Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Democracy, Censorship, and Political Correctness :
Aaja Nachle and Taslima Nasrin

the greek word demos means "common people", and has the connotation of "a mob". in india, democracy (from demos + kratos,strength,rule) means little more than rule by a mob. this is what i am thinking as i listen to the title song of the film aaja nachle.

from the recurring strains of the sarangi playing a bangla folk tune (dAdA melA theke bou ene de), to the syncopated rhythm of the jhanak jhanak dance bol, and then sunidhi chauhan's sonorous rhythmic rendering in a dehati patois, this song composed by the salim-sulaiman duo is a statement of a distinctly indian ethos fused into the rhythmic and harmonic combinations typical of bollywood masala music. as salim and sulaiman say in this video, the songs have a folk / sufi base. the music is competent, and sunidhi chauhan's singing does lift the song out of mediocrity, in the end, it is not the most appealing of this year's musical oeuvre from bollywood.

but it is the lyrics of this song, by piyush mishra, which have made the song controversial.

the relevant stanza goes:

maine galti kari thi meri nathni padi thi
ke sone me usko rangA gayi
main rangA ke atariyA pe A gayi
mohalle me kaisi mAr-a-mAr hai
bole mochi bhi khud ko sonAr hai
sabko nacha ke nachle

a rough translation may be:

mistakenly, i had worn my nosering
and it's colours got mixed into the gold
and then i was playing colours of holi
and everyone was up in arms, saying
even the cobbler is calling himself a goldsmith!
come, let's forget all this, let's just dance

thus this stanza appears to be comparing cobblers with base metals (as in a nosegay) and goldsmiths with gold. Apparently, the Jatavs, who are a scheduled caste, took offence, and the film was banned on its inaugural day (November 30, 2007) in Uttar Pradesh, a state ruled by a party that claims to represent the backward castes.

subsequently, the producers of the film agreed to remove these contentious lines from the version that is being released.

what is interesting is that on the same day, the bangladeshi author taslima nasrin who had been hounded out of kolkata by islamic groups agitating for her ouster from india, felt sufficiently pressurized to withdraw two controversial pages from her book dwikhandita, in which she had made some remarks about the many wives of prophet muhammad. the west bengal government, with its dyed-in-red leftist intellectual stance, was known in the past for harbouring intellectuals across a wide spectrum, but in taslima's case, it faltered, and the state police washed their hands and unceremoniously deported her to rajasthan.

at some point, the pressure on her became so intense that she felt compelled to state that she was withdrawing two pages from this, the most controversial of her books. thus, in both these cases, a group of people, let's just call them a mob, through their agitation, managed to bring two creative artists to their knees, and have them retract part of an work of art.

what does this say about democracy? while most people are busy deriding the muslims and the jatavs for their intolerant attitude, i think that lurking in it somewhere is a more positive sign than most people give credit for.

if an artist glorifies murder or rape or child abuse, and incites others to kill, or to procure children for sexual acts, society would be up in arms about such art, calling it sedition or pornography, or other labels by which the courts can find the person guilty, despite "freedom of expression". at the same time, the very fact that some people in some situations claim it is offensive to them, makes the statement politically incorrect, and therefore indefensible. if child pornography as art is 9 out of 10 on a scale of despicability, casting aspersions on a cobbler's caste, even as a metaphor, may qualify as 2, or at least some type of fraction, say 0.1, depending on where you are coming from. however, it cannot be denied that it is still incorrect.

so where do we draw the line? who decides what is 9 on a indecency scale, and who decides it is 0.1. the answer to this may be more complex than appears at first. it is decided not necessarily by the majority, but by the opinion-forming group, who may be in sync with the majority, but then they may not.

despite being a person aspiring to some creativity myself, i cannot but think that the victory of these often marginalized voices is in some sense a victory for democracy, evidence that these groups, who felt marginalized earlier, are now gaining a voice in governance. perhaps they are a bit quick to take umbrage, and perhaps this sort of offence against metaphorical language is perhaps not called for. but at least it is a move towards greater respectability and self-esteem among these groups.

but then, if this continues, political correctness will become yet another cage in which we will be forced to constrain our creative impulses? wouldn't it be sad?

surely, but my dream is for a future where we will have left politicalcorrectness behind us, where everyone is so well respected, that they can take offences such as this type of language, or reference to their prophet intheir stride. i doubt the brahmins would take offence if a story portrayedsome stereotype - e.g. that they were scheming or greedy. this is because the upper castes are somewhat more secure in their self esteem. in the western world, the majority are already so secure in their identities, that they do not feel threatened by such acts, and flag burning and desecratory art works on christ are an everyday affair. but before they got there, they had to go through the inquisition.

our inquisition continues even today, because we have not been able to provide enough opportunities and self-esteem for our people. but the greater tragedy will be if this posturing is mere political tokenism, and is not followed up by any real measures of upliftment such as better primary education. Nonetheless the fact that it is a democratic inquisition, still gives me hope.

political incorrectness can be punished in many ways. during the lifetime of muhammad, the first artistic voice to be silenced was that of the poetess Asma bint Marwan, who had written some popular verses disparaging Muhammad’s violent ways. it is said that her assassin killed her even as she was nursing a child. at least today's poets are being spared that fate.

today the term "political correctness" has acquired a pejorative sense in the english language. thus, it is being politically correct (or PC) that is increasingly perceived as a mild social crime! perhaps a day will come in india, when we too will develop such notions, and saying correct things just so that a particular caste might take offence, will be a thing of the past, even in the indian heartbelt. already, in terms of fame and fortune, controversy has certainly helped taslima, and may help aaja nachle. maybe someday sunidhi chauhan may even sing about it, mixing indian and western in her inimitable lilt.

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