Monday, October 26, 2009

Shame, shame, shame, shame!

What can I say?
When the fourth estate, the sturdiest pillar of democracy cuts away not just at its own roots but also hacks at the constitutional heart of this country, then what is left to say? Apparently, the Lok Sabha elections were not much different, although clearly, media managements and marketing teams seem to be refining the system each time we go to the polls.

I really don't know what to make of 'freedom of the press' these days. People in traditional news media keep worrying and debating about whether the business is dying. Perhaps they should do something to hasten its demise instead.

Do we not do our utmost to ensure free and fair elections? Do we not express outrage at booth-capturing, or attempts at influencing votes through distribution of cash, liquor or even expensive food items? Do we not declare elections days 'dry days' for this reason? Do we not place deadlines on campaigns, and do we not prevent threats, intimidation and hate speech?

Why do we do all this, if not to ensure that democracy works as best as it can, in its own muddling, bumbling way? And how can we bring ourselves to stand by and watch this happen?

I vote for a constitutional intervention. Let there be more stringent laws. There have to be limits to selling 'space'. If newspapers and television channels have so little self-respect, so little understanding of what their jobs mean, so little love for freedom or faith in the power of word and image, then they deserve to be regulated.

In fact, there already is a law that says: "Whoever voluntarily interferes or attempts to interfere with the free exercise of any electoral right commits the offence of undue influence at an election. (171C(1) The punishment for the offence of undue influence is prescribed under Section 171 F of IPC, which says punishment of imprisonment up to one year or fine or both could be imposed." But perhaps, this is not punishment enough.

I, as a citizen of this country and a journalist, want those who are guilty to be sued. I want them to be fined for at least an amount equivalent of what they have collectively earned through the last Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, and I want the money put into a trust which ought to go into a national body of ombudsmen, or an independent body of media watchdogs, with a legal cell attached.

And yes, I want all those candidates who paid off the media to be disqualified, and to be barred from contesting again for the next ten years.

Now, somebody please go file a public interest petition. Let the courts decide. Let the lawmakers decide. But for our own sakes, let us put a stop to this.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

An anthology on India now

This is out.
It was first published in Italian, and titled 'India'. Now it has been untranslated and published as 'India Shining, India Changing'.
I'm in it, with an essay on child protection realities and the relevant policy in India. Please head out to the nearest bookstore.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Including One Woman

Wrote this poem a couple of years ago, in response to a photo and a brief news item about the police opening fire upon a group of protesting farmers in July 2007. It was published in The Little Mag a few months ago.

Including One Woman

Last night there was a great storm
but the sky stood there - upright,
almost a hard white.

Last night, she'd gone
to the state capital; we'd had a fight.
But they said, she's waiting, come.
Now is not the time.

So I went and there she was.
White sheets, like we've never crept into.
Her, like I'd never seen her before.
Red saree, yellow flowers,
like I've never seen grow.
Hair wild.

On the bus, I borrowed a newspaper.
Five, it said, including one woman
(I hadn't let her take the child).

There was a photo but
you could hardly tell.
That wild hair.
Yellow flowers, red saree
and her smell. A new smell.

This new smell I did not know.
It came from her. I touched her and thought:
Why does she need to go
to these places? These new places
of noise and smell
and run run run.
Red. Red. Red.

Wild saree riding up her legs. Bare feet.
On the street she lay on concrete.
The sheet was so white.
They said, they'd help me
take her home. I said, thank you.

I lifted my hands and said, sir,
raam-raam. I said, I kept the child.
And they said, this is no place for children; you were right.
But, I said, but
we had a fight. We had a fight.
They said, you were right. I said, she wanted the child
by her side.

Beside her, I squatted and cried:
I should have been at your side.

She had looked up at the sky and said: Listen.
The sky is rumbling. There will be a great storm.
Keep the child warm.
And I had sworn not to see her face again
if she went to the city, again.
But she went. And here I am.

I'll take her back. I'll take her back. Let me
please take her back, I said.
They said, we will
help. It wasn't supposed to be
like this.

I said, sir, yes.
They said, be strong, stay calm.
I said, yes.

