Pluralism: Freedom with riders?

27 January 2015 / By Sadaf Aman

India has not been kind to people who have taken the path less travelled — be it MF Hussain or Salman Rushdie  and more recently Perumal Murugan. Even while we have social media that has boosted freedom of expression and creativity, there is a rider in the form of Article 66A. Given that anytime a person wants to offer an alternative to the sameness, he is tagged as a threat to the plurality of the country.

On these lines, the concluding day of the three-day Hyderabad Literary Festival (HLF) 2015, saw Mahesh Bhatt and Leela Samson speak about ‘Cultural and Creative Pluralism in Modern India’. The plenary session was moderated by senior journalist TS Sudhir.

Born to Shia Muslim mother and Brahmin father at a time India just attained freedom, Bhatt feels plurality is currently undergoing a dark phase. “But it is here to stay,” he says with conviction.

The Bollywood filmmaker whose middle name is controversy feels it is impossible to to steer away from plurality without destroying our identity. “How will you wipe the fingerprints of the British from the all the monuments, forgo your love for cricket, taste of tea, use of judiciary or railways and pull down the Taj Mahal because the Mughuls were not one of us?” he questions. “Division of the cultural narrative of the country into ‘us and them’”, he reflects, “will harm us.”  “You can’t do the cultural, political and academic surgery of the culture and pluralism without killing the nation,” he opines.

A Jewish father and Catholic mother, Leela Samson a Bharatanatyam danseuse with profound influence of the Theosophical Society, said she considered herself by the virtue of entering an Indian art form, a Hindu. “Hinduism is a part of me. It is inclusive and came with entering the sphere of an Indian art form,” Samson informs.

The award-winning danseuse is of the view that every Indian needs to celebrate its rich, distinct, multicolour and multicultural diversity.  She however reveals that she never felt handicapped or disadvantaged despite being part of the vast pluralism. The celebrated dancer whose resignation from the Censor Board made headlines recently, as if in a response to her critics also added in the same breath, “I know what I am, it doesn’t matter what others say.”

‘Gharwapsi to where?’

On the current issue of gharwapsi, Bhatt said the issue will just create fear and headlines for media. “It will not be successful. I am half Hindu, half Muslim. Tell me, how will you cut half of me without killing me,” he says and adds, “Gharwapasi matlab kahan; Where you want to go?”

Religion percolates everything

Commenting on how religion and performing arts are entwined, Samson says that to perform a dance based on any God, one has to get into the character. “In a performance I not only become him but I am also commenting on him. Therefore, it is important to get into the skin of the character and this, if you wish, you might as well call religion.” she explains.

Govts can’t protect freedom

“If I ever reveal the narratives close to my heart you all will burn me right here. Nowhere you are absolutely free,” said the director who helmed path-breaking movies like  ‘Sadak’ and ‘Zakhm’, adding, governments can’t provide individual freedom. Hence, it is the prerogative of the society to guard the interest of the miniscule of the minority population, with whose views we vehemently disagree. He, however, lauds the government for not calling back ‘PK’ despite the furore it created.

Resignation saga

Samson, meanwhile took the opportunity to clear the air around her controversial resignation. “My tenure ended a year ago and was asked by the government to continue in the post for a while. I reminded them about this a few months ago too. But nothing came of it, and in fact, we were being surpassed in the decision-making process, This is not done,” she explains. She further added that ‘MSG: Messenger of God’ was denied clearance by the Board on the grounds that it augmented superstition.

“The panel that clears films consists of five people from a cross section of life, erudite, sensible and intelligent. However, the panels are not chosen by the chief, film industry or the Board but by party workers,” she revealed, adding that she fought for transparency in constitution of panels during her tenure. This, eventually became another reson for Samson quitting her post.

Freedom with responsibility

When asked if the attack on the French magazine Carlie Hebdo was attack on freedom of speech or a terrorist attack, the veteran filmmaker asked, “Can you make fun of the holocaust in Europe and not be imprisoned? I feel each society needs to introspect and say thus and no further. Of course, no one can condone the act of killing people but we have to understand how far can we go while expressing our views without hurting the sentiments of people.”


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