When celebrities compartmentalise their lives into convenient ‘public' and ‘private' selves, they are making way for fascism to take root…
He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would fully suffice.
Shah Rukh Khan is the nation's newest hero of secularism and democracy. But despite the high voltage media coverage, what went unnoticed was how his seemingly ethical defence of the freedom of speech was built on highly dangerous assumptions. The tragedy of our age of capitalist rationality is that its core economic principle, division of labour, has escaped the factory and enveloped our entire existence. We have fragmented and compartmentalised all aspects of our life so much that there is a different code of conduct and morality for each sphere. Ultimately, what triumphs from these contradictions is a moral vacuum which perpetuates fascism. The response of Khan and other Bollywood celebrities to the latest threat of Shiv Sena's fascism betrayed in no uncertain terms this tragedy of compartmentalisation of our morals and ethics.
While Khan's bravado in standing up (however unintended) has to be recognised, his position reeked of double standards. Thus, for Khan, despite disagreement at the level of political ideologies, at the personal level, there were no problems in interacting with the Thackerays; in fact, as Khan mentions, they had some ‘great times' together. Balasahib is a venerable old man who calls Khan home and shows him his caricatures and even promises to make one of his. ‘Uddhavjiis a very sweet person', who pursues passions like photography in his private life and they indulge in mutual appreciation of each other's work. The politics of the Thackerays does not come in the way of Khan admiring them in the private realm — after all, the private and the public realms are separate. The refusal of Khan to issue an apology was simultaneously accompanied by statements like how ‘awful' and ‘ sad' he felt that the Thackerays had misconstrued his words. And considering the ‘good relationship' that they shared, he would have retracted his words only if they had personally called him. Not because he did not believe in what he said, only that he did not have to say in public what are essentially his private beliefs. Compartmentalisation ensures that even a fulcrum of democracy like the freedom of speech can be exercised silently without troubling other spheres. Ultimately, the whole issue seemed less about the defence of the freedom of speech and democracy than about the hurt ego of ‘King Khan' in which the fascist friends aired their grievances in public rather than thrashing them out in private.
The other side of the fracas was the shocking and deafening silence on the part of the film fraternity. Even when Bollywood celebrities dared to ‘tweet' about the whole issue, they were in the form of Miss World pageant-style twaddle about ‘world peace and harmony'. An industry which thrives the most on the freedom of expression and secularism abdicates its responsibility in utter cowardice, or love for the unofficial first family of Maharashtra. Division of labour triumphs unabashedly: leave politics to the Thackerays, let us carry on with the business of entertainment and ‘making people smile'. This is sadly demonstrated in the figure of the greatest film (dare we say national) icon of independent India, Amitabh Bachchan. In the midst of the Sena threats and attacks, he gushes about the praise showered on his latest film by the Thackerays. He writes admiringly about Bal Thackeray: ‘He is resolute and firm as ever and in that resoluteness you discover an endearing, that sudden soft moment, which has always made his presence so strong and affectionate'.
Now, Thackeray might be a fascist in the public realm and his brand of politics might have cost the life and limbs of hundreds of people, but like Shah Rukh Khan, Bachchan discovers endearing qualities about him in the private and personal realm which are compelling reasons to associate with him. The compartmentalised world is also curiously an adulterous world. Thus a few days after not only silently acquiescing to, but actively endorsing practitioners of fascism, Bachchan is invited by a prominent television channel to honour ‘citizen journalists'! There he implores to the nation: ‘When one citizen upholds an individual right for another, they enact their duty to themselves. When one citizen fulfils their duty to others, that citizen upholds their own rights again... This is the essence of our collective necessity for vigilance. To be eternally vigilant, that is liberty's strenuous price'. Ironically, there could not be a more eloquent defence of liberty. But when confronted with criticisms of showering encomiums on the Thackerays, Bachchan irritatingly responded that he is apolitical: ‘we are not activists, we are actors'. We are back to the division of labour.
Quest for profits
Bollywood argued that it could not be expected to fight fascism because the ‘stakes are too high'. It seems the realm of business and the quest for economic profits are so sacrosanct that they are seemingly above all ethical principles. As Shah Rukh Khan puts it, on the day of a film release, ‘principle is the weakest' and that ‘does not make us cowards'. He does not expect any other film personality to stand up for him as he has ‘never stood up for any one'. Guess when the most powerful celebrities of the country argue that the stakes are too high to defend democracy, it might be very easy for the poor and the hungry to do so for they have nothing to lose. The controversy and its aftermath thus saw bizarre arguments from both Khan and Bachchan, people who routinely top the ‘most powerful' lists of not only the nation, but also the world, that they are ‘vulnerable' and ‘powerless' because they are celebrities! This argument of powerlessness, however, is conspicuously missing when they exercise the power and goodwill they have earned to convince people that they should buy the hundreds of products that they endorse, including brands like the Gujarat of Narendra Modi.
Fascism is dangerous when it can bring around people to think like it. But it is even more dangerous when people who do not think like it accept its logic. Thus celebrities like the Bachchans and the Khans sup with those who have caused the greatest damage to the secular and democratic fabric of India and still tell us it is normal and apolitical. Unless this compartmentalisation is exposed, we will keep on worshipping those who joyfully march to music in rank and file as our national icons.