At the fire,
I told the child:
Last night there was terrible storm.
And the sky stayed right where it was.

(C) Annie Zaidi, October 2007

Saturday, October 17, 2009

And here's a touching (not to mention, informative) photo essay on the pedals that really do run our cities.

And, thanks to Hari Batti, another very interesting essay on this business of what things really cost - to make, to dispose of - and why this should be so.

Not laughing matters

Found a fun link on Nanopolitan. About West German spies collecting East German jokes. The jokes are funny, of course, though the whole business is awfully sad at one level. Sample this bit from the article:

"Telling jokes was playing with fire," says Kleemann. The Stasi had 91,000 employees and a network of around 189,000 civilian informants to spy on the East German population of 17 million. It regarded every political joke as a potential threat. Anyone who poked fun at the representatives of the organs of state and society was subject to prosecution.
"There were cases of people who were jailed, it was particularly bad in the 1950s and 1960s," says Kleemann.
Here's one example about how that risk was lampooned: "There are people who tell jokes. There are people who collect jokes and tell jokes. And there are people who collect people who tell jokes."

I also found another awful thing while going over my long-neglected blogroll.

A report about a foreign journalist who was brutally beaten up by the Delhi police. What makes it particularly scary and sad is that it could so easily have been me. I worked in that particular magazine, albeit very briefly. I lived in that particular colony. Hell, I even lived in that particular block.

There were times I returned very late from work, often 2 am or 3 am, and I'd see cops in the neighbourhood all the time. When I moved houses, just a few streets away in a neighbouring colony, I was often stopped by cops who set up barriers and check-points at night. I was never sure whether I ought to feel reassured or worried at the sight of a police checkpoint near my home. In the bazaar nearby, over and over, they would make warning annoucements about theft and unidentified, unclaimed objects; and the message would end with: 'Delhi Police - with you, for you, always'.

It used to be one of our in-jokes amongst the journo fraternity in Delhi: that that is part of the problem -- Delhi police, with you, always.

Jokes aside, I'd thought there had been some improvement. After all those crash courses in how to deal with the public, and the importance of cops having a good public image. After all that, this!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The bad and the ugly

So here's the promised post about my ultimate film watching experience.

While I was in college, for a set of very complicated reasons, we didn't get to go out much, and movie-watching was limited to once or twice a month. Our pocket money was limited too, and while we had enough to pay for the movie outings - including tempo fares and chaat and popcorn and cold drinks - we did not have so much money that it didn't matter having to spend it on a bad film.

We used to keep an eye out for new movies in the local halls. Our options were limited, of course. We never got to see any good Hollywood or other foreign movies. But we could choose between, say, the new David Dhawan film or the new Mani Ratnam film in Hindi.

I was a great one for experimentation. New faces, new cinematic voices, and up I jumped, ever willing to check those guys out.

One fine day, I saw amongst the listings a film called Bal Brahmachari. Starring a girl from a powerful filmi khandaan, Karishma Kapoor, and the son of a film star, Puru Rajkumar.

It was hard to tell what the film might be about (we didn't read film reviews back then) but there was something about the poster that suggested comedy. I like comedy. My friends like comedy. So I began to persuade them to plan our next outing around this film.

They were reluctant. Who's this hero, they asked? What's the story? I clicked my tongue. I reminded them of Prakash Mehra's filmography. I invoked a film called Brahmachari, starring Shammi Kapoor. That was a decent watch, I said, so why will this one not be decent? It sounds like contemporary, youthful fun!

Finally, I prevailed. Me and the other girls went to the cinema. We bought our Rs 17 balcony tickets. We settled down on the rickety seats. The film started.

There was something odd going on, though. The film seemed to have begun on a note that was first struck in the 60s perhaps. All of us squirmed uncomfortably in our worn-out seats. This did not bode well for a comedy. There was something about a couple in a car. My memory fails me now but there were villians around, and the good man was killed; the good lady was heavily pregnant, and running for her life. She ends up in the temple. A hanuman temple. Where the priest was a brahmachari. And therefore, unable to touch a lady.

It is a wild and stormy night. Temple bells are tolling like mad. The lady begs and pleads for her child's life. If I remember this scene right, the priest blindfolds himself and proceeds to deliver the baby. Blindfolded! Without medical assistance. Hmm.

