The 'I told you so' opinion makers

Jan 29, 2012, 09:25 IST | Paromita Vohra

Everytime there's an argument worth having, eminent Indians get into their corner and take their stock positions.

Everytime there's an argument worth having, eminent Indians get into their corner and take their stock positions. So it was with all things Jaipur and Rushdie these last days. People spilled over themselves to air differing opinions -- which should be a good thing. Except most opinions were declarations and accusations.

With rare exceptions, they were all basically saying -- "I was right all along, look what I've said about free speech /secularism / human rights in the past." There were the self-righteous ones, passionate warriors of free speech, soldier-eyed in their interminable interviews with and about 'Salman'.

Illustration/ Satish Acharya

There were the self-lefteous ones. Those who thought the festival was tainted and others who thought everything that's ever published is tainted. Because it's all about cronies, compromises, and sponsorships. Not that they didn't have a point but they did have a hard time making it as if the main point wasn't them, but the principle.

One was left marvelling at how strongly ideas of caste and masculinity are inscribed upon our political discussions. Words like tainted and polluted, stiff with the starch of purity, indicate that these are really contests to prove who is the Brahmin among radicals.

Then there were those who want to defend "our" culture from "those" people. I remained unclear if "those" people were fundamentalists or Chetan Bhagat and slightly uncertain if one of their faults was that their casual wear doesn't come from Fab India.

Bringing up the rear were those writing columns about how everyone was just an armchair Twitter-Facebook protestor (as opposed to those who write in newspapers).

Threaded through this were words like pusillanimity and cowardice, for those who had read, those who had stopped them, those who left. No one wondered (or wished) why hundreds of others, barring one, present at the festival did not also read in solidarity and raise the stakes a little.

For Indians freedom of expression usually involves speaking, but rarely, listening. One of the reasons our culture is mostly comprised of the ritual performance of political status, is because our only ambition seems to be the ambition of size. Our imaginations have become so impoverished that we cannot respect something -- sometimes not even ourselves -- unless it ticks these boxes: is very big/ powerful; has sucked up to something very big/ powerful; has abused something very big/ powerful. After that it will be crowned the "last word", the "definitive" book/ film on Bombay / Delhi/ India/ globalisation /caste /communalism.

This must be why most film critics, with notable exceptions, are unable to discover and talk about alternative work. A work that's good because of its spirit or ideas -- our critical culture rarely has the confidence to recognise and celebrate it until someone in Bollywood or a powerful festival does it first. We fear that by speaking of small things, we ourselves risk being cast outside the sphere of importance.

Only if Indie filmmakers go through the Oedipal motions of abusing the fathers -- the mainstream -- thus proving that they are real men with big, um sticks, does the culture run to revere them. The small thing -- the festival, the book, the films that grow very slowly, which decides not to grow beyond a point because like a hormonally injected strawberry it would lose both, its sweetness and its tartness if it did, is not seen as strong or significant by most people. Size trumps ideas and principle every time, creating a culture of stridency, not beauty, least of all variety.

The question we need to ask is not whether we dare to become bigger. It's if we dare to stay small.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper.

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