Last week Sanjay Leela Bhansali (SLB) was attacked in Jaipur by a fringe group called the Karni Sena which claimed that SLB’s film Padmavati, currently under production, “distorted history”. Of course this Sena did not have access to Padmavati’s script nor can they claim to have seen the film. Once again the mob and its misguided fury found an easy target in Indian filmdom. Once again, the Hindi film ‘fraternity’ brandished hashtags like #IStandbySLB and ‘condemned’ this act. Once again, the establishment maintained an uncomfortably lengthy silence and issued a customary statement denouncing this act of violence and vandalism.
I tried to make my point – maybe not expressing my anger in the most eloquent of ways and perhaps with similar crudity as the perpetrators of this act – through a tweet that read:
You violate my freedom, I will violate your rules. I will not rise for the national anthem before a film.
— Hansal Mehta (@mehtahansal) January 28, 2017
This tweet set off a series of trolls who flung the choicest of abuses at me, at a religion that I don’t practice, at a country that I am not a citizen of, at possibly everything they could term ‘anti-national’, as is the wont with these self proclaimed patriots and protectors of Indian culture. There was nothing remotely cultured about their response. A series of tweets by me to explain my stand were, of course, ignored. The mob after all wants to vent its fury, not indulge in healthy debate.
In this piece, I try once again to clear my stand and to voice my concerns beyond 140 characters. I feel compelled to do so because there are many like me who are constantly called names, massively abused and often silenced by these nameless, faceless and mostly cowardly voices. This piece is for all those voices that seek sanity from the majority and freedom from the repression meted out by the powers that encourage this violent, rabid herd of fringe elements. This piece is also for many of us who choose to be mute spectators to these violations, who choose to remain silent and instead resort to compromise with elements that continue to threaten democratic expression. When I refer to myself in this piece I think I refer to many like me, who might find some expression through what I am trying to say…
You made your point… without trying to hear mine.
And that is precisely my problem with the rabid-abuse brigade that pounces to execute you when you try to raise your voice. I want to clarify that I have no political affiliation and I never did. I have been opposed to the establishment because I believe that the BJP or Congress (or any other outfit for that matter) are simply names given to groups of opportunistic people who want to control us rather than govern us. The establishment wants to impose goondaism on my fundamental rights in the name of secularism, nationalism and all the mumbo-jumbo jingoisms that are paraded around in the name of progress and democracy. I not only oppose this kind of control, I detest it.
The establishment angers me. It angers me because it does nothing for us but gives us the impression that it is by pretending to uphold what is not theirs to uphold anyway – it is theirs to practice just like it is mine. My right to dissent, my right to opine, my right to oppose, my right to resist, my right to protest, my right to expression, my right to freedom. Any attack on these whether through a fellow artiste or any other citizen of my country provoke me to exercise my dissenting voice. I don’t care about left, right or centre as long as my fundamental rights in a democracy are respected and upheld without prejudice and with respect.
When I said that I would not rise for the national anthem before the start of a film in cinema halls – to register my protest against the constant persecution of artistes by fringe groups – I was trolled. I was abused. My family, religion, sexuality, patriotism, nationalism, secularism and many unprintable attributes were abused by nameless, faceless ‘representatives’ of morality and nationalism. Nobody understood (or even tried to understand) the symbolism behind my statement. If the establishment – covertly, through its deliberate silence – supports the violation of my fundamental rights, I will oppose it with disobedience to the rules it seeks to impose upon me. Why will I disobey? Because my disobedience will spark outrage and hopefully that outrage will shake them out of their continued and deliberate ignorance of our plight. If the establishment chooses to fail me, I choose to disobey that establishment. It is an uncomfortable stance. But in the face of such adversity my comfort will anyway remain short-lived and incomplete.
When goons claiming allegiance to the Shiv Sena attacked me 17 years ago (objecting to some dialogue, which I am still unaware of, in my film Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar), when they vandalised my office, when they blackened my face, neither the establishment nor the fraternity did anything. I don’t blame them. There was no Twitter then. There were no hashtags. No way to support me (or abuse me) from the comfort of a desktop computer or mobile device. Even if these did exist, my plight would have been reduced to a hashtag, my blackened face would have adorned timelines and tabloids.
Precious little has changed since that day. Except that I now find it unfair to expect much from the fraternity. Sometimes I feel it is even incorrect to call ourselves a fraternity. We unite boisterously to celebrate and disintegrate silently in the face of adversity. We lament our plight but refuse to acknowledge the threat. We sleep with the enemy and expect to escape tyranny. Like our films, we expect convenient escapes and simplistic solutions. We would rather take cover in appeasement than explore a deeper understanding of the human condition.
I did not mean to write this piece as a complaint and I will try not to end this on a note of cynicism. I made that mistake 17 years ago and made films without a voice or a conscience for nearly a decade. I will not let the system render me comatose again. I will continue to voice my opinions through my films, through my social networks – without fear and without prejudice. I end in the hope that the voice of dissent from some of us will eventually become the voice of a citizenry that wants its freedom to be respected and the values enshrined in its constitution to be upheld. I end in the hope that there is a sustained protest beyond hashtags and that our protest is registered (and acted upon by) those who try to control us. I end in the hope that that those who try to control us will actually try to control the menace. I end in the faith that there is a new beginning lurking somewhere on the horizon. I end in the hope that beyond all this lunacy there is a larger mass of sanity that will eventually prevail.
But how can I end this piece without some response to the numerous requests I have received over the weekend through anonymous ‘fans’ on Twitter. Some of you have ‘dared’ me to make a film on Prophet Muhammad, on Islam. I will if a compelling script is presented to me. Just like I will not hesitate to call a spade a spade (irrespective of caste, colour, political affiliation or religion) if my script and my conviction warrant that. Some of you have asked me to leave India for Pakistan. I would love to visit Pakistan because I love their cuisine, I love their music, I love their artistes as much as I hate the people that strive to create barriers of hatred to fulfil their frustrations. I love Pakistan almost as much as I love India, I respect Islam as much as I respect my religion and I hate bigots irrespective of which religion or country they belong to. To the others who have used colourful language and choice expletives to try and bring me down, I can only wish that this talent with words was channelised towards more productive pursuits.
Picture abhi baaki hain mere dost…
As I finish writing this I’ve been told that a ‘compromise’ has been reached between the fringe group and SLB Productions. Details of the compromise are sketchy, yet what is clear is that once again a filmmaker has been bullied into acquiescence. The man who was decorated with a Padmashri last year has been stripped off his dignity while we will either criticise him, sympathise with him or simply move on. Until next time.
Hansal Mehta is the director of Shahid and Aligarh.