Photograph of Anil Chawla

Author - Anil Chawla

Thought-provoking article on the reasons behind protests against Deepa Mehta's proposed film 'Water'

For most Hindus Varanasi or Kashi is the same as Vatican is to Christians, Jerusalem is to Jews (and Christians) and Makka-Madina is to Muslims. It can of course be argued that the concept of treating a city as sacred is ridiculous and does not stand to reason. Any city has its mix of good and bad. There can be no city that has no crime or illicit sex or such other vices. Yet, neither Vatican nor Jerusalem nor Makka-Madina will allow a film-maker to make a film on the darker side of the city. The sentimental and emotional appeal that the city has to millions of people will be hurt. In fact, the cities are oldest surviving super-brands and a projection of the evil in any of them can kill the super-brand and therefore the city. It is unreasonable for any artist or film-maker to hope to be welcomed by the city concerned while digging out skeletons from the history of the city and attacking at the root of the existence of the city.

Deepa Mehta's proposed film "WATER" is a story about a portion of the history of Varanasi that the city would like to forget about. The film, as has been reported, is a story based in the year 1930 and focuses on a child-widow in Varanasi who eventually has sex with a number of men. There can be no denying that there could have been such instances. The film-maker does not claim that what she is portraying was the norm. The film-maker does not even say that the practice is prevalent today. She accepts that she is trying to talk of a dark spot that is no more and that could have been more an exception rather than the rule.

There have always been unconfirmed stories about illicit sex in Vatican. Recently a newspaper published that the incidence of AIDS in Catholic Priests in USA is four times than in general population. It is not known whether the report is true or false but it cannot be denied even by the Pope that among Catholic priests there are some black sheep who are not living life as they profess. This presence of black sheep cannot give a license to any artist to go to Vatican and do a film with a story line about a priest having a homosexual affair with someone. The idea of such a film will be considered shocking and deserving condemnation by any sensible man and not just by a Catholic. Artistic freedom and liberty of expression cannot be allowed to hurt the basic belief structure cherished as sacred by millions.

Art, literature and film have to operate in a social environment and cannot be removed from it. An artist can and possibly should be a reformer. But in such a case the artist has to tread a cautious path. His/her intentions must be honourable. The desire to reform should stem from a genuineness of purpose and commitment towards the goal. One cannot reform by hurting people's sentiments. The process of reform needs patience, perseverance and long term vision. Deepa Mehta claims that she is a just a film-maker and nothing more. Her film's subject is a skeleton of history that needs no reform because it has ceased to exist long ago. In other words, she has refused to take on the mantle of a reformer. Her intentions are purely commercial and she makes no bones about it. Yet, there are some who defend her venture as if it is an attempt to reform.

Emancipation of widows has been discussed for more than a century in India. Remarriage of widows has become well accepted in India due to the efforts of various reformers who raised the consciousness of Indian people on this subject with a lot of sensitivity. None of the reformers had an eye on profits, none of the reformers was a foreign citizen and none of the reformers tried to make a big show out of the widows for foreign consumption. Deepa Mehta has failed on all these counts. The mistrust about her is a result of her own background, which will not be changed by deleting a few words here and there in the script of the film.

Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter Makka and Madina. Salman Rashdie's book Satanic Verses did not directly point at any dark spots of Muslim history, yet the book is banned in India and most Islamic countries. Projecting dark spots of Islamic history will lead to violent protests by Muslims and hence the artists, film-makers and authors make no attempt to focus on the underside of Islamic society. Christianity has changed a lot since the times when scientists were burnt publicly. But even now there are limits that one must observe while writing about the Church, priests and nuns. Compared to Islam and Christianity, Hinduism is extremely tolerant. Reformers are reasonably well accepted and have rarely faced prosecution or threats to life. The proponents of artistic freedom must realise and appreciate this. They must understand that they will need to evolve a set of norms for self-imposed discipline when focussing on aspects of Hinduism. Absence to do so will harm their interests and will lead to the Hindu losing his tolerance. In simpler terms, it can be said that here is a giant that does not get offended easily and can take a lot of nonsense, but please let it be that way by not hitting him where it hurts him most unless of course you can convince him that he is being hit for his own good.

Unlike Islam and Christianity, Hinduism lacks institutions to give voice to the collective will of Hindus. RSS, BJP and their sister organizations (called collectively as SANGH PARIVAR) have often tried to act as self-appointed representatives of Hindus. However the Sangh Parivar has, in recent years, tried to become everything to everybody. On one hand, Sangh Parivar has tried to project a liberal, suave, internationally acceptable image, while on the other hand majority of its members and activists come from fairly traditional conservative families. The contradiction between these two extremes became self-evident in the handling of the WATER episode. The protests in Varanasi were headed and organized by front organizations of Sangh Parivar while some prominent leaders of the Sangh Parivar including some who occupy ministerial positions in the Government of India have been trying to help and defend Deepa Mehta. This has sent confusing messages to the world and has undermined the reputation of the Sangh Parivar as a coherent, consistent body. BJP and Sangh Parivar must realize that they cannot simultaneously run with the hares and hunt with the wolves.

For all its follies, inconsistencies and internal contradictions, BJP and Sangh Parivar need have no fears, since on the other side of the fence, Congress has become so far removed from people that Congress has ceased to understand and appreciate Indian psyche. Strong emotions of people of Varanasi on the issue found expression in the general strike organized in Varanasi on 7th February. The general strike (bandh) was a total success. Ignoring such expressions of the collective will of people, Digvijay Singh, Congress Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, has invited Deepa Mehta to shoot the film on the banks of river Narmada in Madhya Pradesh. No wonder that Congress is moving fast towards becoming a dinosaur of Indian history.

Politicians in India are so busy playing games of one-upmanship that they have no time to observe, analyse and understand the people's will even when the people's will is expressed loud and clear for the world to hear. Deepa Mehta's proposed film has evoked strong reactions but the reactions are being seen as fires stroked by communalist fanatics. The fires raging in Varanasi are seen with politicaly coloured glasses as saffron coloured fires. Media joins the politicians in this rabble-rousing. There are learned men and women who are preaching the virtues of free speech and fundamental rights as well as advancing high sounding lofty arguments while at the same time closing their eyes to the way the world at large looks at such matters concerning faith. It is high time that some of these learned men and women did some introspection and opened their eyes to the realities in the world. True liberal attitude, modern outlook and secularism consists in respecting the sensitivities of all faiths for their sacred cities. No one has any right to sensationalise and make money by rigging up controversies regarding any sacred city - whether it be Vatican or Jerusalem or Makka or Madina or even Varanasi. The world knows it and accepts it. It is high time that people like Deepa Mehta, Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das, Javed Akhtar and Shahrukh Khan understood this simple rule.


10 February, 2000

The above article attracted some very interesting comments. Please click here to read the debate.

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ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.

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