Friday, February 8, 2013

From Parasakthi to Vishwaroopam: Fascism In Tamil Nadu

More than 50 years ago it was possible for a movie character to ask  a temple priest "when did your god speak?", "you worship a goddess and yet molested my sister". The dialogues in that movie, Parasakthi, were penned by upcoming screenplay writer and atheist ideologue M.Karunanidhi. It was possible only because the god he mocked was Hindu and the priest he scolded was Hindu too. To be sure, where the hero says that the god is 'stone' the word 'stone' is muted but it is clearly apparent given the context of the rest of the dialogues. Karunanidhi's mentor E.V.Ramasamy, more stridently atheist and self-styled iconoclast, took a rally with a picture of Lord Rama garlanded with slippers. Again, it was possible only because he chose a Hindu god.

In 2013 Kamal's magnum-opus (at least in his mind) Vishwaroopam became a political football between radical Islamist groups , vengeful government and a supine judiciary. Radical Islamist groups raised a ruckus and wanted a total ban on the movie on the pretext that it injured the sentiments of Tamil Nadu Muslims by portraying all Muslims as terrorists. They took further offense to how some Islamic habits, like praying, were used by terrorists.

There is nothing demeaning to Islam or muslims in Kamal Hassan's 'Vishwaroopam'. Yes the story revolves around terrorism and yes the perpetrators happen to be muslims. To be specific, they are Afghan Taliban. The protagonist who stops them is muslim too. In a telling scene where FBI agents and Kamal, playing an undercover RAW agent who is muslim, wait outside the door of a terrorist who is about to detonate a dirty bomb. As the agents peer through a camera suddenly an agent exclaims "what is he doing" pointing to Kamal who is offering prayers. Another FBI agent answers "he is praying, for you too". In that one frame Kamal, the director, deftly shows the divide that is often frustrating in this debate about terrorism. Unfortunately his depiction of the protagonist as an observant muslim is brushed aside as tokenism but his depiction of terrorists as muslims is taken as an indictment against a religion.

The depiction of Taliban is pretty accurate and in fact tame compared to what the Taliban really inflicted on the people of Afghanistan and regions of Pakistan. Some muslim organizations that have taken to the streets to get the movie banned were silent when the Taliban shot at point blank range, Malala Yousufzazi, a 15 year old girl. When Tamil poet and commentator Manushyaputhiran, who is muslim, condemned the brutal beheading of a Sri Lankan Tamil girl, he was threatened by one muslim organization which is now openly calling for Sharia law in Tamil Nadu, India.

In a contrived sequence to convince viewers of a Tamil speaking Taliban there is reference to Kovai and Madurai. This is made in the passing with no reference to actual terrorist events that took place in Kovai. In 1998 a string of bomb blasts ripped the industrial town of Kovai and one location included an ICU in the local government hospital. Supposedly tensions between Hindutva and Muslim organizations had simmered there for a while. Later raids in Muslim neighborhood unearthed a huge cache of explosives sufficient to wreck the entire city. The docile state was stunned.

The depictions of beheading with religious overtones and a hanging that is preceded by religious intonations of justice etc are exactly what transpired in Afghanistan. Let us not forget how American journalist and a Jew, Daniel Pearl, was lured in the pretext of giving an interview and later beheaded by Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. KSM, master mind of 9/11, recorded the gruesome beheading and mailed it to Pearl's wife who was pregnant at that time. Today KSM is rotting in Guantanamo. Videos recovered, by CNN, in Afghanistan showed terrorists being trained on inflicting sheer terror on innocent populations. The instructions included textbooks, video tutoring etc , for instance, poisoning community water storage with botulinum.

Jihadi videos regularly use, with telling effect, religious symbols and religious texts. They, unfailingly, situate their depraved acts within a religious context. A documentary that traced 9/11 plotters to Hamburg shows how places of worship became beehives of terror plots. This is fact. To take offense to movie depictions that show a man praying before detonating a bomb is silly and whitewashes what happens.

Intellectuals who love to be politically correct recoil with horror at the term 'clash of civilizations' when referring to the conflict between the West and Islam. Yet that is exactly what is happening.

