Muzzled by each other

Updated: 19 September, 2020 07:30 IST | Lindsay Pereira | Mumbai

We can no longer talk about things or call out incorrect behaviour the way we used to just a few years ago because we now police ourselves

Representation pic/getty images
Representation pic/getty images

picEvery other week, someone on some social media platform chooses to put up stills from the film Amar Akbar Anthony. It hit screens in 1977, made its makers and stars millionaires, and continued to attract attention for much of the decade that followed. Most of the people putting up these stills weren't born when it aired. I suppose they do it as an act of wonder, to show that this India once existed too, a mythical place where a Hindu filmmaker and a Muslim dialogue writer could create a plot involving Hindu, Muslim, and Christian brothers, and turned it into a blockbuster.

I thought of the movie too, this week, for the unlikeliest of reasons. It was triggered by images of a market in Bombay on the eve of a popular festival. There were thousands of people on the street, most without masks, rubbing shoulders and breathing the same air with nonchalance as if they existed in a pandemic-free bubble.

I imagined those thousands of shoppers making their way home, to their respective localities across the city, thinking about how an air-borne virus could spread and overwhelm us all. Also, at the back of my mind was the thought that none of these people could be asked to stop, or be held accountable because they were shopping for a festival. As if to confirm that notion, more photographs emerged, of policemen walking through the crowds, doing nothing to disperse them or warn them about the need for masks.

Once upon a time, someone, somewhere, could possibly have called out this behaviour. We could have asked people to be less selfish, and more kind. Today, the possibility of saying anything that involves a festival, any religious beliefs, or anything to do with the sentiments of any community, can take any of us to jail.

The government of India can use our taxes to put up monuments to leaders who died hundreds of years ago, but we can't complain and ask for better roads, better hospitals, or public toilets instead. To ask these questions makes us come across as enemies of some communities, who take it upon themselves to seek revenge on behalf of these leaders and residents and rulers who passed away hundreds of years ago. It shouldn't make any sense, and yet it happens. For proof, speak to any stand-up comic you know.

I sometimes think we were always this touchy, and always this quick to take offence. Maybe we just didn't notice because the means of amplifying this touchiness didn't exist. Doordarshan didn't make it a habit of broadcasting protests against imagined insults, and newspapers didn't carry columns by representatives of communities voicing anguish over how someone was being misrepresented in a Hindi movie. So, maybe all these things happened all the time, and we just didn't know they did.

Somehow though, a part of me knows this just isn't true. Our parents and grandparents simply didn't have to deal with the level of outrage we all are routinely subjected to, which is why something like Amar Akbar Anthony could be made, why it could be enjoyed by so many, and why none of the people associated with its creation had to worry about being jailed for daring to make it.

Artists and creators around the world have been complaining about how 'Cancel Culture' has made it harder for them to say what they want to and create what they need to. For us, the notion of cancelling someone or something has extended far beyond what artists may or may not do. It now affects us all, because everything we dare to say, or post on Facebook, now holds the possibility of being politicised. It's why we are turning into a police state, with our families, friends, and neighbours doing most of the policing.

We can't talk about the people who went shopping for a festival, even though we know their actions jeopardised the lives of thousands. We can't ask people to stop air, water, or noise pollution, even though these are responsible for the deaths of millions of us, because to ask for understanding will be misinterpreted as an insult. When did we become so insecure about our beliefs anyway?

As I type this, I notice that somewhere in the West, approximately 150,000 people have signed petitions demanding the removal of a film from a streaming platform, saying it sexualises children. The only weird thing about this is that none of these people has seen the film yet.

When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira
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First Published: 19 September, 2020 05:22 IST



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