In an otherwise superbly organised Mumbai Literature Festival held last week, my big disappointment was the marquee debate on whether ‘Freedom of Expression is in Imminent Danger’.
The issue was red-hot and the panel star-studded with former BJP functionary Sudheendra Kulkarni and Shobhaa De (for the motion) ranged against Anupam Kher and BJP spokesman Navin Kohli. Sadly, it degenerated into an ugly slanging match that hit the very purpose of the debate for a six. As it transpired, Kher took some potshots at Ms De and was booed by some sections. This was poor form by the audience and the actor retaliated by accusing them of being ‘paid’ for their reaction, which was also gross.
Since I neither like to heckle or be heckled, I chose to exit. By that time the debate had swerved away from the original premise to whether people returning awards received from the government (or its institutions) were right or wrong. This, in my opinion, obfuscates the issue about freedom of expression. Those returning awards are adjunct stories. Doing a head count of who falls on which side is puerile and non-constructive.
Moreover, the argument that since nobody returned awards in the past is specious and self-defeating. For instance, if hundreds of farmers committed suicide in Maharashtra in the previous regime, should the current one wait till those numbers are exceeded before taking action?
Of course, there is nothing as harsh as the Emergency, the 1984 massacre of Sikhs, the Bhagalpur riots, the Godhra riots etc today. And thank god! This is even more reason why early signals must be vigilantly heeded so that such things never come to pass again. But an interesting twist to this story came when Shah Rukh Khan spoke up last week. Till then, writers and artists had been protesting. While some scientists and industrialists too had joined in, none occupy quite the same mind space in the public imagination as one of India’s biggest stars.
Khan made some pertinent points about tolerance and secularism that India sat up and took note of. Even actors, who had protested against those returning awards found it necessary to support him when he was attacked by MPs from the ruling dispensation for not being patriotic enough.
But how was what Khan said different from what others had earlier? Incidentally, Khan is not a ‘Pinko’ or ‘pseudo intellectual’ (but undoubtedly intelligent) and lives life king size. He also reiterated that he was ‘selfish’ and unlikely to return any government award.
In a larger context, the intervention of Bollywood in thr debate is both important and interesting. In the recent past, the industry has come under flak for speaking out although it did open up in the aftermath of the terrible Nirbhaya rape.
It is argued that filmmakers of earlier eras, especially the 1950s, 1960s, and (interestingly) the 1980s were more politically aware. Think Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor, B R Chopra, Chetan Anand, Saeed Mirza, Kundan Shah, to name some.
But while the industry since appears to have turned reticent on socio-political issues since, it is not bereft of diverse political thought to influence public discourse. Top of mind, I can name Prakash Jha, Neeraj Pandey, Anurag Kashyap, Tigmanshu Dhulia among current film-makers.
My overarching conclusion, not related only to the film industry, is this: why brazen out with obduracy and huff rather than proactively trying to ascertain what the issues are? Why make protesters villains rather than allies in understanding where the agenda of development could be running run into pitfalls?
The government’s approach has presumed the polity to be divided ideologically down the middle, when in fact a vast majority wait, watch and decide from issue to issue.
An early dialogue, without overt powerplay would have seemed the appropriate course of action. More pertinently, why is this still not being attempted?