While I was 'hmm'ing to myself, from the corner of my eye, on either side, I could see my friends glowering, first at the screen, and then at me. In a whisper, I comforted them: "Abhi set up ho raha hai. Ye scene background establish kar raha hai. Iske baad aayegi comedy."

We waited for the scene to finish. Memory fails me yet again (a good sign, because it means I was not deeply scarred by the experience) and I don't quite know how the baby turns into Puru Rajkumar. But he does. And this baby is a brahmachari too. Because of the Hanuman temple connection. Hence, the saffron scarves and jackets and shirts, which seem to be a staple in all the songs, while a lissome lady attempts to seduce him, dressed in all the colours of the spectrum.

The heroine is a go-getter type who isn't afraid of boys, as robustly evidenced in this song; (I really want to know who choreographed this; so much, erm, energy!) she somehow falls in love with the lady-shunning brahmachari. Minutes tick past, agonizingly.

None of us is laughing, except during one dialogue where Deepka Tijori's character - the hero's best friend-cum-brother - informs Karishma's character that his buddy even wears a red langoti, all because he is a devout brahmachari.

Out of the corner of my eye, I notice more pronounced glowering. My friends have abandoned all pretence of watching the film. They are staring at me. I whisper, "Dekh, abhi set up ho raha hai. Matlab, iske baad comedy shuru ho jayegi."

Another half hour passes. Somehow. My friends are restless. They want to leave. This is a new development. We NEVER walked out of films, because our meagre pocket money did not allow us to simply forget about the wastage. We'd rather sit through a half-baked plot and heavy hamming. But in this case, my friends were determined. It was insufferable, they said.

So I whispered, "Let us wait until the interval. Shaayad interval ke baad comedy shuru hogi."

Shaayad. I was feeling very guilty and very small, under the sulky glares of my friends.

We waited until the interval. Ate our samosas, drank our colas. The hall went dark again. I crossed my fingers.

Another string of developments occurred. Tijori's character lands up in hospital. Puru's character rushes to the medical store to get a life-saving drug. Apparently, he cannot find the necessary drug (I can't remember why, maybe the shop was closed or the pharmacist was missing), and so he lifts the whole almirah full of medicines and carries it to the hospital.

Ram. Lakshman. Hanumaan carrying the mountain on which the life-saving herb grew. Get it? Hanuman-bhakht. Get it?

At this point, all my friends turned around in their seats, facing me. They were pointedly staring at me as if they would have liked to strangle me with my own dupatta right there, if only they weren't too polite to do so in public.

I gave up. We all stood up and, muttering 'excuse me' to the patient knees blocking our way to the exit, walked out.

This is the first film I ever walked out of. It has been thirteen years since, and none of my friends have allowed me to forget. Even now, each time we meet, I get cursed and laughed at and teased. "Comedy, eh?" "Comedy hogi, comedy hogi!.... all because of this idiot."

The years rolled on. In the interim, I saw good films and bad films and walked out of only two, perhaps because of the insane prices in multiplexes. Then, there came along this project called Kambakkht (Kambakht?) Ishq.

I am pleased to report that I did not actually see it in a hall. I was out of the country, and was told that Bollywood movies could be downloaded off the internet if there was a really fast connection.

What the movie was about, I will not say. I cannot say. The writers themselves (rumour has it that there were more than three people involved) seem to have conflicting notions. For instance, they cannot seem to decide whether Kareena's character should be a supermodel, a high-society' girl or a struggling part-time model who is actually an aspiring surgeon (look at the wiki entry: all three are mentioned on the same page, and rightly so. The script reflects all three).

For now, I will content myself with quoting other people:

"Noyon Jyoti Parasara from AOL concluded, "The film has nothing going for it. It has a worryingly bad script, horrible screenplay, traumatising dialogues and unpleasant music.".... Rajeev Masand from CNN-IBN, who gave the film 1 star out of 5, noted that Kambakkht Ishq "is a loud, vulgar and seriously offensive film".... Rachel Saltz from The New York Times concluded that "[the film] has only one frantic desire: to entertain. It spottily succeeds, despite its frequently crude humor, relentless pace and a few unpalatable racial bits."

