November 10, 2018 @ 11:45 am

10 NOVEMBER 2018

Beyond criticism?

The uproar over Sarkar reveals a strong streak of political intolerance in Tamil Nadu

Bullying film-makers into shelving projects or effecting cuts is not new in India. However, it is not often that a State government or the ruling party resorts to threat and intimidation against a commercial film. The AIADMK in Tamil Nadu has forced the makers of the Tamil film Sarkar to cut a scene and mute some dialogue, ostensibly because they are critical of government policy or offend their sensibilities. AIADMK supporters went on a rampage in cinemas that screened the film, and in chorus, State Ministers spoke of legal action against the producers, while decrying scenes critical of populist schemes. Fisheries Minister D. Jayakumar’s remark that film-makers have “lost their fear” after the demise of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa was a tacit endorsement of a climate of fear. This is a reminder that it does not take much to touch the raw nerves of politicians. The blowback is worse when the party in question is running the government. This film has become an easy target for the AIADMK dispensation, as it is critical of welfare schemes for which the State is renowned. Part of a woman character’s name will now be muted to avoid any impression, however unfounded, that it was a veiled reference to Jayalalithaa. Images of people throwing into the fire mixers and grinders they had got from the government have also been snipped.

The legal position that there should be no further enforced censorship once a film has been certified by the Central Board of Film Certification has been wilfully ignored. Though the courts have repeatedly emphasised this, and come out strongly against street violence being used as an excuse to curtail free expression, producers are frequently forced by the politically powerful to compromise. Actor Vijay, who plays the protagonist in Sarkar, and has a considerable fan following, is seen as nurturing political ambitions. His previous project, Mersal, had drawn the ire of the BJP’s Tamil Nadu unit for critical references to the GST. One of the ironies in Tamil Nadu is that sometimes serious social issues are debated more in commercial cinema than in the political arena. Though the treatment of such issues often lacks substance or nuance, it has had a way of offending someone or the other, and resulted in orchestrated protests and demands for bans or post-certification cuts. A State in which cinema has played such a defining role — as many as five Chief Ministers have had a film industry background — ought to understand that films will and should make comments on issues of social importance. And that criticism on celluloid is no reason to take the law into one’s hands and use the might of the State to instil a climate of fear and stifle free expression.


In whose name?

The BJP’s rechristening spree goes against India’s plural ethos

Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, promises to keep map-makers busy. He has not only picked up the pace in changing names of places in his State, but his colleagues in the BJP seem to be going through the atlas to identify cities elsewhere that could be re-designated in a competitive spiral of Hindutva rigour. This summer, U.P.’s Mughalsarai Junction, among India’s busiest railway junctions, was renamed to honour Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, a leading ideologue of the Jan Sangh, the BJP’s predecessor party. Last month, the U.P. Cabinet approved the rechristening of Allahabad as Prayagraj. And this week, in the midst of commanding Deepavali bustle in Ayodhya, Mr. Adityanath determined that Faizabad district, in which Ayodhya town is located, would henceforth be called Ayodhya district. Presumably reluctant to be left out of this mission to strip historical centres of association with Muslim rulers, Gujarat Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel said the State government was willing to rename Ahmedabad as Karnavati. Such moves reflect a jaundiced view of history and the Sangh Parivar’s disregard for India’s plural identity. Stripping places of names that evoke a mixed cultural heritage and replacing them with names to project a Sangh iconography or Hindu revivalism sends out a deeply prejudiced message — that one community has a greater place in society.

Changing names of cities and roads has been an ongoing process in independent India. There were, in this, anti-colonial and grassroots considerations. Place names that asserted British imperial power were replaced with names and symbols that attest to the subcontinent’s composite identity and history through the ages. British inflexions were removed — so, Cawnpore became Kanpur. In an ongoing and sometimes disputed process, names of cities have been reworked to reflect their organic origins — Madras to Chennai, Bombay to Mumbai. What the BJP government in U.P. is doing is qualitatively different. It has stepped out of the previous secular, anti-colonial, grassroots-resonant frame and is unabashedly picking names with a Muslim connection and changing them in an ‘us versus them’ messaging. The State government has not paused to consider whether Allahabad draws its name from Ilahabas, as some contend, or whether the town was founded at a remove from the Prayag confluence. That Allahabad reflects India’s heritage since Mughal emperor Akbar’s time is deemed to make it target enough. The renaming of Faizabad, in turn, comes at a time when a section of the ruling dispensation is defiantly upping the ante on seeking a Ram temple at the Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya even as the issue is before the Supreme Court. It reinforces the signs that the BJP is ploughing a very polarised terrain ahead of general elections. And in the larger culture war, this renaming frenzy leaves no doubt that India’s rich legacy of assimilation and its constitutional ethos are under assault.

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