The right to speak freely

Print edition : December 16, 2005

Kushboo. - V. GANESAN

The recent incidents involving actors Khushboo and Suhasini raise a fundamental question: Are our societies changing for the better?

CHENNAI has been associated for many decades with the arts. It is in that city that the performing arts found a glorious emergence and efflorescence; the breathtakingly beautiful achievements of singers and artistes who played different instruments was matched by the brilliance of a galaxy of dancers who held not just the residents of that city but many who lived elsewhere enthralled. The `season', which lasts from early December to early January, give or take a few days either way, has become a magical focus for the arts, drawing thousands from all over the country and overseas to savour the exquisite offerings of the finest creative artistes and performers.

This love for, and nurturing of, creative beauty must speak for its catholicity of ideas, for creation that cannot be confined to certain doctrinaire formulae dispensed by a few. If it was true that the Madras of old was in many ways steeped in tradition and convention, it was in a way that was enriching, a way that fostered creation and beauty. It must have had its share of the hide-bound rigidities that other societies have, but it was never enough to stifle and shackle creative freedom, which is the essence of freedom in every sense of the word. Balasaraswati and M.S. Subbulakshmi were enveloped by old traditions and social conventions, but their creative gifts took them much beyond those - indeed, made them irrelevant.

Today, Chennai is a Madras that many of us who saw it when we were children cannot recognise. The quiet, leisurely and placid nature of the city then has given way to a dynamism and vigour, a cosmopolitan society with all the facets that such a society has is now in evidence in the new shopping malls, restaurants, the very nature of entertainment and the diversions that the predominantly young in the city want.

This is, surely, as it should be. Change, moving forward, development - these are attributes of the very nature of existence, existence that is meaningful, that continuously reinvents itself in the relations that people have with one another and in their demands and their demonstrations of newer and changing, varying skills. Clothes shops morph into designer boutiques, stodgy eating houses into happening restaurants and bars; architects move out into newer and more radical designs, professional designers recreate traditional kitchens.

All this has happened, and is happening in Chennai, helped not a little by the influx of large numbers of young people as the Information Technology industry burgeons, and by the advent of a sizeable expatriate community, as more and more major multinationals locate major industrial units around the city. There is a new tension, an exciting, creative tension that one senses in many; new ventures in different fields and being planned, new professions finding eager customers and a growing demand.

Then, suddenly, we are jolted by something grotesquely out of sync with all this. First, it was the incident concerning a night club in a major hotel, with the Commissioner of Police bravely trying to define what constituted obscenity, when other, far more gifted people before him have failed, and then converting the police into a moral brigade.

And now it is the sordid reaction to something perfectly harmless that the actor Khushboo said about the need to practise safe sex whether it was pre-marital or anything else.

This lady has a large following in Tamil Nadu - one hears there is a temple where she is the deity, no less - and one would have thought that these loyal fans would have sprung to her defence when a group of rather irresponsible and certainly bigoted people decided that her remarks deserved to be condemned. Criminal cases have been filed against her, and when she appeared in court to obtain bail, slippers and rotten eggs were thrown at her. And all the while the very moral police stood by and let a handful of frenzied people indulge in criminal acts and did nothing other than help Khushboo get into her car.

Suhasini Maniratnam.-MOHAMMED YOUSUF

Now this, by itself, may have been written off as the reaction of a lunatic fringe. But it cannot be, since the really astonishing feature of the affair is that barring actress Suhasini Maniratnam, no one from the film world seems to have said a thing in support of the actor. All of a sudden, one is left looking about for some sign that the new, dynamic society in Chennai would turn against the agitators and tell them where they get off. And there are none. There is no coming together of opinion against this outburst of what one can only call fascist violence, a vicious attempt to gag someone, to stifle anything being said which they, the self-styled arbiters of what they perceive as moral issues, do not approve of.

All of this makes one wonder; the admiration for the emergence of the new society in Chennai has perhaps to be tempered with an apprehension that it is a newness that is brittle. The dynamism and vigour may be more a glitzy exterior than something that has truly taken root. And the apprehension cannot be confined to Chennai alone. In other major metropolitan centres similar changes are taking place, and there, too, the changes may be only cosmetic.

We have had a few, so far relatively small indications of this, but they may be, for all we know, portents of what is in store. As in Chennai, the principals of some colleges have declared, in Delhi, what students should wear. And one sees it rear its head whenever there is a demand that a book be banned, or, as happened recently, a film be withdrawn because it angered some people.

Perhaps, a time is coming for those concerned about the well-being of our societies to come together to consider just how enduring all the new forms and creativity and enterprise really are. Are our societies really changing for the better and from within, sturdily? Or are the changes we see wispy, aerial things that will vanish like smoke when faced with the crude imposition of rigid, narrow-minded values on people as one has just seen in Chennai? Such threats will not end with the tormenting of Khushboo. There will be other such attempts to stifle the right of someone to say what he or she wants to say, in other cities, all over the country. If that trend is to be countered, then it is necessary for those concerned by it to face up to what has happened in Chennai and condemn those who seek to deny a citizen the rights that are guaranteed under the Constitution.

The freedoms given in the Constitution cannot ever be taken for granted. It is necessary that each of them be sought out and made one's own; that process may be difficult, and there may well be attempts by different groups to take them away. It is then that the force of public opinion must assert itself. Only when it does will the guarantees in the Constitution come to have the meaning and consequence they were intended to have.

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