Monday, January 29, 2007

The Water Controversy

This week Deepa Mehta’s film “Water” was nominated for an Oscar, signaling its obvious acceptance by international audiences. I have not seen Water so can’t really say much about its merits. But I would like to say that the controversy around its filming in India was needless and does not at all reflect the popular mood or sentiment. It has been my belief that India and Indians aren’t as insecure about their identity or culture or religion as are made out to be sometimes by loose cannons passing for the right wing.

An unrelated incident in Cuttuck this week, where Coach Greg Chappel was at the receiving end of a Kilinga Sena (did you know there was such a sena before this?) activist’s ire, puts the opposition to Deepa Mehta’s films in perspective. After the incident the Indian team captain Rahul Dravid said “We find cases of people filing cases against actors and people doing funny things. It gives them a platform to become famous overnight. You don't need to achieve anything to become famous,” I think Mr. Dravid hit the nail on the head. Far too often people with little or no stakes in an issue are allowed to run amok in an attempt to seek cheap publicity. The controversy around filming “Water” was exactly that. The people involved in the protests had no way of knowing the contents of film’s script or whether it did actually offend them. The script of a film is typically known only to the core crew of technicians, actors and the producers. And those protesting its filming were therefore protesting about something they knew nothing about.

That this unhealthy trend is a route an increasing number of publicity seekers are taking should be obvious to the media. Why then does the media allow the use of its services to these elements? I remember watching a show of an earlier film made by Deepa Metha that was curtailed by similar protesters. In that case the media was invited to the event and only when the camera teams arrived and started filming the so called spontaneous protest took place. The cinema hall was vandalized and the paying public (I was in the hall and halfway through the film) were left to wonder about the rest of film. Not for a minute was anyone in the media contingent fooled about the spontaneity of the attack. Yet it was the news of the day and the government reacted predictable spinelessly and the film was pulled off the cinema halls.

Looking objectively at the landscape you can identify any number of groups that have arisen purely out of such stunts. Unfortunately it doesn’t end with one isolated event. As time goes by this opposition and the attending publicity become a franchise owned by the group and becomes their platform for fame and fortune.

In all of this the most comical are the guys who have put a claim of guardianship to our culture. I have a few questions for this lot though I suspect I will get no answers. What is culture? Is there an Indian Culture? Who decides what passes for Indian Culture? Is culture static, maybe frozen at some convenient (Utopian) time in history? Lastly, do you think Indian culture is so unstable and easily corruptible that it can be influenced by a mere film maker? What is laughable is the notion that Indian Culture needs help from people who burn, pillage, rape and destroy life for the benefit of cameras? Are thuggish boors who have no respect for freedom of speech or peaceful exchange of ideas (which by the way were hallmarks of Indian culture) now going to decide what passes for Indian Culture. I sincerely hope not.

I wonder if those opposing Deepa Mehta thought of going across to Sri Lanka to disrupt the filming process. I mean if it is worth fighting about it should be worth fighting about anywhere in the world. The analogy about dogs barking only in their own street comes to mind. Anyway, I wish Deepa Mehta all the luck at the Oscars and with all future endeavors. I would rather live in a society that allows for debate and discussion than be living in a society where ruffians hijack good sense. Where would you rather be?