But I will say this: it was the time in my life that I found myself wanting to get up and leave the room, every few minutes. Had I been alone, I probably would have switched off the TV and that would have been that. But I wasn't. Besides, after the first one hour, I just became curious to see how far this could go, just what kind of disaster course this particular vehicle of randomness was doomed to take. It was no longer just a movie. It was like a survival course I was enrolling myself into.

So, yes, I survived. But only barely just. I complained bitterly and went to lie down in my room. But two hours later, I found myself sitting up in bed, wanting to throw up. I was that angry.

Parasara is right. It was a traumatic experience! A part of me was deeply galled that reasonably independent, confident young people, especially the women who were part of this project, allowed themselves to do this.

Take a look at the wikipedia page. Whoever has done the character descriptions seems not to have watched the film. The heroine is described as a 'firebrand' and a 'hardened feminist'. A feminist! Feminist? Dude, go out into the world and look at what feminists are like; or just come meet me. I'll show you firebrand.

Oh, forget that. Forget the feminism. The female lead is even described as being in possession of some 'caustic wit' and a 'sardonic tongue'. Where? Where? I like women with wit and sharp tongues. But which frame? Which scene?

It isn't just bad cinema any more. It isn't just something that tested the limits of my patience. It isn't just something that wasted time, money, hell, even bandwidth! I came away feeling insulted. As a viewer. As a woman. As a writer. As an Indian. As an Indian woman, for god's sake!

And there is nothing I can do about it, of course. There probably will be many, many more movies like this. All I can do is breathe deep, and put it down on record: this is now officially the worst Hindi movie I have ever seen.

Sometimes, I comfort myself with this little daydream: I will get to meet the team - the director, the writers, the actors - and I will shake their hands, and give out little trophies with 'Kambakht Ugh!' engraved on them. Congratulations.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Some good, old-fashioned racism

Wrote this short piece for Tehelka, recently:

When I was five, we moved to an industrial township in Rajasthan. It was a very dusty place, full of cactus and scorpions. The other remarkable thing was the low hills against which the colony nestled and from where a muffled ‘boom!’ - they used dynamite to extract limestone - occasionally escaped.

We used to climb those hills, taking picnic hampers with us. Any adults we met along the way warned us about the ‘Bheel’. Other children brought back scary stories of youngsters being accosted and robbed of everything, including their clothes. (This business of clothes was intriguing. Sometimes clothes would disappear off washing lines, and at least twice, kitchens were broken into, and large jars full of laddoos disappeared.) The Bheel was usually accused, or perhaps, the Garasiyas.

We grew up without making friends with a single Bheel or Garasiya or Rabadi tribesperson. A handful worked as peons or gardeners. Mostly, they supplied milk or helped build houses for us. But we didn’t talk to them. And it wasn’t just about class. It was that some of them were gypsies. It was that the women seemed too ‘free’ with their laughter and backless cholis. That divorce was as easy as walking out of the house and smashing a clay pot. It was that we didn’t even know what they ate.

It took me twenty years to give all of this a name: Racism. Your usual garden variety. The ‘give them subsistence-level work; don’t let them live nearby; treat them all as potential criminals; don’t let your kids mingle with theirs’ kind. Over the years, I realised that we are a deeply racist nation. And our diversity permits racism to flourish unbounded. We are full of ‘others’ whom we might insult, wish away, attack or kill.

In college, in Ajmer, a clutch of Kenyan and Nigerian girls would narrate horror tales of being touched blatantly, roughly, in autos and tempos. ‘Kaali’ and ‘habshi’ was tossed at their faces. Habshi, once a fairly innocuous term describing a person from Africa, has now turned into a word loaded with contempt. Many south Indian girls I know have also had ‘habshi’ thrown at them like an insult.

A friend, a writer from Assam, was asked by his Delhi landlord to vacate and told ‘you people are dirty’. I have had a real estate broker ask for my ‘caste’ in north Delhi. In the Mumbai suburb where I currently live, I’m told there are newer, swankier buildings coming up where no Muslims will be allowed to buy. That’s the unofficial USP.

