The Big Story: Objection, your honour
It was once common in India to joke about how the United States was a litigious society, a place where anyone might sue you at the drop of a hat. Over the last few decades, though, hastened on by the arrival of the internet, India has been fully transformed into an offended society. In India, as soon as something hits the news, someone somewhere starts trying to figure out how they can be offended by it – and complain to the police.
The latest target of outrage is a song from the Malayalam movie Oru Adaar Love. The tune, Manikya Malaraya Poovi, which plays over shots of students exchanging flirtatious glances in a crowded school hall, has gone viral over the last few days. It has been watched millions of times YouTube and spawned a swarm of memes.
A group of men in Hyderabad filed a complaint with the police on Wednesday after looking up a translation of the Malayalam lyrics online. Realising that the tune had a reference to the Prophet Mohammed, the men decided that this constituted an insult to their religion. Not to be left behind, a hardline religious organisation in Mumbai called the Raza Academy has written to the censor board threatening an agitation unless the song is deleted from the movie.
This is not even close to the scale of the response to Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat in January, when violent members of a Rajput organisation called Karni Sena attacked buses and threatened to behead the filmmakers. But it represents the same sort of knee-jerk intolerance that actually ignores the context of the material at hand.
In the case of Padmavaat, the Karni Sena launched its agitation before even watching the film, claiming that it insulted the Rajput community. When the film hit the theatres, it turned out that Padmavaat actually valourised the deeds of Rajputs. In Oru Adaar Love, the song in question is a reimagination of a 1978 tune that belongs to the Mappila Pattu genre, a folk tradition of Muslims from North Kerala. Tunes like this are often sung at weddings and family occasions. The song does reference the Prophet, but in context of his wife Khadija’s love for him. Ignorant of the folk traditions of the song in the Malayali context, the men in Hyderabad and Mumbai have decided to take offence on behalf of all of Islam.
The media has contributed to this climate of intolerence, amplifying the voices of protestors and skewing perceptions through their specific descriptions – in most reports, for example, the Karni Sena was described as a “fringe group” whereas the people objecting to Manikya Malaraya Poovi are simply described as “Muslims”. This is not to suggest that media organisation should ignore these groups: after all, offence-taking is a phenomenon that should be reported and analysed.
The real filter ought to come at the official level, where the authorities, either the police or the judiciary, should take a look at the matter at hand and dismiss it if it is clear that it is simply an opportunistic attempt to garner attention. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that the authorities will want to make any immediate decision that could lead to more of a backlash for them. As a consequence, we are likely to see more Indians excel at competitive offence-taking for the foreseeable future.
The Big Scroll
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- Pratap Bhanu Mehta in the Indian Express writes about how Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s security record actually has very little to show for despite his vigorous travels: “Paradoxically, India finds itself in this position that even as it is globally recognised, it looks more helpless in its own backyard.”
- “For deprived households, the NHPS [National Health Protection Scheme] holds limited value,” writes Sheetal Ranganathan in Mint. “It cannot deliver on the grand claim of complete health for them. It will not reduce the ever-increasing monthly medical bills that go towards managing the chronic diseases they are most susceptible to.”
- Nilanjan Mukhopadyay writes in the Wire on how militarising Hindus has been a long-standing unaccomplished project of the Hindu Right.
- Krishna Kumar in the Indian Express asks: Should we have defended Sanjay Leela Bhansali?
Karishma Attari writes on how Indian schools and the Right-Wing have something in common – the desire to control women’s hair.
“Understanding the role of hair can require some meditation, particularly when you grow up amongst a Sikh community where, as Deepika Arwind, the Bengaluru-based playwright of A Brief History of Your Hair, observes, ‘It’ presence and absence… was always quite weighted, to the extent that chopping off her long hair left her feeling odd even three years after the event.’
Hair, in her case, ‘takes up a bit of mind space’, and she chose to explore the subject of hair and gender in cross-disciplinary way through a devised work, using mythology, fantastical explorations of stories related to hair, and deeply personal stories, to arrive at an understanding of hair as an external marker of gender, caste, and attractiveness.
While Arwind recalls audience reactions to this treatment as mixed, it is easy to see the fascination with this protein-based fibre is one that is likely to continue so long as we attach external values to the treatment and ownership of the human body. The politics of female hair in both traditional and western societies has much to do with how control is exercised on the female body by society, religion, custom, and culture, if the past is anything to go by. It’s up to women and girls to look at themselves and their hair with fresh eyes.”