If Christian west can put up with Martin Scorsese's 'Last temptation of christ' that shows Christ fornicating with Mary Magdalene or a New York City art exhibit that shows a crucifix in a jar of urine or a pop star denigrating the cross then it is silly to expect the same Western countries to ban anything critical of Islam including any intentional insult.

Philip Pullman publishes a book titled 'Good man Jesus and scoundrel Christ' with the back flap saying, cheekily, 'this is only a story'. So why not Salman Rushdie publish 'Satanic Verses'? I also object that Rushdie is to be defended because his work is art. Even if it is trashy his freedom to trash is to be protected. If one can trash Rama or Christ why not another god? Free speech is a rare commodity in India. Press Freedom Index rates India lower than Afghanistan on free speech. Pulitzer finalist author Suketu Mehta wrote in New York Times "in India today, it seems, free speech is itself an atrocity".

The radical group Towheet Jamat and its fiery leader used the hypocrisies of Indian democracy deftly to further his agenda in banning the movie. Every political party and every religion and every caste has stifled free speech when it suited them. The speech is at . Apart from a very unsavory remark on Kamal's daughter it is a speech that puts to shame everyone and tells 'don't throw stones from a glass house'. Every religion has flexed its muscle seeking to ban critical opinion. No Bollywood film maker would dare to make a movie on Mumbai riots that the Sri Krishna committee squarely blamed on Bal Thackeray. 'Da Vinci Code' was banned by Tamil Nadu to placate a publicity hungry bishop.

Whether it is Afghanistan or Kashmir or Iran or Saudi, oppression of women, trampling of human rights across the board, lack of liberal democracy etc are hallmarks of those Islamic societies. When a mullah declares that new born babies need a burqa or that a women only music band should be banned the rest of the world lets out a collective gasp. In India Muslims enjoy many concessions like being able to run their educational institutions as they  please, yet their womenfolk are the least educated. That Rajiv Gandhi, in order to appease Islamic fundamentalists, robbed a destitute Muslim woman, Shah Bano, of her right to alimony, stands as a shameful chapter in India's record on human rights. 

Discrimination is another bogey that is raised by Muslims. I say its a 'bogey' in as much as discrimination was not invented by Tamils of other religions as an exclusive weapon against fellow citizens. Discrimination in housing, places of work, schools etc are a shameful, despicable yet pervasive part of Indian life. It is not only a Muslim who is discriminated against when they try to rent a home. A Dalit trying to rent in Mambalam, a Hindu trying to rent in a Christian enclave, vice-versa are all discriminated against. Can a Hindu open a shop in Burma Bazaar? How many non-Muslim students study in Islamic educational institutions? 

Islamic terrorism is a fact of life. If words like Saffron terror and Christian fundamentalism can be used to refer to extremism in those religions I see no reason why we should shy away from 'Islamic terrorism'. A simple listing of terrorist activities over the past few years would illustrate that almost all were Islamic terrorism. Talking of 'look at the context, look at the bigger picture' etc is pure sham. Britain gave refuge to thousands of muslims fleeing persecution in Afghanistan and Pakistan and yet that is where innocent people were killed because……British army was in Afghanistan and Iraq. What can one say when a Pakistani immigrant, whom the US had the grace to allow to become a citizen, plots to blow up tourists and innocent citizens in New York City Time Square? What can one say when an organization plots, in the name of religion, to blow up tens of airplanes killing innocents by the planeloads? 

If Towheet Jamat wants to stop stereotyping I'd love to see them protest against every such incident. I'd love to hear from the so called 'Arab street' loud denunciations of such heinousness. Let us remember that unlike North India Tamil Nadu has been relatively more secular and more peaceful towards its Muslim citizenry. The only protests we hear from the Islamic world are violent bloody protests against a cartoon, a Papal quote, a mediocre movie, a despicable youtube video. 

That a movie certified, under Indian laws, can be stopped by a lumpen organization on the sheer power of threats is chilling. Now any fundamentalist organization will feel emboldened to flex its muscle just to gain political mileage. The High court should have put its foot down on the case and yet they were mere spectators in this shenanigans. Once a movie has been certified by a censor board what is the need for a judge to have a screening. That a court would nullify its own ruling issued barely the night before and let a film maker run from pillar to post portrays the law and order situation in a bad light. The government's vindictiveness was merely capitalizing on the situation for reasons that are not just speculative. 

