It was hardly surprising that right wingers would get outraged about Naseeruddin Shah’s recent comments about growing instances of mob violence and how the death of a cow was given more importance than the killing of a policeman.
Hindutva warriors see, in every critical remark about what is happening in India at the moment, an indictment of their idol Narendra Modi. In their worldview, such criticism is conflated as being somehow anti-Hindu; add cow to the mix, and their anger becomes incendiary. Besides, Shah is a Muslim and to them, a Muslim speaking his mind is nothing short of treacherous.
It is not as if Shah has made any secret of his views on anything. He is known for speaking out, sparing not even his own industry and its haloed names. Early on, in the 1980s, Shah, then a star in the parallel cinema circuit, had rubbished arthouse films as mediocre and even fraudulent. It didn’t win him any friends. In interviews, he candidly talked about how Rajesh Khanna was no actor and dismissed Amitabh Bachchan’s films. Recently, he called Virat Kohli the ‘worst behaved player in the world’, a point made by several others.
He follows political developments, is well read and is known to have well considered views on current events. He is secular to the core. He has not imposed any religion on his children, leaving them to work out their own path. In 2015, the Shiv Sena protested when he pointed out that Pakistan artists got a hostile reception in India while Indian artists did not face any such problems in Pakistan. At the time, Shah had said he was being targeted for being a Muslim.
So he was being true to form. And, in keeping with their intolerance of such views, right-wing Hindutva warriors did what they do best – object to his presence at a literary fest in Ajmer. The Ashok Gehlot government in Rajasthan was sluggish in its response, giving us a glimpse into what the future may hold. The event was shifted to a less public function in Pushkar, where he released a book and sent a video message to his fans.
With this, Shah has trumped the Hindutva elements. He has not backtracked, not made any bogus statements of the “I apologise for offending anyone” variety and not reached out to influential elements to sue for peace. Nor has he shut up. This sets him apart from his industry compatriots, where the norm is to rush to a powerful person, issue a grovelling apology and then swear never to speak out again. Some, like Bachchan, have developed the fine art of saying nothing; it is as if he exists in a parallel universe where he remains untouched by what is happening around him. Others, like Aamir Khan – otherwise a no less sensitive person – take a vow of silence after a backlash. Still others, like Karan Johar, give in at the first sign of threats and abjectly apologise.
Shah hasn’t done any of the above. He has instead chosen to defy in a quiet way, registering his right as a citizen and as a creative person to freedom of expression. He is not given to going out of his way to court controversy – he is not one of the ‘rent a quote’ types. His responses are well thought out, the result of thinking about issues for a long time.
Even in this case, it was not an impromptu quote after a reporter shoved a mike under his face in public or to score a cheap political point. He spoke, in measured tones, for a video being prepared for Karwan-e-Mohabbat, the countrywide ‘journey’ begun by one time civil servant Harsh Mander which aims to spread the message of harmony.
And which right thinking person will not agree with Shah? Indians are worried about the impunity with which organised groups get away after lynching innocent people. Many parents are concerned about their children growing up in a country where one could be beaten up for eating the ‘wrong’ food or arrested for an innocuous Facebook comment.
At such a time, it is almost a duty of citizens who have a platform and a voice to stand up and be counted.
In India the opposite has happened. The media is subdued, businessmen speak in hushed voices. Anything seen remotely being critical of the ruling establishment or its ideology is spoken of in muted tones, often accompanied by exhortations not to ‘quote’. How often one has met even otherwise powerful people who decline to speak on anything contentious because they are fearful of the repercussions.
As for the film industry, behind all that manufactured glamour is the sordid reality of feet of clay. Some have happily signed up with the powers that be and are ready to speak up for them, others have chosen to stay silent.
Naseeruddin Shah’s outspokenness is not just refreshing but welcome. He is a respected actor and public figure. He has been consistent about what he stands for. His views matter. It is his very heft that gets the right-wing, Hindutva lot and their masters angry. They can’t ignore him and they know that his words carry weight in the public arena. He scares them. That is why they went after him.
Which is why, more than ever, we need more Naseeruddin Shahs in this country.