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The Art of Seeking Offense: How Feeling Offended has Become a National Pastime in India

The Art of Seeking Offense: How Feeling Offended has Become a National Pastime in India

  • People seem to have developed a whole new level of alacrity to grasp even the minutest culprits hidden under heavy layers of nuance, and somehow turn everything into a personal insult.

I recently returned to the U.S. after a 5-month stay in India. While I narrowly missed all the noise and cry over the song Besharam Rang (‘shameless color,’ when translated into English) from the film “Pathan,” I was abundantly kept abreast of every opinion, to the last thrust and heave, thanks to the ongoing rage and outrage on various online forums. 

The song shot with two of Bollywood’s biggest names Shahrukh Khan and Deepika Padukone, seems to have seriously offended a lot of people for different reasons. While some of our friends see the gravest crime in the color of what Deepika’s character wears for about 5 seconds toward the end of the song, there are others who question the arguably suggestive movement and exposed skin. Like always, everyone seems to be going all out looking for words that they believe strike the hardest blow to who, nobody knows. 

Intriguingly, every curse in response revolves around either religious unrighteousness or moral ineptitude. Looking at it from a distance, the worst most people can say is to call a woman a prostitute and a man an illegitimate child, in various dialects, synonyms, and slang. Goes to show that sexual freedom is still on top of everyone’s mind, even those who fight against it with perversive expressions.

Feeling offended has become a national pastime in India with a very fast turnover rate. The next hot debate could very well be right here, all set to outdate the Besharami before this article gets published. Remember the freak-out over the film “Padmavat,” or the Tanishq Advertisement, or the rage over the film “Kashmir Files” and the comedian who lost his career for making a joke about Lord Ram? 

What about the other favorite Indian pastime – cricket? I hope I am not skewered for calling it a pastime and not religion. That could be quite offensive to many considering that we have Gods for leg side, offside, and walls guarding temples. Even our metaphors could be taken literally. Gods too can take a great big fall. The World Cup-winning captain, Kapil Dev said something that sent every custodian of political correctness into a frenzied scramble looking for the harshest words to describe, what the elderly sportsman thought was a speech to inspire. 

The ease at which you can offend people these days is baffling. By no measure am I saying that it’s unique to India but having grown up there, having been born, lived, and worked in Bengaluru for many years; what I experienced this time was definitely way different from what I am typically used to. Definitely, way out of the American league of offense-seekers. 

People seem to have developed a whole new level of alacrity to grasp even the minutest culprits hidden under heavy layers of nuance, and somehow turn everything into a personal insult. Now it cuts across all political, religious, social, economic, and ideological lines. Everyone across every stratum of society has woken up to their birthright of laying claim to victimhood. Some for a purported cause and others for their own stature. Even close friends can take serious offense to a perfunctory remark about a general topic. 

The ease at which you can offend people these days is baffling. By no measure am I saying that it’s unique to India, but definitely way out of the American league of offense-seekers.

Art especially seems to stoke the deepest dormant volcanos of defensiveness even amongst the most benign and disconnected. Lines from a script are dissected like never before and the writer’s affiliations, prejudices and biases are put under the microscope.

When my play “A Muslim in the Midst” was staged in Bangalore in 2019, I had to contend with questions about my personal political affiliation on many occasions. All post-show talkbacks in the U.S. would be discussions around the character’s choices or the treatment of the story or other such craft-related topics but among people of Indian origin (even those who live in the U.S.), the writer’s personal belief somehow assumes paramount importance. 

More recently, in Oct 2022, when I produced the Kannada version of Mahesh Dattani’s “Dance Like a Man” in Bengaluru, a seemingly innocuous title notwithstanding, it did invite the ire of a yakshagana artist, who took offense to a humorous remark in the play about the heavy make-up typically applied by those folk artists. 

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It is no longer about the art but it has increasingly become about its creator. It’s no longer the lines spoken by a character in a performance, they are perceived as messages intended to trigger and hurt someone. Today it is neither about the veracity of the facts nor felicity of expression. Every art piece is viewed as a potential for sinister conspiracy against somebody. 

