Anti-spoiler alert: The following contains absolutely no spoilers (mentioning which scenes have caused the controversy) as I have not seen the film. This piece is essentially about the “larger debate within” which has unfortunately remained as it was!
Let’s start with the silver lining, the massive controversy over the film has atleast ensured that the cash-registers outside Tamil Nadu will more than offset the initial emptiness of their counterparts in that state. It would not be fair to say that all this was necessary to get people queuing up outside theatres in rest of India as such a comment will not do justice to the outstanding reputation of Kamal Hassan as a great performer. But few will disagree that there will be a positive impact on the revenue especially in the North Indian territories (considering the nature of the so-called “objectionable” scenes as reported in the media).
Without further digressing from the “larger debate within” let’s address the core issue here which definitely is the peaking levels of intolerance in our society. Is this misdirected aggression specific to certain segments of our society? No definitely not! Earlier these polemics used to be confined to certain parts of northern India and Maharashtra now as is very evident they have widely spread down to the otherwise calmer territories of TN. What’s even more disturbing that artists, film-makers, authors are seen as soft-targets by xenophobes and zealots all around the country. Also there is an inherent impression that a race of one-upmanship may be building up between different religions/communities to see who can be more vehement in their threats to cause violence if their illegitimate demands are not met.
The fact that the political class is a meek spectator when the rabble-rousers are in full swing is what makes the situation even more disappointing. After all, you cannot expect a certain Arnab Goswami to solve national problems in an hour of verbal chastisement (it is a common site to notice Facebook/Twitter being flooded with requests that Mr. Goswami take charge of the “culprit” in his next show, whenever a controversy like this erupts). Perhaps his viewers feel content watching him rebuke the culprits in a way only he can, but that’s not what solves the problem for India. Not a single government representative had the courage to differentiate between the right and wrong fearing the dent it could make in their political capital. There are ministries galore having “culture”, “art”, “human rights” as their subjects but none of them had the tenacity to be brave enough and stand behind the “victim” – The Artist.
This issue, many in the past and what looks like, more in the future, have enough gravity for the courts to take a suo moto cognizance and direct the Union and state governments that banning films, art-works, books and authors themselves (Salman Rushdie was recently banned from stepping into West Bengal, by reportedly the Chief Minister herself) at the behest of bigots is not what our Constitution permits. The excuse of preserving law and order by enforcing such bans smells of selfish-interests within the political class. If the political will is strong enough, it is definitely possible to make adequate arrangements for keeping such deplorable elements of our society at bay (as is done during mega-political rallies, cricket matches and the elections). It is important to realize that these monomaniacs are extremely fragile from within and even a single solid display of resistance by the government against their pressure tactics will be potent enough to deter their audacious advances and break the backbone of their extremist movements once for all.