‘Art’ Exploits Hindu Onus of Tolerance
In ‘secular’ India, why must the majority community alone be open to cinematic and creative scrutiny and sarcasm?
It is high time the argument that the Hindus in India would always get the largest share of cinematic and creative scrutiny because they are a majority community was countered. This is a fundamentally flawed argument that must not be allowed to stay unchallenged any longer.
We are supposed to be a secular country where the Hindus are only a numerical majority. We are a multi-faith society and critical questions must be asked of all citizens irrespective of their religion.
If we are a truly secular society, Hindus cannot be singled out for a persistent cinematic investigation, subjected to contempt in the name of creative freedom, and trial by the self-appointed liberal media.
This is not a Hindu rashtra, as the left-liberal cabal and the custodians of the pre-Modi ‘idea of India’ never tire of screaming, where Hindus can demand a positive preference over people of other faiths. In a secular and multi-faith society, Hindus cannot be a preferred target for persistent negative portrayal in movies and in the so-called expressions of creative freedom like MF Hussain’s paintings irreverent of Hindu deities.
In a secular society every faith must get an equitable measure of healthy scrutiny from the intellectual and creative community irrespective of the number of people adhering to that faith.
While the filmmakers’ bias has definitely helped Hinduism reform and stay contemporary, this was not always the intention of those who made these movies. Some of these movie-makers, unlike the Hirani-Aamir Khan types, have been serious thinkers of their craft. Their movies have rightly attacked casteism, feudalism, gender inequality, and superstitions. Hinduism too has benefitted from this self-criticism.
The pulp entertainer like PK which casts a critical look at Hindu practices, has made huge gains at the box office. This proves that a majority of Hindus have watched and appreciated it. There have also been quite a few serious attempts at scrutinising the commercialisation of religion (read Hinduism) by the more thinking directors in Marathi — Umesh Kulkarni’s Deool (2011) and Paresh Mokashi’s Elizabeth Ekadashi (2014). These movies did see some minor protests, but on the whole an overwhelming number of Hindus have appreciated these cinematic efforts at self-criticism.
The disproportionately high number of movies made as a critical or sarcastic commentary on Hindu traditions and practices — on the basis of an intellectually irrational justification that Hindus comprise the largest congregation of Indian population — has not only aggrieved Hindus but it has also created serious chasms among Hindus and people of other faiths in India.
It is easy to brand those saffron-clad unbeautiful people protesting against Rajkumar Hirani’s film PK as ‘the rabid fringe of a revivalist RSS’. But they are only the more belligerent expression of this deep-rooted grievance that a vast silent majority of Hindus, peace-loving and perfectly secular in their real life, nurse but do not express as passionately.
This writer supports Hirani’s right to make movies the way he wants to and on the subjects of his choice. Here, though, is a question to Hirani and Aamir Khan: Would they mind looking at the Muslim issues in India to make their next film?
This is also a free country. Just as this writer is free to offer this suggestion, so are Hirani and Aamir Khan to dump it. The larger question remains unanswered, though. Why don’t we see as many mainstream Hindi movies talking predominantly about the Muslim issues as those that critically look at the Hindus?
Even a frivolous comedy, say, PK 2 would do. But there is very little probability of the Hiranis and the Aamir Khans of the boorishly named Bollywood producing such a film. They are prisoners to the Bollywood-mandated definition of ‘secular’ movie-making, which effectively means the genre of pulp movies attacking Hindu traditions, ethos, superstitions, and religious quacks, but which seldom metes out the same treatment to other faiths. This creative plateau called Bollywood is not quite the same place that a Sagar Sarhadi, who wrote and directed the dark yet sublime Bazaar in 1982, could claim his own. Or an MS Sathyu who created the iconic Garm Hava in 1973.
Both Bazaar and Garm Hava primarily deal with the Muslim issues, yet the greatness of these movies is that every faith or even the faithless could relate to them. Bazaar set in Hyderabad bares open the problems of bride selling, soul-crippling poverty and male feudalism in their darkest and most depressing shades. All the characters in the movie are Muslims. While these are not the problems peculiar to Muslims, the film succeeds in addressing one of the most fundamental problems that the Muslims in India, among others, face — poverty and gender inequality. In doing so, Bazaar does not offend anybody, yet makes the point very eloquently.