Oh, we’re racist alright! Look at any form in which racism manifests itself, and we make the cut. It might do us good to take a good, hard look at ourselves in the mirror and start cleaning up our own filth instead of flapping our arms and screaming ‘racist’ southwards, in the general direction of Australia.

Do read all the other essays on racism in this country. Scroll down and the links are all here.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

More inconclusive rambling

Yesterday, I finally got around to watching Ikiru. The DVD had been lying around the house, but the blurb suggested that it might be a depressing watch so I'd been avoiding it for a while. My mother saw it in my absence, however, and when I asked what it was like, she said, "Oh, it is just like Dasvidaniya."

So that was what finally prompted me to watch Ikiru. It is a Kurosawa film and it does what it is supposed to do - makes you feel; makes you think; makes you take notes. But I was interested in was something else.

When I bought a DVD of Dasvidaniya, I did so with a measure of expectation. I like Vinay Pathak's work, for one. Besides, here was a film with an atypical protagonist (atypical for Hindi cinema) who wasn't a 'hero' and he wasn't going to pretend to be one. Here was a new director who had picked an unusual theme for a first film. The promos were not committing hara-kiri.

Since I am not part of an audience that only likes happy-happy, bling-bling, the film should have appealed to me. I was its ideal target audience. Unfortunately, it failed to depress me. My heart didn't feel wrung out. I did not fear for, hurt for, cry for the protagonist.

Ikiru, however, did work.

In both films, the protagonist is an ordinary man, no longer young. Both have cancer. Both have lived fairly responsible lives, taking care of the family, staying away from the temptations of wine, women and song/dance. Both want to 'live' (in capital letters) before they die. And they set about doing it too, initially through the help of a character who has always led a dissipate life.

Here on, the two films take divergent paths. And here on, Dasvidainya failed to work for me. But it was through watching Ikiru that I began to understand why.

Ikiru is a Japanese film and the disc I had access to was not in good shape. It got stuck in places and the sub-titles would not appear in some places. Even so, I didn't want to stop watching. It was quite slow moving too, and I can get a trifle impatient with slow storytelling. Even then, I wanted to go on watching. The film was about a man who is going to die, so one knew how it will end. And yet, I wanted to know what happens next. With Dasvidaniya, I did not want to know.

I think, the essential difference was that of the 'inherent idea'. This is what I mean when I talk about the writing out of any piece of art. There is a surface idea, and there is an inherent idea - the one that decides why this project is significant, what it is trying to resolve, or what is the writer grappling with?

In Ikiru, to my mind, the inherent idea is this issue of dying. Not the act of dying. Not the physical process. But all the conflicts around the awareness of dying. The aftermath of this awareness. The impact of one's death; or others' knowledge of your own awareness of impending death.

In Dasvidaniya, all I was left with was the surface idea - a terminally ill, dull middle-aged man decides to get a life. People who find out, commiserate. Things that were going wrong, get set right because of this tragedy.

In Ikiru no such thing happens. The man's attempts at getting a life are complicated, ridden with all the awful social judgments that prevent most other people from getting a life. There is a huge reluctance on the part of other people to acknowledge his lonely, last struggle. And while he is forced to behave out of character, he is still in character. He behaves as someone like him would logically behave when forced to get a life, at his age!

In Dasvidaniya, the protagonist comes across as someone who is essentially loved. As if, by extension, this makes him a lovable guy.

In Ikiru, the protagonist feels unloved, right up to the end and even beyond. And we, his audience, feel the full force of this tragedy.

In Dasvidaniya, there is nothing to root for. Because the dying man seems to be doing alright for himself. In Ikiru, we can see him falter and fail and grow miserable and make mistakes while he seeks to redeem his existence, and we finally want to reach out to him. And this is possible only because the writer/filmmaker did not cringe while making a full exploration of impending death and what this knowledge does. A good story is made not just by twists and turns of events. It is made up of detail, of depth.

