The ghettoisation of India

Jai Arjun Singh’s book on Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983) is a treat for anyone who loves the eponymous movie. It is the story of how Kundan Shah’s cult film ‘just happened’. Jaane... the story of two honest photographers’ attempt to expose corruption was satire at its best and the joke was on all of us. Towards the end of this heart-warming read is a chilling thought. Singh reckons that in the India of today such a film might not be made.

He is scarily right. In the India of today films such as Sujata, Dharamputra or Mughal-e-Azam would be impossible to make, let alone release. In the India of today a Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chugtai or Irawati Karve would be in jail or in London with a fatwa on their heads.

Cautious times? In the India of today films like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Sujata and Seema could not have been made because we have lost the ability to take criticism or humour

It would seem that we have become a nation of thin-skinned, intolerant people who have lost the ability to laugh at ourselves. A 62 year old cartoon featuring two of India’s most liberal politicians is raising a ruckus. Barbers don’t want to be called barbers and dhobis object to being called dhobis. Writers and painters among a host of professionals are routinely threatened for speaking their minds. Almost every film with even a mildly contentious scene is being shown to religious organisations and political parties before its release. The censor board, it seems, is irrelevant.

This is not just about films or TV. They just happen to be a popular form of culture that is easy to attack. And it isn’t only about political parties. It is also about the aam aadmi. Jeremy Clarkson, the irreverent host of BBC Entertainment’s Top Gear faced the ire of Indian viewers for daring to make fun of us. Why are we such a bunch of humourless whiners? And what will it take to loosen us up?

Because if we don’t, the implications are not very nice.

First of all it limits our choices to what a group or groups want us to see, hear, watch or read. Think of the millions of ideas that never reach you because of the fear of violence. This tramples on several basic freedoms which may or may not be enshrined somewhere — to speak, to do business, to explore.

But intolerance and an inability to laugh at oneself do something worse. It ghettoises you. Soon we will be so used to hearing only correct and safe points of view that anything that questions or criticises will be unfamiliar.

Take religion for instance. Hinduism is one of the most liberal, tolerant and wonderful religions. Without being militantly saffron I have been happy to be born into a faith that allowed me to question my gods, get angry with them, ask them for favours, laugh at their mischievous ways and generally be friends with them. We discussed religion and the ideas around it among a mixed group of friends, quite openly in my growing up years in the eighties.

You can’t do that today. You can’t have a normal chat, one that argues, debates, questions anything — religion, caste, culture, society, art — without offending someone. At a recent India Today summit Salman Rushdie spoke eloquently on the freedom of expression. His point, attack the idea not the person.

He is right. If you think that Jodha Akbar is a bad film don’t watch it, get a signature campaign going or make fun of it. But why take away the right of a person to release the film or that of other people to watch it. When the threat of violence hangs over any chat, where is the dialogue?

If the treatment of widows or sati hadn’t been questioned then Hinduism would not have evolved. This is true for everything. If we don’t allow discussion, debate and questioning whether through films, news, TV shows or other forms of art and culture, how will we ever progress socially, intellectually and culturally?

This refusal to discuss the bad points of our society, the inability to laugh at the mildest jokes on us are signs of an immature nation with a massive inferiority complex. If we continue like this chances are we will become like many of the illiberal regimes we patronise — Afghanistan, China, and Saudi Arabia. The only difference would be that Indians, lucky to be born into a vibrant democracy, would have chosen this route to intellectual zombiedom.

So enjoy these last few years of relative freedom or grow up and learn to laugh at yourself.  

The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at

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