Mohammed Rafi and the rights of fictional characters

Blurred lines:Linking every single thing a character says or does to the creator’s personal views is problematic.— photo: special arrangement  

“Mohammed Rafi? Woh gaate kam, rote zyaada the ,” says a character in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. That one throwaway line seems to have understandably raised the hackles of many fans of the legendary velvet-voiced singer — celebrities have been taking to social media to express their indignation, and reportedly the Central Board of Film Certification wants the line beeped out.

Okay, so now the question. Is a fictional character not allowed to dislike Rafi or, say, Hrithik Roshan or Salman Rushdie or any real-life figure? Should every character’s viewpoints/actions be evaluated by the touchstone of political correctness when the context comes from real life? (For the record, I absolutely adore Mohammed Rafi, but for me the sentence dissing him is laughably ignorant, not objectionable. Because even fictional characters should be granted freedom of speech.)

The blurring of lines between the worlds of imagination and reality has often spurred irate reactions from those who are unable to disengage from real life even in the context of fiction. Characters’ views have often been called out by aggressive fan groups or political parties — to cite just one well-known example, in 2010 the Shiv Sena led an agitation against Rohinton Mistry’s Such A Long Journey for the offensive words mouthed by one of the characters against Bal Thackeray and Marathi-speaking people. The teachers’ union and a few Marathi intellectuals argued that this was merely the perspective of a character, not the writer, but to no avail — Such A Long Journey was axed from the Mumbai University curriculum.

Facile interpretations such as the above-mentioned one assume that a writer/film-maker unquestionably endorses everything he puts out there through his multiple characters. Sometimes, this crosses the line of stupidity. Years ago, I remember watching a feature film on devadasis (temple prostitutes) with a friend who was repelled with a scene in which the character of the lecherous temple pujari lies down next to a little girl born into the devdasi clan. “What a disgusting movie this is,” she spat out. No amount of argument could convince her that the movie was depicting a social reality, not ratifying it; or, that had the film-maker gone on to show the exploitation in graphic, leery detail, that would have betrayed his intent and indeed made the film “disgusting”.

In less asinine examples than this, fictional characters and their creators’ intent are often viewed through the prism of a larger ideology. Take Homi Adajania’s Cocktail, where the main character, the wanton and fun-loving Veronica, undergoes a somewhat drastic personality change after her boyfriend falls in love with her restrained and chaste flat mate, Meera. Several feminists expressed disapproval of the fact that Veronica starts dressing more soberly and even — horror of horrors — begins praying in an attempt to compete with Meera but loses her boyfriend to her anyway. Indignation was expressed about the “regressive” signals that this sent out — namely, that a ‘good girl’ always scores over a promiscuous, scantily dressed, booze-guzzling one, a moral judgment that’s been made in Hindi cinema from the earliest decades.

Let me first clarify that I agree completely on the larger principle of societal judgmentalism as well as Bollywood’s well-known vestal virgin-vamp divide in earlier years. However, when I saw Cocktail (after having first read the ideological criticisms of it), I was slightly confounded because I perceived no moral judgment in the film-maker’s portrayal. To me Veronica’s compulsions were not implausible; I saw her devil-may-care exterior as masking an insecure, wounded inner child who had been used and abandoned in relationships and who desperately wanted to hold on to one where not only her boyfriend but even his mother had given her the affection she never got from her own family. The fact that her ‘transformation’ mostly takes place after a life-changing, near-death event is also significant — that being a time when a person’s moorings can change entirely. True, the end was silly with Veronica’s happy-shiny acceptance of Meera and Gautam’s relationship but then few film-makers have been able to resolve a love triangle satisfactorily.

Letting fictional characters breathe and do their own thing is an important part of creativity, however uncomfortable — those characters that throw our expectations of social conformity out of gear or, indeed, those that need to be morally repugnant to express a larger point ought not to be reined in for fear of one’s intent being misunderstood. Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian and horribly disturbing A Clockwork Orange is a case in point — what would the more naïve and judgmental among us make of the sociopathic protagonist Alex DeLarge? Would we immediately arrive at the conclusion that Kubrick and the original writer Anthony Burgess heartily endorse drugs, murder, mayhem and sexual violence? Many indeed did though Alex and his band of thugs were a vehicle to express something quite different.

In the interesting dilemma of whether one should shape/restrain one’s characters to fit a progressive ideology or let them be, an example from playwright-screenwriter Vijay Tendulkar’s work comes to mind. In his Kanyadaan , a Brahmin girl raised with notions of caste equality by her idealistic Gandhian father marries a Dalit man who subjects her to marital abuse. This portrayal of a Dalit infuriated the community and raised the hackles of politically correct liberals but it was Tendulkar’s relentless honesty as a writer that was at work — where he always took up for the Dalit cause in his activist avatar, he refused to let it colour his writer’s prism through which he studied individuals, not stereotypes.

“My writing reflects a mind which is distinctly different from the mind which acts in real life as a socially aware person,” he once said. “As a writer I find myself persistently inquisitive, non-conformist, ruthlessly cold and brutal as compared to the other committed and human me. The writer in me is more analytical rather than socially committed one way or the other. The writer in me raises inconvenient questions instead of choosing his side and passionately claiming thereafter that it is always the right one. As a social being I am against all exploitation … as a writer I am fascinated by the violent exploiter-exploited relationship and obsessively delve deep into it instead of taking a position against it.”

Vijay Tendulkar and Karan Johar are worlds apart, but the principle remains the same — characters can be the mouthpieces of a writer, but linking every single thing they say or do directly to the writer’s personal views is problematic. So, as regards the Rafi row, I, for one, wouldn’t waste time lambasting a writer/director for his ditzy young character’s ignorance about a brilliant singer. Carry on, Alizeh — Mohammed Rafi’s awesomeness is under no threat because of you.

The author is a freelance editor and writer

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2021 9:04:45 PM |

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