I had the same feeling for Ghajini. I had already seen it before I got hold of a copy of Memento. Ghajini had struck me as an average sort of masala film - romance, violence, colour, song, a touch of humour, revenge (and its wild popularity served as a stern reminder of the fact that the soul of the average Indian film-goer hasn't changed much from the eighties or nineties. They want what they want! Which is to say that the 'multiplex audience' is a myth. Now, Wanted is the latest reminder of that fact). I wasn't wildly taken with it, and didn't understand what the fuss was about until I saw the original, Memento.

Everyone already knows that it is a brilliant film, but once again, what made it memorable was not just the cleverness of its construct or its premise or its treatment. You can take a story about a guy who has memory loss problems, give him a crazy mission to kill the bad guy, and it might end up a comedy. All that is just surface. That is not the inherent idea.

In Memento (in my opinion) the inherent idea is memory, and our relationship with memories - the way it is tied up with our sense of self, our purpose in life, how we play with it and how it plays with us. How much can we trust memory? Can it manipulate us? Even if we don't want it to? The film explores these questions. Perhaps it does not find answers. That is not the point. The point is the attempt, because that is all an artist does: Try.

A lot of new books I've been reading have also disappointed me for the same reason. I keep looking for an inherent idea there. For evidence of a struggle. For signs that say, the artist pulled out all the stops in trying to figure this out.


There is a fascinating, and partially illuminating, debate happening on a related theme over here. The journalist who wrote the original piece said a few things he shouldn't have, or just didn't make his point very clearly, which led to a lot of people aiming cursive literary kicks at his teeth. I followed the debate but failed to put in my two bits (the website would not accept my rendition of its anti-spam gibberish).

What I did want to say was that while the ban-worthiness of a book is no mark of quality, and while the writer did shoot himself in the foot by admitting that he had not read the books he was criticizing, I do sort of understand what he was trying to get at.

Recently, Shyam Benegal was invited to say a few words at a screening of many, many short films entered as part of a contest. I was not there myself, but from what I heard, he had just one thing to say about those films: 'Why?'

It is a cruel word. But often, while reading a lot of books being written these days, I find myself wondering: Why?

Which is not to say that every book written or every film made must be 'serious', or politically rife, or have a social conscience. But it does have to change your life in some small way. It has to make the reader happy at the very least. If it cannot provoke, let it at least please. The trouble is, in my view, that many writers are not very sure of the 'why' aspect themselves. They don't seem to know why they are telling this particular story, and why it matters, and how it should be told so that it meets its objective. It is alright to fail. I don't mind the ones who try and fail. But the ones who don't seem to be attempting anything specific (except becoming a 'writer', or staying one) are tiresome. And for a critic to keep up with hundreds of books like this must be tiresome too.

But on the other hand, that is what critics do. It is their job to sift through the random stuff and let the rest of us know what is worth our time and money. Which is one reason I am reluctant to review anything professionally. There is a certain amount of responsibility attached, a certain foreknowledge of the wider field is assumed, and odious comparisons must be made. I am just happy for now to recommend what is good.

So go watch Ikiru, if you have not already. It is good.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

What they wouldn't let them say

Last year, I'd watched a performance of Sakharam Binder, in Hindi. I think this was a little after the play's author Vijay Tendulkar died.

Until then, I had only heard about the dramatic strength of Tendulkar's work. I had read his texts, of course, and understood the political force, the moral arguments, the social dilemmas that serve as the sheath for his plays. But it was not until I saw a reasonably good production of Sakharam Binder on stage that I felt its true power.

What the play is about, I leave you to find out for yourselves. But I will admit that I was surprised at how relevant it seemed even now, how utterly modern, and how much I could identify with it, although the women in the play live out events that are utterly alien to me or my family.

Recently, I saw bits of it again, embedded within the structure of a new play titled S*x, M*rality and Cens*rship, and was struck once again by the sheer force of Tendulkar's text. In fact, I wish the actors who were performing the roles of the central characters from the older play would put up a production of the whole play again (In case anybody on that team is reading this, congratulations, those were very powerful performances). Many people in my generation have not been exposed to Tendulkar's theatre, at least on the stage. And our generation needs to watch and learn, not as writers or performes but as citizens.

