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.
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.
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.