A STATEMENT or a film sparking a debate somehow seems to depend more on where it is said (or released) than on the content itself

Does the stage maketh the controversy? This thought has been with me for a while now as I saw the Ashis Nandy drama unfold at the Jaipur Literature Festival, never really short of news or newsmakers. Just like there was the eminently avoidable Salman Rushdie episode at the same fest last year. Down South, Kamal Haasan has been fighting a fierce battle to release Vishwaroopam, his multi-lingual magnum opus in Tamil Nadu. Apparently, some Muslim outfits have objected to the projection of the community in the film. That they raised objections even before the film’s release makes it more than likely that they did so without watching the film, maybe on hearsay alone. Yet at the same time, no North Indian Muslim Jamaat, say from Delhi or Uttar Pradesh, where too the film is to be released in Hindi version, raised any objection. Is it because Kamal Haasan does not have the same popularity in the Hindi-speaking belt? Are the stakes different in different cities? What about values? Does stage really engender controversy?

After all, just last week, Salman Rushdie, whose scheduled presence at the Jaipur fest raised such a ruckus last year, leading to stormy sessions between pro and anti-Rushdie sections, quietly came to the Capital. He even addressed the media, talked at length about his novel Midnight Children, and departed. No questions asked. No hackles raised. Was the relative indifference to the visit because he had come merely to talk of Deepa Mehta’s film based on his book? And chose a glitzy hotel as the venue for public appearance? The verses were not satanic, sure, but what about the man? Or was the din in Jaipur raised because he was to be a part of a big international meet with the who’s who of the world of literature in attendance? Does stage indeed maketh the moment? Does it set the agenda? Does it also bring into motion the entire social fabric? If so, is not the occasion greater than the much-talked about values, the principles? If a Muslim outfit in Chennai finds Vishwaroopam objectionable, why don’t the counterparts elsewhere raise similar issues? Or, if people in Delhi, Mumbai, Lucknow, Patna, and indeed in Kerala, are fine with the film, what serious objection can the organisations in Chennai possibly have?

Ditto for Nandy. And pray, was it mere coincidence that the panellist who raised an objection to his remark, belonged to the channel that broke the news? One does not have to agree with Nandy. One possibly cannot agree, at least as far as the reported statement goes — then there is the small issue of lack of empirical data to buttress or rubbish his alleged contention. But then haven’t similar statements been doing the rounds on social media sites? Aren’t there publications in various languages, most admittedly, nothing more than a rag, propagating similar thought? Does anybody protest, sit on dharna, go to the cops? Nope. But so many did so at the Jaipur fest. Just like there was an issue with Girish Karnad last year when he went vocal with his criticism of V.S. Naipaul at yet another literary meet in Mumbai. Haven’t so many others expressed similar sentiments about Naipaul’s writings? Why then a different yardstick for Karnad? Again, because he said what he did at a literary meet?

Does occasion, the moment, the ambience engineer protest, rake up a controversy? And doesn’t controversy, in turn, feed the event, the film, bringing along media attention, readers and eyeballs? Or, is it all merely because of the high-profile men in question? The world of literature, and indeed, the world of films, fail to provide easy answers. And if eminent authors fumble for words, for explanations, the chances for lesser mortals are as bright as finding a needle in a haystack. Happy hunting.

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In the mind field February 15, 2013