Sex, Morality and Censorship is a self-explanatory kind of title. The play takes off from Tamasha, a form of theatre that was earthy, rustic, bawdy, and inevitably political, before it was 'rescued' and sanitized by urban artistes who brought Tamasha into the lives of respectable, middle-class and elite Maharashtrian society. And then the narrative moves on to the story of how Sakaharam Binder was staged, banned, rejected, protested against, taken to court, cleared, and finally performed once again.

This is not a real review, so I will not go into the details of how the play is structured and which elements work, and which ones don't. But I will say that the play caused several threads of thought to be extended in my head.

One of the most interesting facets of the legend of Sakharam Binder is the fact that it was banned. I have always found bans are interesting. They tell you a lot about the culture, the people, the true state of the moral fabric of a nation. This particular play was not banned because of its unbridled depiction of violence in the household. People had objections to the bits that had something to do with sex or bodies. There were protests against scenes that had an actress undo and then redo the drape of her saree, for instance; or scenes that suggest sex (although there was no actual sex or nudity on stage). The censor board had problems with filthy language (which is usually language that refers directly or indirectly to sex).

Sakharam Binder is full of abuse (verbal, sexual, physical, social, emotional). Watching it is not an entertaining experience. It is not a play I'd take a child to. Yet, it is a play that everyone over eighteen should watch. It is a slap in the face of hypocrisy. It is a mirror held up in our collective faces. It is art, and it represents all those cliches about art and the purpose it serves in human society.

A society that does not have the stomach for Sakharam Binder does not have the stomach for truth. And a state that refuses to allow people to see the truth is a repressive, anti-democracy state.

It is not surprising that in a society like this, the pile of stuff that gives offence should rise higher and higher. First, it was Tendulkar's plays. Then it was Mee Nathuram Godse Boltoy. There was Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. There were two books on Shivaji that were banned. The Bhavsagar Granth is banned.

Every other week, somebody or the other decides to take offense to something or the other. The name of a profession. The name of a city. The name of a prophet. A song. A verse from a holy book, for god's sake!

There is no end to this, and in India, particularly, just because there is so much diversity and such vibrant, unwieldy power structure, censorship and the denial of the right to freedom of expression has reached ridiculous proportions. And by ridiculous, I do mean ridiculous. Except for very small groups of people who decide to take their chagrin into bloodshed terrain, everybody else just finds their chagrin amusing, an object of ridicule!

How did we let things get to be this way? Why are we not doing something about it? What are we afraid of? Where does the average Indian citizen draw the line as far as censorship goes? If the average citizen finds the truth about sexual relationships disgusting and wants to ban a play or film, should the government listen? What if the average citizen wants historical or religious plays or films banned? If the average citizen does not find hate speech particularly disturbing, should the government let racial hatred and war-mongering and all sorts of potentially dangerous speech go on, without any checks or controls? How average do you have to be to qualify as an average citizen?

These are important questions that need to be asked, and answers need to be demanded. Unfortunately, outside of a few newspaper and magazine editorials, nobody's asking. And certainly, nobody's answering.

That was one reason Sex, Morality and Censorship left me a little dissatisdied at the end. It is a play that comes at the right time. And it does touch upon the larger issue of censorship in India, how censor boards function, who sits on them and so on. But it fails to ask the question of how and why 'romantic' comedies that are full of sexual innuendo are so popular with the audiences? How is it that we can laugh at bedroom capers involving infidelity but cannot deal with a play where a character does not believe in the institution of marriage? Why?

The plays rears its head, then it sighs, puts its head down and goes into hibernate mode. I expected it to make connections for me - the connection between our moral values and our need for theatre. The connection between prevalent morality and current power structures. Because those connections exist. And understanding them, watching them unfold might help us reach some answers too. Perhaps, I expected this text to be as revelatory as the one it was discussing. I wanted it to tell me something I did not know yet, or did not yet have the courage to face up to.

Nevertheless, it is worth watching. Because part of the theatre experience is the sense of engagement with the groundswell of the play you've just seen. That is something films or books or the internet can never replicate - the sense of having been there, almost a part of what was going on. The sense of having stood by and watched. The sense of having had a small sliver of truth delivered into your hands, to do with it what you will.

P.S. - for those who are interested in censorship and book bans in general, this link ought to be interesting.

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