The catalogue of bizarre things we accept as “normal” is long. The practice of being asked to stand for the national anthem in cinema halls deserves special mention.
We have no problem ignoring the dehumanising poverty on the streets from the comfort of our cars. We find nothing odd about taking domestic workers to restaurants so that they can wait around and manage our toddlers while we stuff ourselves. But try not standing up for the national anthem once a cinema hall has been darkened. And witness the fury of your jingoistic, chest-thumping countrymen.
Watching Court, a rumination on our archaic legal system and cultural comfort with all kinds of appalling prejudice, right after being made to stand for the national anthem, only heightens the incongruity of our misplaced multiplex-patriotism.
Court gives us a subaltern view of Mumbai, far removed from the sanitised, Archie-comic version peddled by mainstream Hindi films. It examines today’s India through the eyes of a Dalit singer-activist who composes and sings ditties that urge the oppressed to revolt and rise.
The film gives us a warts-and-all look at the Kafkaesque nightmare that ensues when the protagonist is accused of abetting the suicide of a sewer cleaner with his lyrics. Multiple colonial laws are invoked. The legal system in the film is concerned solely with the letter and processes of the law, not its spirit.
Legal provisions — read out in detail by the prosecution — refer to the notion of sedition. Sedition was also, by the way, the charge used to arrest a group of youngsters in Thiruvananthapuram last year for not standing up when the national anthem was being played in a movie theatre.
How exactly we, citizens of nation states in the 21st century, have been brainwashed into unquestioning, unwavering devotion to our flags and anthems is one of the great wonders of our time.
Knowing as much as we do about the ruthless political calculations of nation states, this expectation of mindless, unexamined respect for the flag is strange.
Whether it is an indifference to immigrants left to drown in the Mediterranean, a blind spot when it comes to the wrenching poverty on the streets in India, or a casual acceptance of the idea that drones will kill civilians in foreign countries as part of the fortification of the homeland, it should be hard for people, in any country, to justify blind, unqualified, always-on patriotism.
Shouldn’t we get to a stage in the development of our constructed national identities where we are able to say, “I love my country but I don’t always agree with its actions”? Yet, not conforming to strict notions of patriotism remains the last of the great taboos. As American author William Blum noted, “If love is blind, patriotism has lost all five senses”.
You can make all the racist, classist, sexist and communal statements you want, and someone will quote Voltaire in defence of your right to say them. But god forbid you even suggest anything less than complete devotion to your national flag. Because, you know, that makes you a traitor.
In a calm, understated manner, Court exposes the casual brutality with which we destroy the lives of those who try and stand up to the many injustices in our society. Carefully sketched out segues on the private lives of the characters highlight the indifference and prejudice that define everyday life in India. The film indicts us not only for the outdated laws we use to grind into submission those who are
already oppressed, but also for our continued inability to respect the dignity of every individual.
Recent movies such as Shahid, Haider and Court represent a welcome trend towards questioning blind patriotism. By acknowledging and showcasing deeply flawed aspects of the always-evolving nation-building project, they serve as reminders of the many Indians with valid reason to feel conflicted about standing up for the national anthem.
The writer is a consumer researcher and part of the founding team at Junoon Theatre
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