While disapproving the violent reaction directed at an acclaimed film-maker, one was initially taken aback at the intensity of the reaction. Sifting through the volley of contrarian responses, instead of the victimisation or indifference conundrum, it was time to dig deeper. Frequent flare-ups, especially in the world of cinema, seem to be garnering a lot of attention. Controversies have been multiple and there seems to be a face-off between a certain public sentiment and popular culture.
Many contend it’s a phenomenon unique to the world we live in. This is not just limited to India but many parts of the world, which have woken up to various kinds of issues. Is there something unprecedented going on or are we suddenly reacting to sentiments, which were “non-issues” earlier?
This takes me back to the closing debate on “post-truth” that one was part of at the Jaipur Lit Fest, a couple of weeks ago. While many in the audience may have been familiar with the term post-truth, the understanding of it differed. So what is this “post-truth” era that is being liberally used to brand the public and socio-political environment?
The general premise of post-truth seems to be that emotions and beliefs have become more important and facts have taken a back seat. My contention is slightly different: Haven’t belief and emotion always been more powerful than facts? They have inspired, created, propelled, held strong — be it in institutions or social movements; made the impossible possible in face of facts and figures that stated the odds and the given order: A double amputee scaling Everest, Guru Gobind Singh’s stirring “sava lakh se ek ladaun”, which tapped in to self-pride, or the emotion driven from the belief of “paradheen sapne hun sukh nahin” (there is no happiness under subjugation), which drove a colonised nation to overthrow a seemingly reformist imperial rule.
Of course, the argument of how extreme or negative emotions have led to transgressions abound as well. But to disdainfully portray “emotions and beliefs” taking precedence as a recent phenomenon and as a lesser element of a societal fabric reeks of an unnuanced approach.
My attempt here is to broaden the frame, for which a little more sensitivity and acceptance needs to come into play. We need to examine the lenses and filters we apply and our biases that have developed over several years, especially the intelligentsia’s. For, people who were beneficiaries of the progress and development of society seem to have let the gap widen. Decisions taken on behalf of society were often on the premise that “we know better”. Instead, they were growing increasingly disconnected from the reality of the people.
Good thinking and right intent apart, there were numerous issues of the masses that were swept under the carpet or brushed aside in a somewhat condescending — “these people do not know what’s good for them” — manner. For years, this continued and the common man surrendered to the decisions made on his or her behalf. Sure, the people were offered a democratic set-up but despite casting the ballot there was less or, at best, limited empowerment. For, very soon their so-called representatives donned the seat vacated by the “rulers” and the masses continued to live under the old shadow of being reigned over, not truly represented. Not that currently the ideal meaning and power of democracy is in play either, for people still get manipulated and conned, but a certain awareness and expression is seeping in, albeit in an unusual manner.
This is so because issues were latent in the hearts and minds of people. There was pent-up and bottled emotion, which is now finding its way out. The many issues, especially with cinema today, are not because it is a “soft target” but because it is a dominant force in the prevalent discourse. The very scale of cinema and its audio-visual power has the ability to change a narrative forever in the public consciousness.
Before questioning whether cinema is obliged to shoulder more, let’s also recognise that all alternate narratives have been subsumed in cinema. The sheer power of the audio-visual medium and its glaring presence hardly left any room for the humbler narratives — folk and tribal music, regional theatre, poetry and other such art forms — many of which found it difficult to survive in the face of a potent force and found shelter in the all-pervasive realm of cinema, especially in India. For example, it may be surprising for many across the world that we don’t have a self-sufficient parallel music industry. It has long been in the service of celluloid. Rarely did cinema take cognisance of the fact that it pervasiveness has choked, not nurtured or amplified, gentler artistic murmurs, which were a small but relatable means of public expression. On the other hand, a large section of cinema gradually began losing its sensitivity. Rather than art, it was mainly the commerce of cinema that was celebrated. This began eroding the very basis on which it called for special, softer treatment. Borrowing from culture and the lives of people, sans a modicum of responsibility, cinema may find it difficult to have a free emotional hall pass to sheer profit.
Today, people are exposed to information and if they want to disagree with a viewpoint they express it in various ways. Media and connectivity have also given voice and confidence to people who thought they were fighting a battle in a suspended world of their own. However, pinning this all on social media and covert digital cells, or narrowing it to the ruling party and people in power, will be myopic. Something organic is at play too. For there is social media and there is social change.
Call and react to it by any name. Change there is. Rather than lament, we need to hear, acknowledge and address it.
The issues being raised should not once again be dismissed as the cultural issues of the cattle class or politically motivated, and have their shortcomings flung on their faces or branded as lies. We should dig deep to understand and question that if a lie has resonated, is it because it reflects a certain truth? It’s critical that a culturally acceptable and cohesive platform to table these issues is created by reaching out and listening. Some issues may be found frivolous as expected, and some others, unexpectedly, logical and real. Violence needs to be condemned absolutely, but the chapter doesn’t close there. The reasons behind the tipping point ought to be identified. People should be encouraged to bring forth issues rather than meted a dismissal, in turn generating a feeling that the only way to be heard is a street fight, or an “andolan”.
We need a more compassionate society that can acknowledge its lapses and come to terms with having to mend fences rather than create more “us versus those” narratives. The ones exposed to a more global worldview should be open to dialogue with those with a varied logic and thought and didn’t have the opportunity that the privileged had. As far as truth goes, we must acknowledge that different perspectives will produce different views or interpretations. But this may be the silver lining in this world of hyper-connectivity, wherein we can see these perspectives, these shafts of lights, falling from different directions. They will only make the object clearer.
To go into a shell or be swept up in change, is perhaps easier, it is more difficult to steer to a direction where the light of hope resides.
Personally, I will try for the latter. It’s not the time to rail against “the other” and lament about post-truth, it’s time to acknowledge the current, larger reality and make a new beginning.