One of India’s leading directors of experimental films, Ashish Avikunthak, was briefly prevented from entering the Quest Mall in Kolkata a few days ago because he was considered to be dressed inappropriately. His description of the incident on social media sites and in an article published by caused widespread outrage. While I admire Avikunthak’s films, I’m not a fan of the way he has framed his Quest experience.

The first flaw in his argument is hyperbole. He was stopped briefly by a security guard, but let in soon after. In videos posted on Facebook and on, the guards and management appear deferential to Avikunthak, who lectures them on their lapse. The mall authorities say there was a gap of just 30 seconds between the moment the guard barred him and the time he entered the mall. Even if Avikunthak is right that it took a few minutes, that’s a reasonably short wait for an appeal to be heard. His response seems greatly out of proportion given the speedy reversal of the initial decision.

The second flaw is his mischaracterisation of why he was prevented from entering. He says it was “because I was wearing a dhoti and kurta”. And yet, he states he’s been to the mall several times in the past wearing similar attire. Isn’t it likely, then, that the mall management is correct in insisting there is no ban on dhotis as such? The guard probably gave a short-hand answer when asked why he had refused the filmmaker entry, and Avikunthak clung to it because it suited his narrative.

The guard’s anxiety

Guards everywhere in India are tasked with separating the affluent from the struggling, guests of residents from delivery men, prospective customers from those seeking a free air-conditioned space. This slotting involves interpreting a variety of markers, and there’s no formula for perfect categorisation. I’ve faced my share of misrecognition, being directed to the service lift, or asked to wait at the guard room because the person I am meeting won’t answer the intercom. My response to such errors used to be typical of the privileged, an indignant line or two delivered in English. While that remains the most efficient method to force a re-categorisation, I try to be more patient now. The poor guards, after all, are caught between a rock and hard place. They dread the dressing down they receive when they misclassify guests, but fear even more the hollering of residents who find themselves sharing an elevator with those they deem unfit to ride it. Private security guards wear the costume of authority but are in fact terribly powerless, and acutely aware of the gap between those two states of being.

Public space?

The biggest flaw in Avikunthak’s article stems from a misunderstanding of what constitutes public space. It was mainly in order to clarify the misunderstanding, which the filmmaker shares with the majority of upper class Indians, that I decided to respond to his article. He uses the phrase “public space” four times, underlining its importance to the interpretation of what happened at Quest Mall:

  •   “Why and how did clothing become a marker of social and cultural segregation for a public space like a mall?”  
  •   “Quest Mall is essentially a civic market place and if a public space like this follows social and cultural segregation, then it poses is an ethical crisis…”  
  •   “I represent hundreds and thousand (sic) of those who have been denied the basic civil right of peaceful coexistence in a public place on the basis of mere perception!”  
  •   “Private clubs have always created hierarchies and distinctions because of clothing. Now public spaces are also threatened and a culture of segregation based on class is been practiced unhindered.” 

Only the affluent think of malls as public spaces. The underprivileged know the truth, which is that malls are privately owned and operated and, like all private spaces, reserve the right to refuse admission. The underprivileged, in fact, are so used to being barred from venues that they tend to mistake public spaces for private ones and shy away from them. A poignant example of this appears in a confessional article by the novelist Aravind Adiga about his time in Delhi, in which he describes an encounter with an auto rickshaw driver who can’t believe Lodi Gardens is a free, public space. On the rich side of the divide, meanwhile, it’s not just malls but office complexes with layers of security that are routinely referred to as public spaces. Any artwork placed in a mall, office courtyard or hotel lobby is called “public art” in the media. Mumbai’s Grand Hyatt, a luxury property that is by definition one of the most exclusionary venues in the city, claims to house, “one of the finest collections of commissioned art in a public space”.

Conditions of entry

Though malls are emphatically not public spaces, it is hard to deny that they feel more like public spaces than do clubs, hotels or offices. Malls are informal, they rarely enforce a strict dress code, and their customers represent a relatively wide economic spectrum at least in in developed nations.

How much latitude should we grant such places to choose who can enter and who cannot? Libertarians hold that owners of any private space have an absolute right to set conditions of entry. Most others, myself included, believe that gross discrimination ought not to be allowed even in private organisations. A mall barring people on account of their gender, faith or race would be beyond the pale. Class is a different matter.

Avikunthak refers to Quest as an elite space, which it certainly is. Like all companies, Quest Mall seeks to maximise its profit. In some malls, this is best done by allowing virtually anybody to enter. A number of Indian malls, however, suffer from a low ratio of revenue to footfalls. I remember the first mall in Mumbai, Crossroads, opening 20 years ago. It was full every time I visited. However, far too many of those coming in were there just to gawp. Visiting the mall became an extension of trips to the shrine of Haji Ali next door for people who were fascinated by the products on display but couldn’t afford any of them. The sheer number of window-shoppers began to deter actual customers, to the point that the mall management resolved to filter entrants. Among those caught in the new security net was a friend of mine, also a filmmaker like Avikunthak, who walked into the place one morning unkempt and unshaven, and was assessed by the guard’s eye for a few crores short of his net worth. He was wearing a T-shirt and jeans.

Aside from his exaggeration of the event, his mischaracterisation of why he was initially barred, and his misunderstanding of public space, I object to Avikunthak’s telling of the Quest episode because his contention that dhotis and kurtas are prohibited by a mall can only incite nativist sentiments that are already damagingly inflamed, and provide ammunition to the kind of politics that he opposes as strongly as I do.