Tuesday, February 26, 2008

We have such thin skins.....

Some months ago, I got a chance to see Deepa Mehta’s film titled “Water”. It is part of the trilogy of “Fire”, “Earth” and Water. The film had made news for two reasons- Deepa had courted controversy when “Fire” delved into lesbian relationships, and then “Water” began shooing the plight of child widows at Benares, igniting the wrath of Hindu Fundamentalists and also attracting a law suit from the noted author Sunil Gangopadhyay who claimed that the film was based on his acclaimed novel “Those Days”.

“Water” is a pale shadow of what it might have been. After shooting was disrupted at Benares, the cast as well as location got dismantled; Deepa Mehta shifted her location o Sri Lanka and recruited a new cast. She tried to recreate with very plastic success, the ghats of Benares in Sri Lanka but the artificial umbrellas and ghat props would not deceive any one who has been to Varanasi.

Of course “Water” is not the only film thus affected. Films in recent memory that have run into problems include the recently released “Jodhaa Akbar”, The Da Vinci Code, as well and of course politically tinged films like “Mangal Pandey-The Rising”, Shyam Benegal’s film – “Netaji, the Forgotten Hero”.

The Indian Express has been worrying about a growing tribe of Indians who have a thin skin and flaunt it too and is wondering as to why we are so quick off the block to take offence? It is an important question to ask ourselves. Of course the editorial speculates that perhaps the reason is that India is a democracy all right and so there is freedom of expression and which people feel free to use but society is not liberal enough and so the space for tolerance is limited.

But perhaps the issue to investigate is not so much the problem but the solution. Yes India is a democracy but we have a long way to go and to so we have learnt to take the freedom of expression that the constitution has given for ourselves but perhaps not learnt to provide the same right to others who think and act differently from us. But since India is a society which is millennia old, it can not easily shed its norm cannot be dragged by the scruff of its neck into a liberalized climate. So perhaps, while learn to accept the fact that we do indeed have a thin skin, perhaps we should also look at solutions that provide platforms for various points of view to be expressed in a way that is not so openly divisive.

Is that possible? Can we at least become thick skinned enough to at least others to speak, write and make films of their kind and at least allow them to live even if we never get to quite like them? A truly liberal society of course would allow a climate where a lot could be said and then the dissenters would also know how to express their dissent without fear of either courting or cultivating civil unrest. But we are yet far from those gates.

In school, there was a word that we learnt – xenophobia – the fear of all things foreign. In all those years since school, it seems that the word and the world in which we live today have both shrunk their borders and today the line between “them” and “us” is often as fragile as glass. Or to put it differently, if you are not with me in my opinions and it may be in the shallowest of matters, you are against me and different from me.

I have neither the time nor the inclination to look for signs of our common humanity and build on that. I would rather reach for the stone that will smash your window pane or your head, so that I can retreat to the privacy of my den and preen that I have been a bully yet one more day, ridding the world of that dreadful menace – those who do not think the way I do. Yes, Xenophobia is a frightening word, especially when it has shrunk so much that the borders are constantly closing in around us.

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