Garm Hava represented the convulsions of the Muslims post-Partition. But Sathyu did not treat Muslims as a community living in a vacuum either. The film projected the Muslim problem in the context of other faiths in India soon after a country had been carved out in the name of Islam.
Most other mainstream Hindi movies with some representation of Muslim issues portray the community as victimised by the system or by the majority community or both. So the tone and texture of such films is accusatory, exaggerative, and melodramatic.
Recall Mahesh Bhat’s Zakhm (1998), which has a Hindu man, who never musters courage to own up to his Muslim wife. His two sons from the Muslim wife follow divergent trajectories in life — the elder one becomes a sensitive writer, the younger is shown going down the ‘wrong’ path of Hindu communal politics. Bhat’s selective hatred for Hindu communalism gets a full expression in his portrayal of the Hindu politician — thuggish, rogue, pathologically anti-Muslim, and demonic in prosecuting his politics. So the film ends up showing Hindus as the aggressors and Muslims as the victimised and persecuted minority. Bhat exploits his artistic freedom but there are no serious Muslim issues discussed here other than the grievance of victimisation.
Film critic Khalid Mohammad, who made Fiza (2000), also showed Muslims, through the lead played by Hrithik Roshan. It showed Muslims as a community wronged by the system — which means Hindus! The movies made post-Gujarat riots in 2002 also painted Muslims as the victims and Hindus and the Hindu-dominated system as their oppressors.
Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday (2004) was a commendable effort in its portrayal of Badshah Khan, one of those Mumbai locals instigated by Tiger Memon to take part in the Mumbai bomb blast conspiracy in 1993.
It is not this writer’s argument that Muslims are not victimised and wronged by the majority community and the system in India. It is a fair grievance that deserves solutions. But this grievance against the majority community and the system cannot be the only theme that interests our mainstream filmmakers. Is this the only problem the Muslims in India have? Does this grievance override the other problems of theirs?
The socio-economic status of Muslims in India ought to have been the major area of interest and investigation for the creative fraternity including the filmmakers. Sadly, the filmmakers have been playing up only one grievance, however genuine, to the neglect of all other issues the Muslims in India face.
Few mainstream movies have dared to discuss problems like the radicalisation of Muslim youths and the metastasis it has caused, the lure of terrorism and fundamentalism exemplified by the four youths from Kalyan near Mumbai who joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), economic backwardness, limited participation in the mainstream education system, low representation in the private sector and gender inequality. These are only some of the complex issues that not only define the status of Muslims in India but also their relationship with people of other faiths. A creative investigation into these themes would probably help the Muslims more and also generate an exchange of dialogue among them and other communities.
Similarly, the Hindu community also has its own grievances against Muslims in India. Is it the filmmaking community’s case that Hindu grievances do not matter?
The Hindu grievance is that they are almost always singled out while Muslims, the largest minority in India, rarely get a similar representation. We live in a world without walls. The Hindus in India can see the turmoil in the Islamic world not only in India but almost everywhere around the world. The fact is that Islamic fundamentalism has become a global phenomenon and one cannot fault Hindus, who are only a minority in the global scenario, for feeling threatened by the multiple expressions of Islamic fundamentalism around the world.
In India, if the numbers are taken as the only yardstick to measure a faith’s commitment to practicing secularism, the majority Hindus are the biggest reason why India practically remains a secular country. The community has taken criticism in their stride.
But will the kitschy Bollywood gang ever muster enough creative courage to address some of the larger and profound grievances the Hindus have against Muslims in India? And will the Muslims in India tolerate this creative freedom if the artistic license turns against their practices, their traditions, their faith, their sentiment? This writer has his doubts.
Muslims are an integral part of this multicultural society and supposedly secular governance. Muslims’ numerical minority is just a fact of Census. In practical terms, no faith lives in a vacuum; people of all faiths share the same secular space. Their ties and cohabitation are defined not by the strength (or the lack of it) of their numbers, but by the ethos and essence of tolerance.
The argument that the majority community deserves a maximum measure of critical attention and it has the biggest responsibility to be ever tolerant, ever secular, and ever generous towards the minorities, is not only irrational but it also runs in conflict with the essence of secularism. True secularism demands that everyone is accountable, all faiths are open to scrutiny and get equal protection from the Constitution, and no community is made to believe that it is more equal than others.
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