One of the reasons for this could be a newfound resurgence to return to a certain period where honor and pride trumped common sense and fairness. When the kings ruled and everyone else served, there was a hierarchy that accorded privileges on a diminishing scale. So, privilege and honor, appropriate to where one served in the hierarchy, became the most important standards to maintain. 

Though the social structure has long been dismantled, the Indian psyche at the group and individual levels is still governed by a very rigid framework. Aukath, or yogyatha reigns supreme. Literally, the words used in most Indian languages, translate to ‘eminence’ but in application, they actually mean ‘privilege’. You need to have certain privileges to be able to say or do certain things. ‘Losing face’ is still a good enough cause for extreme reactions. I am not personally aware of any other mainstream society in the world that accords importance with such force and magnitude to the ignominy of ‘losing face’. Especially in a society where it doesn’t take much to gain and lose aukath

Young India driven by unlimited access to knowledge and aspiration appears to be very confident and ambitious but a vast majority continue to be emotionally driven, often falling for ideologues and polarizing opinions picked up online without a foundation of firsthand experiences. One can’t help feeling that India’s young multitude still has to shed heavy emotional baggage handed down from the previous generations, and unshackle the chains of unseen mysticism that frequently clashes with the need for material advancement. That’s the only kind of load-shedding India needs. Until then, there will always remain plenty of besharami (shamelessness) to go around to keep the masses triggered.

Born and raised in Bengaluru and living in New Jersey, Anand Rao is a writer, director and communications consultant who also tells stories through theatre and film. He is the author of the highly acclaimed and award-nominated play, “A Muslim in the Midst.” He attributes his creative bent of mind to an upbringing replete with stories of Indian epics, classical literature, and drama.

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  • I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article and it’s a true reflection of how easily outraged reactions can be. As the author acknowledges this tendency to react disproportionately to whatever phenomenon strikes the public mind is happening across countries but esp. in North America. Claims to being offended have become a universal cry esp. in North America to the point that stand-up comics and speakers to American colleges are a vanishing breed. In the U.S. it’s perhaps an excess of liberalism that has caused it, but in India it’s probably a more existential issue a sort of “main bhi hoon kuch” i.e. I too have a voice and I have the freedom to react to whatever it might be. Especially when the phenomenon is obtrusive as in the case of the provocative video to the song Besharam Rang.

  • I fully resonate with this article and was at the receiving end recently when I invited my friends and family members (in USA) to the theatre to watch my childhood-hero Aamir Khan’s movie “Laal Singh Chadha”. So many “hard-core ideology” folks without having any knowledge of the movie and it’s background came with full force upon me and harassed me just because they were unhappy with some comments made by Aamir Khan about the India’s national security. Really??? Just because he is a Muslim means he can’t express his opinions? Does one has to be a Hindu to say something and wait, still you can’t say ANYTHING about current India’s government, otherwise you will be thrown out of Whatsapp groups, will not invited to get-togethers, else will be mocked at the parties! Where’s our basic constitutional right ” freedom of speech and expression” has gone?? I am sure Dr. Ambedkar is looking down from heaven and helplessly crying on the sorry state of affairs of India. Yes, I can also say now I don’t feel safe anymore amongst the polarized and easy-to-get offended Indians!!!

  • Very good article Anand. This trend is not good for the Indian society.
    Hope objectivity prevails over emotions

  • The irony is that this article is nothing but an outpour of taking offense to someone else taking offense!

    This article is just a judgmental western lens and easily dismisses a group’s opinion/reaction. Moreover, NRIs should perhaps focus on issues within their country such as dismissal of a professor for having shown a photo of a religious leader to students in a University than pass around judgments to a society and country they have left (and most do not even hold the citizenship anymore).

    – The article takes what unique to India and somehow calls it problematic. The writer has a baseline in his mind, thanks to his privilege and travel, and wants to impose that to India and want the folks here to be like the other countries he has lived or visited.
    – The author or the article doesn’t seem to truly have done the research to understand the context or the people better. The writer compares current India with the India that he grew up in but forgets that back then maybe those group and people did not have access to voice their opinion on any platform and thanks to social media, you are now a tleast getting to hear another perspective in the same rigor as mainstream editorial media.
    – One can’t use ‘art’ as an excuse to belittle someone else.

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