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Cultural terrorism: Idea of India threatened

The attack on creative freedom as well as the debate on its limits is not new in India, but it is only getting worse

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Shah Rukh Khan one day and Kamal Haasan the next. Is it mere coincidence or a sign of an increasingly knee-jerk, reactionary India that two of its most loved film icons are forced to go public to painstakingly reassert their secular identity and insist, in case the message is lost, that they are proud Indians?

Given the trajectory of events and the escalating intolerance on a range of issues — Ashis Nandy and Salman Rushdie are more cases in point — this is the time to worry. And the question above, merely rhetorical.

Shah Rukh and Kamal Haasan are not mere actors, but extremely successful, talented artists with millions of rupees and many jobs riding on them and their films. If one rules over the powerful Hindi film industry, the other is a veteran of south Indian cinema.

Yet, they are under attack, victims of what some term cultural terrorism and even state terrorism. Shah Rukh, cornered for his views on what it is to be a Muslim in India, and Kamal Haasan, for making a film that allegedly has scenes that some Muslim groups find objectionable and that the Tamil Nadu government seeks to ban.

Last Tuesday, an upset Shah Rukh — in the thick of a controversy for an article that sparked a ridiculous war of words between New Delhi and Islamabad after Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rahman Malek said the Indian government should offer him security — said the “unwarranted twist” was “nonsense”. Nowhere in the article, a first-person account for Outlook Turning Points magazine, did he state or imply directly or indirectly that he felt unsafe, troubled or disturbed in India, the star said, reading out from a statement. “It does not even vaguely say that I am ungrateful for the love that I have received in a career spanning 20 years. On the contrary, the article only says that in spite of bigoted thoughts of some of the people that surround us, I am untouched by scepticism because of the love I have received from my countrymen and women,” said the actor.

And last Wednesday, ironically Mahatma Gandhi’s death anniversary and the day to recall the spirit of tolerance, came Kamal Haasan’s emotional outburst that if the verdict on his Rs 950 million (Dh65.59 million) film Vishwaroopam was not favourable, he would have to consider moving overseas to a “secular state abroad”.

“M.F. Hussain had to do it, now Haasan will do it,” said the angry filmmaker, adding that he had lost all his property, even his house.

The reference to Hussain, who died in London in 2011 after he was literally chased away from his homeland by right-wing Hindus, who took offence at his paintings on goddesses and his depiction of Bharat Mata (mother India), was so apt.

It is the same righteous wrath that links the Muslim groups who objected to Vishwaroopam, the same calculated move for maximum publicity that saw Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief Hafeez Saeed invite Shah Rukh to Pakistan. A rainbow coalition of fringe, fundamentalist views — all intolerant, regardless of which religion they originate from.

But there is also a difference between Shah Rukh and Kamal Haasan. While the 58-year-old Chennai-based veteran could afford to take the offensive and say he would move away from India, 47-year-old Shah Rukh from Bollywood could just not do so. Wonder what would have happened had Shah Rukh spoken of getting out of India instead of stressing: “We, in India, are extremely safe and happy. We have an amazing democratic, free and secular way of life.”

Lyricist Javed Akhtar said rightly about Kamal Haasan’s outburst: “Don’t listen to the words, listen to the sentiments.” Wonder if anybody would “listen” to Shah Rukh’s sentiments had he said the same thing?

As Indian celebrities, even those in filmdom, come under scrutiny and the discourse gets more polarised, there are other victims. Social analyst Nandy had to be questioned by the police in Jaipur for his comment during the Jaipur Literature Festival on corruption and caste. And Rushdie was in the country too, promoting Midnight’s Children, but was kept safely away from the Kolkata literary festival.

The right of thinkers to argue must be protected at all cost, an online petition said, defending Nandy.

By late last Wednesday evening, as the dust settled somewhat over the Shah Rukh brouhaha, Kamal Haasan had agreed to make cuts in his film, but the Madras High Court had reimposed the stay.

As filmmakers know only too well, if you do not upset the fringe element of one religion or another, you hurt caste groups and other sub-sections, even barbers. It is a tightrope walk. Remember how the film Billu Barber was finally released only as Billu?

The attack on creative freedom as well as the debate on its limits is not new, but it is only getting worse.

And where does India go from here? To another SRK storm maybe, to more uncertainty for Vishwaroopam, more tension for Nandy and other casualties of a society where knee-jerk reactions are taking over from considered debates and calibrated decisions.

Minu Jain is a senior journalist.