India experienced another freedom-of-speech controversy earlier this week when Kamal Haasan (played by Kamal Haasan, acting as Kamal Haasan) couldn’t release his film Vishwaroopam, because certain Muslim groups protested the content of the film, saying it would hurt the sentiments of the community.
So incensed was Kamal Haasan at this violation of speech, that he threatened to leave the country like MF Hussain did, because apparently the best thing to do when attacked by a Muslim group is to move to the Middle-East.
Now I haven’t seen Vishwaroopam, but I did go through its plot on Wikipedia, and to loosely paraphrase, it is this; An Al-Qaeda (Urdu for “Zero Dark Thirty”) operative devises a plot to blow up New York with a “Caesium” bomb.
For the less scientifically minded among us, Caesium is an element whose chief chemical property is that it is not Plutonium, which is so 1980s Schwarzenegger, Daahling. Kamal Haasan plays the Muslim RAW agent who does everything in his power to foil this attack. This plot description raises three questions;
1) Are Muslim groups upset about the fact that an Islamic group is portrayed as a threat to New York? I can see why they would be, because there is no real world evidence to suggest that such a thing would ever happen.
2) Are Muslim groups upset about the fact that there’s a Muslim RAW agent? In which case, I’m forced to assume that not a single Muslim person watched Kahaani.
3) Who the hell takes anything said or made by the guy from Appu Raja so seriously?
This isn’t the beginning of some fascist anti-Islam tirade though. Because for one, I’m not anti-Islam, and for seconds, if I belittled Islam with no facts to back up my argument, what on Earth would the BJP do for a living? Today, Vishwaroopam offends Muslim groups. A few years ago, Singh is Kinng offended the Sikh community, and before that, Fire annoyed Hindu groups (and all people who totally misunderstood the sort of lesbian film they were buying tickets to).
This is a problem with us as a nation; when the hell did we turn into such a ginormous bunch of sensitive little children? As a culture we’re witnessing levels of overreaction and sensitivity that make menopause look dispassionately Vulcan in comparison. (Women’s groups who take offense to that comparison, kindly wait until next week to protest in order to maximise press-coverage efficiency)
I’m told we live in a secular democracy, but I’m also told that people have seen UFOs and Elvis walking down the side of the road. Right now, the evidence supporting all three claims is minimal at best. The problem is this; secularism done right means that nothing and nobody is sacred, as opposed to the Indian definition, which is everything is sacred, because everything is a vote-bank.
The other argument is that maybe Indian cinema needs to take a good hard look at itself and stop stereotyping. While that’s a great academic argument, it doesn’t change the fact that cinema, and all mass-art will always stereotype people, because negative or positive, stereotypes are the most economical form of environment-setting. This is why Punjabis in movies will always be gregarious, Catholics will always be ribald and slightly tipsy, and Bengalis will always be in eleven-hour films about a man staring at a blade of grass that is a metaphor for the partition of Bengal that nobody watches.
Story-telling truth is this. Thrillers need easily identifiable bad guys. Historically, the cinematic baddie has always been whoever was perceived as party to the last iconic global threat. This is why every American film from 1950 to 1990 had a Russian bad guy with an accent that sounded like a bottle of vodka had sex with a piece of granite. Today, we have the faceless Jihaadi. Tomorrow (and it’s already happening) it’ll be the oily banker from Wall Street. And the day after that, maybe it’ll be the right-wing Hindu fanatic. That doesn’t mean an entire community is being defined forever, culturally, by those tropes.
When I watch an on-screen baddie, do I judge him unkindly? Yes. But only him, not every single person on Earth like him. After I watched Transformers, I didn’t come out and stare daggers at every single car in the street. (I only do that at Marol Naka.) When I watched the Dark Knight, I only hated Two-Face, not all two-faced people (In fact, I still like some of our politicians just fine). And when I watched Housefull 2, I left halfway and only hated myself.
Rohan Joshi is a writer and stand-up comedian who likes reading, films and people who do not use the SMS lingo. You can also contact him on www.facebook.com/therohanjoshi