Thursday, May 5, 2011

Films and civil society: Standing up against the easy response

Selma Carvalho, author of Into the Diaspora Wilderness is one of Goa’s brave new voices. Hers is a brave voice because she dares to speak truths that her audience does not particularly like to hear. The case I have in mind is her spirited response to the whole Dum Maro Dum controversy. In her essay on The Goan Voice, she pointed out that regardless of how offensive we may find the film or references in it to Goa, ‘Hurt sensibilities do not give us the right to clamp down on free speech in the guise of protecting society. The principles of democracy are far greater, far more important than our hurt.’

She argued further that ‘We must realize, that in a free society, civil liberties such as the artist’s right to create, to interpret, to challenge existing norms are sacrosanct. They must be protected, they must be fought for as fiercely as our nationalist heroes fought for Liberation and they must be honoured every step of the way even when it repulses us to do so. Unless the mind is allowed to roam unfettered, it cannot create, it cannot hold a mirror unto society. When the creative mind itself is weighed down by censorship, society stagnates; it becomes hollow, echoing only those sentiments which it finds acceptable from within its empty chambers.’

Carvalho’s voice must be cherished not merely because she is brave, but because, as her argument above demonstrates, she has the gift of foresight. She understands that the arguments we use today, can just as well be used by elements of the far-right. Indeed, she makes this argument against those protesting for a ban of Dum Maro Dum because of the similarity in tone shared by the shrill remonstrations against the film and those often raised by the Hindu right; a perfect example being the recent demonstrations against the works of Prof. José Pereira.

There are many who believe that opposition to the Hindu Right is sufficient, and that in face of this larger enemy, we should hold our peace against the bigots in our midst. As Carvalho argues, this position is pointless. The Hindu Right are not necessarily products of some peculiarly ‘Hindu’ perversion but the result of attitudes that are running strong through our society today. What the Hindu Right has been protesting as an insult to Hindus and Hinduism, the Catholic bigots have been protesting as an insult to the ‘Goan identity’. On the other hand you have the local ‘feminists’ who may wind up producing a scenario not very different from what a Taliban-mentality may produce. In his review of the situation, Cecil Pinto pointed to the rather bizarre signs held up by those protesting against the disrespect shown to local women.

The demand for intervention of the State is particularly scary because of the manner in which the Goan State has been relating to the law especially in the course of the Kamat administration. Public demands are often used to support, or used as a precedent to support, the willful use of law to support a situation where anarchy can reign. Thus on numerous occasions, Mr. Kamat has pleaded inability to act when he should because of ‘public protest’. And yet, perhaps displaying a sympathy for the Hindu Right, has stood by while statal authorities effect de facto bans on works and events objected to by the Hindu Right.

Carvalho also points out the deep hypocrisy shown by the members of the legislative assembly, who protested against the film, even as Goa continues to be officially marketed by the State as a tourist destination for ‘fun’, where Goa is in fact marked by a sinister nexus between Ministers and drug lords, and the Goa represented in the film may not in fact be too far from the Goa that has been actively created by our political class.

One cannot help but extract once more from Carvalho’s impassioned prose:

‘Women's groups are up in arms that a movie will distort the image of women. Let's look at how well women have fared in Goa in recent history. When a young woman alleged that she was raped by a wanna-be politician, he had enough clout to delay his own interrogation, the powers-that-be asked what she was doing out so late. When Scarlett Keeling washed up on our shores, so obviously physically brutalized, the case was dismissed as one of drowning. Only Fiona Mackeown, her mother's relentless intervention forced the government to re-open the case. The Government insisted Fiona Mackeown was out to tarnish the image of Goa. In fact, all she wanted was a mother's justice for her daughter - a woman's justice.’

There are some who have correctly pointed out that the film does display a certain kind of colonial gaze that the ‘Indian’ has toward Goa. Goa, and the (largely Catholic) Goan, can be used in a manner that is best described as colonial. The space and the identity exploited for the benefit of another. However, they seek to use this valid observation to perpetuate an internal colonialism, by arguing for the ‘Special Status’. Clever monkeys.

What we must recognize is that it is not just Goa, and the Goan, that is marked out for the colonial relationship vis-à-vis India. There are numerous other groups in India marked out in this manner. Kashmir and the Kashmiri is one such group. There can be no denying that the relationship of the ‘Indian’ with Kashmir is colonial, and the Kashmiri is often actively depicted as the ‘terrorist’. If Goa has been depicted in this particular film as lawless, then Bihar is almost always represented as a gangster paradise, populated by boors who if not gangsters are docile workers. The list could go on and on.

We would perhaps be better served if we used this controversy to reflect on the manner in which certain segments of the Hindi film industry in Bombay actively create stereotypes that justify the treatments meted out to segments of the Indian population. There is a definitely a colonial relationship that is being articulated for the colonial Indian Republic that justifies unequal treatment for categories of Indians and we need to wisen up to this act.

The response however lies not in banning the film, nor does it lie in the dubious demand for ‘Special or Separate Status’ which is in fact merely the precursor to the demand for what will be the devastating demand independence. The response lies in addressing the less glamorous, but definitely more fruitful path of seeking to build a respectful and just society, not just within Goa, but through the Indian Union. The response to those who feel offended by the film’s depiction in Goa would be, those of you who have sneered at the Bihari, bad-mouthed a spirited woman, or hated a Kashmiri, let them cast the first stone.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times, 4 May 2011)

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