-down logic of its own (dead man pursuing dead packet of chips). But Ela Menon sees something else altogether in the advertisement. That ad, she insists, "demeans our soldiers". Going by army headquarters, our khaki-clads either don't know yet about the 'Stop Not' enemy propaganda or are chuckling along with the ad, spilling precious drops of their bada pegs on their trousers.

I dig into my fauji past, and on realising I have none (except for my grandfather being posted in Burma as an army doctor in the 40s during the war), find it hard to understand why the junk food ad could be such an insult to our soldiers.

So I examine what Ela Menon has said a bit more: "As the wife of an ex-serviceman, I am appalled by the trivialisation of the efforts and sacrifices made by our brave jawans on the battlefield... For the sake of the families who have lost their loved ones in battles and in the name of the soldiers who lay their lives for their nation, this ad should be withdrawn with immediate effect and the product be boycotted."

Now switch what she said about the ad with the depiction of a naked Sara-swati, Sita or Hanuman and you can see Ela Menon morph into something less post-expressionist. What do you say when an artist wants to gag an advertisement's 'artistic freedom' on the count of being offended? 'Over-sensitive' doesn't have the same meaning somehow when applied to an artist and when applied to a Thackeray.

But hang on. No one's ever joked about a jawan, it seems. In these times when no one's spared - not the politician, not the sportsman, not the Gollum-faced social activist, not the religious figure, and not even the angelic journalist - no one still takes a crack at the jawan. The Brits have their jabs at their army, most famously courtesy Spike Milligan's hilarious war memoirs, including Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall with those memorable lines: "I'm a hero with coward's legs" and "'How long was I in the army? Five feet eleven." The Yanks made an iconic TV show, 'M*A*S*H' and a delightful cartoon character, 'Sad Sack', out of their armymen. And I don't think they're stuck in Afghanistan because of low morale generated by people being funny about their armymen.

The truth is you can have Govinda prance about in a policeman's uniform without Indian policemen being gutted. You can have Sanjay Dutt play a lovable failed doctor without the medical community jabbing syringes in protest. But making cracks on jawans is still a no-go area. I don't quite know why, but if you have any theories, post them on my 'Indi Hazra' Facebook page. But then, I'm told, there are plans to disallow any dodgy content online soon.

Till then, let me flip through my book of Anjalie Ela Menon paintings. But hang on, why do these bare-breasted women in these paintings seem to suggest something very non-arty now?