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Shackled in the Name of Respect

By Uthara.G 

Art is what we live for. Art pours itself into our barren minds to redeem us from the pangs of starvation. Indians place the art of acting at the top of the hierarchy, elevating actors to the position of superhuman. The last few months can be regarded as the renaissance of our times. We stood in solidarity with the brightest minds of our country voicing for freedom to be heard, loud and clear, the freedom to express and articulate one’s thoughts irrespective of one’s religion, caste, gender, political orientation or ideology. This is nothing but a pristine form of art to me. It was a joining of hands with the thousands of people fighting for the freedom to dissent in spite of the cheap media and political tactics to turn them into so-called anti-nationals. For me, the need for substantiating their genuine outcry is in itself a huge waste of time.

Being a part of an institute which consists of students from different parts of the country, I took pride in the Malayalam film industry, especially its well scripted movies, the absence of the need for glamour, and the actors who are indisputably amongst the best. Mohanlal Viswanathan Nair, better known as Mohanlal, is an Indian actor best known for his work in Malayalam films. Film critics, contemporaries, and other experts consider him one of the greatest actors in Indian cinema for his versatile and natural acting; he also holds a matinee idol status in the popular culture of Kerala.

Being a Malayali and raised by a woman who is an ardent follower of his films, Mohanlal is an actor I have heartily endorsed among my peers. Hence, I found his response to the JNU protest, to use a mild term, shameful. He seemed to be entangled in the constraint of imagined national boundaries, misinterpreting words such as freedom, respect, and love. His argument was slyly put forth using the image of soldiers fighting against a heinous group of people questioning their nation. There was a huge failure to identify similarities in terms of the cause or the intentions of the two categories he proposed. Both were striving for a better future of the nation.; for a life without chains over their minds, voices, and bodies. In his blog ‘The Complete Actor,’ putting his theatrical skills to the fullest use, Mohanlal twisted the whole event into a movement by anti-nationals who are ignorant about the country’s past and careless about its present. According to him they are merely screaming away, unnecessarily arguing over the obvious relevance of ‘nationalism.’ This is accompanied by a voice over of the actor, who is well versed in dubbing, along with Vande Mataram playing in the background. I would be lying if I fail to admit that it did have an effect on me, it made me consider embracing the counter argument put forth. Fortunately the strong principles instilled in me by education and the scholarly works which I had read as a social science student came out triumphant. But what about the millions of his followers who might not have full information about the issue? This sends a wrong message to all of them leading to condemnation of a lot of light bearers. He contradicts, “I am least interested in the political debates around us. It is only the attitude we have towards our nation that concerns me.” He claims to be non-political by commenting on a political issue of a massive scale and forgets that a responsible citizen should be politically aware even if not politically correct. On February 21 2016, he wrote,

“Winters for us are the time to sleep in, curled underneath the warmth of the blankets. We are accustomed to warm water hanging at our convenience to clean up. Then we arrive at our universities, offices, and public spaces… to conduct debates, to organize marches, to pelt stones, to abuse our Army, to cast doubts over them, by portraying traitors as pioneers of freedom of expression. At night, we go back to the comfort of fire by our side and chilled whiskey…Our children should be sent to universities which bear culture. They would then salute with the same enthusiasm as with their echoing slogans against nation. They would shed a tear for the nation with the same strength of their speeches proclaim. The security and integrity of the nation would then be our priority, ahead of any terrorist’s interests.”

It doesn’t require a Ph.D. from JNU or Oxford to realise the political agenda that infuses this piece of writing which is to suppress the voice of rational individuals and to turn the country against them. This will eventually lead to the voiceless banter of individuals clamouring for fundamentalism. Mohanlal failed miserably both as an actor and citizen by calling out to the parents of JNU students. He criticised them for sending their children to a culture-less university and emphasized the need to educate people about nationalism and patriotism. He lost a huge fan following, among them my mom who is proud to have raised two strong willed and ideologically firm daughters, both of whom are associated with the institute in question. He tried to portray one of the best educational institutes in the country as a hub of vagabonds living against the so called personalized ‘culture.’ What is it that makes the right to dissent wrong?

Questioning is not just a right but it is a way of learning for both sides. The mistake humans did was to divide themselves on the basis of colour, sex, language and space. Nationalism is not showing unconditional support to your country because you are bound to. A person rectifies her friends but frowns at the enemy. Indifference is not the answer but rather is the cause of problems, confrontation results in clarity and that’s what we need.

I still remember the movie ‘Lal Salaam’ (1990) directed by Venu Nagavalli, in which the protagonist portrayed by the actor in question leads a Communist movement, a new thought then which was persecuted and deemed anti-national. The sense of enlightenment seething through the film was fulfilling. Much to my amazement, today, the actor chooses to identify himself with only certain roles he had played, especially that of a commanding officer in the Indian Army, but fails to embrace the other equally revolutionary roles which he should be reminded about. Everyone should be able to embrace the necessity to listen, understand, and learn new notions and ideas. As a matter of fact, there is nothing new in believing in the freedom of dissent which is inherent in every human. Dissent is a word we should be proud of, a country which tolerates and acknowledges dissent should be one we should take pride in.

Quoting the actor’s own lines, “Every thought is good which leads the nation to progress, every protest is good if it contributes to one more brick in the building of the nation, every discussion is good which secures the freedom of the nation which was given to us through the sacrifice of many lives…” This is exactly why we stood with JNU, to help the country be inclusive, understand the notion of choice and freedom, and help build individuals along with the growth of the nation. In the name of respecting freedom are we supposed to chain self-respect? Won’t it undermine the price we paid for freedom in the first place? I refuse to be misguided by my childhood hero. I refuse to give up my voice and be taken in by a mob frenzy fighting battles against imagined demons. I refuse to be deemed anti-national. I refuse to be a part of a national boundary with dead corpses as citizens. Why should the nation be glorified when its citizens are dead and voiceless? I refuse to surrender. I believe in the freedom of dissent for myself and others. I refuse to remain shackled in the name of respect!

Uthara Geetha is a Master’s student in Applied Economics at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. She loves music and craft and dreams of becoming an economist whose theories will support the daily struggles of common women and men everywhere.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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