Friday, October 9, 2009

Invoking the law is for commoners, not celebs

A spiffy, silhouetted installation has emerged on India’s political skyline. It is titled ‘principled stand in the time of the market’. The principle is to keep the market standing at all costs. For the larger good, of course: in an age when the state is widely perceived to be discredited, goes the argument, doesn’t the market embody the highest creative spirit of the age, the pulse of democracy and the core of community?

Even in the sphere of art, whose practitioners in old fashioned times preferred the scaffolding of constitutional guarantees such as freedom of expression and rule of law around their works, the only ‘stand’ worth taking seems to be that of genuflection.

Take the recent case of Bollywood producer Karan Johar, who lost no time in apologising to Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray for any hurt caused to the Marathi manoos by the inadvertent name-calling of Mumbai as Bombay in his latest release, Wake Up Sid. The logic: MNS activists were all set to disrupt film screenings in Pune, and there was too much money riding on the film for Johar to stand on dignity. Demonstrating a rare humility post-apology, Johar told the media, “We are creative people, and creative people make mistakes.”

Clearly, one mistake per film was more than enough for Johar; he did not make another ‘mistake’ of invoking the rule of law as applied by a duly elected state government for redress. That’s for commoners, not for creative individuals and celebrities.

Time was when Johar would have been critiqued for an abjectly placatory stance vis-à-vis the larger principle of infringement of the artistic domain. Not so today. In many quarters the filmmaker’s stand is seen as a responsible act mindful of the capital invested in the film product and of his duty to provide entertainment to an audience of consumers.

That is the extent to which public perceptions of a globalising Indian middle class have shifted in almost two decades of economic liberalisation: politics is a hindrance to ‘growth’ and must be delinked from wealth creation in all areas; even the infotainment and entertainment industries can no longer demand to be judged on yardsticks arising from within their domains; flag-waving protests are best left to agenda-driven activists. Finally, as an individual Johar has the right to do what he thinks is right; isn’t that the true meaning of freedom of expression?

Evidently the market thinks so too. In August, the India Art Summit organisers excluded the works of artist M F Husain — long targeted by Hindutva proponents — from the art fair yet again citing their ‘duty’ to secure works worth crores of rupees showing in public space, and to safeguard everyone’s interest. Possibly, that includes safeguarding some people from themselves, as they chart ‘irresponsible’ trajectories, claiming privileges like freedom of expression in public space as creative individuals.

Once, the public sphere was conceived as a democratic space accommodating diverse views and practices, and dissent against any kind of majoritarianism. Today, the public sphere signifies just the opposite: a parking lot for the paralysing violence of political opportunism based on chauvinism; prime real estate akin to a gated community which tries to keep troublemakers ‘outside’ by placating them.

Both strands are interlinked and bear testimony to the flight of political capital from the public sphere. The vacuum has been satisfactorily filled by a culture of consumerism which seemingly apes democracy: opting for a particular car, refrigerator, jeans or juice becomes the most politic choice a consumer can make. Watch a currently playing TV ad of women marching for their rights — a good disinfectant to clean their toilets — and the picture, not just the toilet, becomes crystal clear.

The principle is, never risk offending anyone — for every individual represents a consumer or a potential consumer. Who knows it better than hip trendsetter Johar (aka K Jo), who gave the aspirational, Indian middle-class youth its first lip-smacking taste of a hero’s everlasting romance with global consumer brands from tip to toe in Shah Rukh Khan’s character in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998).

In 2009, love means being ever ready to say sorry. For, even hard working rioters must watch films sometimes.

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