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Towheet Jamat has done a disservice to Tamil Muslims because the general population has only re-affirmed its stereotypes and a climate of "this is what they are" has come about. Given today's social media many a Tamil has watched the incendiary speeches of the Jamat speakers and has drawn his or her own conclusion. That the movie is Taliban centric made many to wonder on social media comments: 'so are those who protest against the movie support Taliban'? 

A parting word on the movie. There is much talk of whether or not the movie measures up to Hollywood standards. What is 'Hollywood standard'?

Terrorism is a difficult subject to deal with in a movie as Spielberg learned in 'Munich'. 'Munich' depicted how Israel sought and killed Palestinians who murdered Israeli athletes in Sep 1968 at Munich Olympics. Spielberg who is Jewish sought to explore the minds of those Mossad agents who were on a trail of vengeance. Charles Krauthammer, Jewish conservative columnist, ripped into Spielberg in a withering op-ed in Washington Post (Read it here 'Munich:The Travesty')

"...the Israeli athletes are not only theatrical but historical extras, stick figures. Spielberg dutifully gives us their names -- Spielberg's List -- and nothing more: no history, no context, no relationships, nothing. They are there to die.

The Palestinians who plan the massacre and are hunted down by Israel are given -- with the concision of the gifted cinematic craftsman -- texture, humanity, depth, history. The first Palestinian we meet is the erudite translator of poetry giving a public reading, then acting kindly toward an Italian shopkeeper -- before he is shot in cold blood by Jews." 

Even Spielberg's much revered 'Schindler's List' had its share of critics who felt that Spielberg trivialized Amon Goeth's brutal sport killings. Kamal Hassan, with no Tony Kushner by his side, and no Spielberg himself might have been incompetent to stage even a modicum of a discussion. It could also be the fear of how it would be received by an audience benumbed by inane mindless entertainment and a populace where mischief mongers are a dozen a dime. However Kamal had no compunction in his usual snide tasteless jokes about Brahmins and Hindu religion.

Kamal is no serious intellectual. He dabbles in a lot and is a power house of talent. He is a wonderful actor. Social commentary, intellectual analyses is not his forte. In an interview, possibly rattled by the protests, he made stupid claims and plainly idiotic assertions. 

Kamal opined "if Jews who had lived for just 60 years in Israel feel patriotic about Israel then what would a Muslim feel about a country he has lived in for 500 years". When actor pretend to be intellectual such stupidities happen. His ignorance of Jewish history and Israel is appalling. He goes on to claim that Muslims feel dispossessed today because "they have suffered so much injustice. They have ruled this country for centuries and where are they today. They chose to live and die in this country". Bollocks. Muslims in India are far better than any non-Muslim in Saudi or Pakistan. I do not mean to say that there is no injustice or nothing bad has happened to Muslims. Yes Babri Masjid, Bombay riots have happened. But that is not all there is to Muslims in India. Violent Islamic conquests cannot be swept under the carpet either. Islam did not enter India peacefully. It is stupid to claim so.

The movie shows Taliban indoctrination of children, how schools were closed, treatment of women (just hinted upon). All of that is fleeting and is not dwelled upon or dissected intelligently. Everything is captured only fleetingly as the movie slides into classic hero versus villain in a spy caper. Context is dead. Incidentally Kamal, in an interview, proudly said that when the US embassy read the script they were impressed by the details. The details include scenes of Taliban target practicing on Bush photographs.

Kamal has indeed slogged. Some, like the Kathak dance, are self-indulgent. The character could very well have been a Bharathanatyam dancer but Kamal chose to do Kathak. It is admirable that he did so in order to slog hard under Kathak maestro Birju Maharaj just so it does not come off as cheesy.

I've always felt Kamal tries to do a lot like a glutton and is finally weighed down by what he brings on himself. He is not a good director or a screen play writer. He needs, for his own good, to have a third person to do those just so he is reined in. The screen play is muddled, many characters just flit by. I am not too bothered about loopholes in some logic. After my staple diet of Rambo and Bond movies I know that logic is for the naive.

Kamal has accomplished a decent movie that is 'Hollywood' class if one considers Vin Diesel and Rambo and 'Die Hard' as 'Hollywood'. Also to be charitable let us remember that Kamal has to be mindful of political sensibilities and he does not have a free creative hand as in Hollywood.

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