What you don't see is what you get
The shadow here is not that the crudest stereotypes now function in people's minds as justifications for actions, but that we almost willfully wish to believe these stereotypes
There is an extremely funny video on a YouTube channel called Bekaar Films: 'Every Muslim in Bollywood Movies Ever'. It's about the shooting of a film scene, in which a regular-looking guy walks up to a neighbour's door, rings the bell, gives him sweets and says, "Ramzan Mubarak." The director is dissatisfied with every take. The reason? "He's not looking Muslim enough." He demands accessories for the 'believable' look: salwar kameez, then kajal, taweez, scarf. At some point, the hapless actor protests, "Yaar, main asal mein Musalman hoon" (I'm a Muslim in real life), but the director looks sceptical. Finally, he gets the perfect shot: the actor, clad in a bomber vest, salwar kameez, scarf, taweez, soorma, shreds the air with bullets from an AK-47. He hands over sweets, which explode. The director is ecstatic about his commitment to authenticity.
It's as if the video came to life recently. Two men, Balram Ginwala and Arbaaz Khan, were roaming around Palghar, dressed exactly like the caricatured figure in that video. They were allegedly reported on by a watchman, and picked up by police, faster than you can say 'Maganlal Dresswala', for creating panic and disturbing the peace. They turned out to be junior artistes from a film shoot and were released after the production did the needful. Later, Mumbai Police tweeted a denial of this report. But by then, we had already consumed it as news and will forever remember it as truth. You're asking, "Was it real news about fake people or fake news about real people?" Uff, you people are so negative. No one from the film industry has commented; though, for once, this is actually in their field of knowledge, yaniki, representation. Tiger Shroff, the film's star, was however quoted in one report as, "I feel that the film is going to be something cool. The idea is to get Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt of Mission Impossible versus James Bond, together in the same film. That's the idea." That last phrase is touchingly tentative as if Mr Shroff is acknowledging that, maybe, between the idea and the reality, falls the shadow.
The shadow here is not that the crudest stereotypes now function in people's minds as justifications for actions, but that we almost willfully wish to believe these stereotypes. The shadow is about we choose to see or not see. About the beliefs, we decide to render tangible and those we make invisible while knowing they're there.
Even as the death of Dr Payal Tadvi is now being discussed as murder, not suicide, the story's violence lies in how, despite complaints and reports, no one acknowledged or acted on what they knew to be true: that caste-based harassment is endemic in educational institutions and a trigger for widespread mental health crises and suicides. And that certain kinds of competitive education (engineering, medicine) has been elevated to a position in our socio-professional hierarchy, like an exclusive enclave of privilege, sharpening its potential for violence.
Insisting it's not about caste (without proof of that) is like pretending the apprehension of the actors is not about prejudice, and like pretending that the capitation fees paid by privileged students for private medical college admissions are 'merit' with no roots whatsoever in caste or class. The truths we hide from, the truths we seek, reveal the game we are playing with reality.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
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