Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Offending Art and Religious Tolerance

There was some controversy surrounding the movie PK which shows an alien taking on God men. The movie took a strongly critical stance against superstitious beliefs and traditions. All in all, there appears to be a fair degree of agreement that the movie is a good piece of satire. No wonder, the movie has already grossed more than 200 crores (in fact, just discovered that it's already become the highest grossing Bollywood movie ever!), a good portion of which can be attributed to all this controversy, I am sure. I wonder if, in general, it would not make sense for the producers to divert some of their advertising money into fabricating controversies around their movies. It seems like a very effective way of catching public attention.

It would be a pity if I didn't do a post on this topic. Particularly because I have already seen the movie, partially due to the curiosity the controversy aroused in me. And also because I recently got involved in a group debate on the same topic.

In my view, I didn't find anything religiously offending in the movie. An alien doesn't share with us the sense of shame and scandal that we usually attach to some notions or words. Example: sex, urination and nakedness. In fact, I consider it a really wonderful way to examine the objectiveness of cultural concepts by pretending to be an alien. It would force us to ask some truly fundamental questions: Why God? Why ask Him for anything? Why expect Him to give us a preferential treatmenet? An alien is a symbolic creature who is agnostic of our cultural biases and hence can ask questions that we can't.

I also don't see anything for which Hindus should take offence. All religions were criticised. In fact, it wasn't religion which was criticised. It was the practices followed in the name of a religion. Hindu practices got special attention simply because it's the majority religion of India.

One issue is that Aamir Khan is a Muslim. What if the dialogues which so offended some people were delivered by a Hindu actor? Would it have created the same reaction? I guess not. Protests which arise owing his religion are presupposing evil intentions on his part. That's a fundamentally racist thing to do. It's so easy to dismiss the perfectly admirable social work he does by saying that he is a showman, that he is showing off. There's no objective basis for such wording, and can be dismissed right away.

As a movie, as a work of art, I would give PK a complete clean chit if I had a say. In its less than 3 hours, it has to give impactful messages, some of them even jarring. But as a critique, I have to say that religion as a concept gets targeted a bit too often. And that's unfair. But this criticism is not for PK, rather for the entire popular culture which exempts so many other elements of our lives which more evil than religious malpractices. One was brought up by the dhongi God man played by Saurabh Shukla. Arguably, liquor and tobacco bring more grief to the society than religion (with all malpractices in its name) does. Why are these not targeted as much. There are many others: consumerism, vanity, anything that eventually results in wastage of natural resources, and therefore deprivation. How is bathing Shiv Linga with milk any worse than splurging thousands on liquor in a pub? Is there nothing wasteful that the makers of that movie, or anyone who criticises religion for promoting lavishness and wastefulness, have in their life? My personal take on the matter is anything wasteful is evil and should be criticised.

I would infer that many people criticise things which it is fashionable to criticise. Dowry, racism, terrorism, corruption ... evil though they may be, the reason why they meet such widespread public criticism is not so much their evil nature, but but the wide acceptability their criticism has attained in the popular culture. Various sections of society provide us with many examples of the fact that people at large do not have a very original moral code. There are people who, without any introspection, consider eating non-vegetarian food acceptable, but consider alcohol and pre-marital sex bad.  There is clear discrimination exercised in sexual liberty given to men and women in almost all sections of the society. Appealing to your greed, insecurity, sexual frustration etc. is acceptable in advertising; appealing to your superstitious belief is not as much. There are so many who swear by their sympathy for the poor, but consider expensive yearly pleasure trips to foreign locales a necessity in their lifestyles. There are people who take pride in switching off appliances to save energy at home, but aren't ready to be questioned on why they drive their fuel guzzling car to work, alone. In a recent debate that happened in our apartment complex, people were quite unanimous in their view that bachelors shouldn't be allowed into the apartment complex as tenants. These people must have, at some point or another, talked against racism in fashionable circles. Just a little thought will reveal that racism isn't merely discrimination in terms of colour, religion or caste.

So, examples are in plenty that prove beyond doubt that what's considered acceptable in the popular culture mayn't stand the scrutiny of logic. On the other hand, people criticise things which they find being criticised by those who they identify themselves with or idolise. Therefore, for a thoughtful person, what may be a thoughtful criticism of a social evil, may just be another instance of herd behaviour for the general people.

Having said all the above, I consider it an artist's prerogative to use his art to convey messages he wishes to give the society. It's not sensible to criticise this act. The message itself may be criticised. Tolstoy, towards the end of his life, preached about his own customised variant of Christianity. Ayn Rand advocated eloquently in favour of capitalism and selfishness. Both thoughts may have raised public debates in their own times, but are things of the past now. It is a regular thing for artists to make social, philosophical or moral commentaries. Even the greatest of them may meet a disastrous public reception, a fate which is completely in the hands of the public. Therefore, to ask an artist to not cross his border, and continue doing non-serious art is foolish. Nor can it be demanded from them they mustn't go wrong or offend anyone. If you decide to send any message, it's bound to offend someone. That something appears offensive to some section of the society to be made the basis of a sweeping ban or censorship, isn't logical. You may control viewer ship by giving a more restricted censor certificate.

... and I think, PK deserves an 'A' certificate. It has caused some misery to some kids who get offended by innocuous references to body-fluids.