Monday, February 11, 2013

Muslim Profiling and Vishwaroopam

Muslims Profiling and Vishwaroopam
Syed Ali Mujtaba

The controversy centering on the profiling of the Muslim community in the movie Vishwaroopam has fallen into the quagmire of the hackneyed debate of right of expression vs right to protest.

The liberals are flagging the freedom of expression agenda, while those at the receiving end are vehement about asserting their fundamental right to protest for being profiled as terrorist.  

 The fire power of the media is used by the freedom of expression protagonist to convince their commands are the final words of wisdom on this subject. While those publicly humiliated, are using the democratic armory to score some brownie points. 

Call it vote bank or the seize mentality of the minority community, this time the voices of dissent cannot be trampled, courtesy the government of the day has to take cognizance of the ground reality and is backing those who are crying hoarse of being hurt.  Who is winning and who is losing in this debate is left to the individual judgment as there are other nuggets in this story to be explored. 
There is a tug of war between Federal and the state government over this controversy. The central government is asserting its right saying the state cannot over rule the Central Government’s Censor Board that has given approval for the screening of the movie.  

 The state government on the contrary argues that when public peace is in jeopardy and law and order situation is likely to be tampered, the local government is within the constitutional right to maintain peace. Since law and order is a state subject the central government has no over riding powers over this subject. In the case of Vishwaroopam, the state government is convinced that public peace is paramount and banning the movie is for the larger social good.

 The judiciary too seems to be divided on the issue of banning the movie. When the state government banned the movie, a single bench stayed the government’s order and ruled in favour of the release of the movie. The government went for a appeal and a dual bench turned down the single bench ruling and justified the ban.

 The matter may be heard in the Supreme Court and its likely that the Apex court may quash the ban citing precedents. However, the question remains, will the release draw full houses or people may keep away from the theaters fearing untoward incidents.   

A similar situation had emerged with the release of the movie Arakshan and “Jodha Akbar.” Both the movies were banned by the state government first and then the Supreme Court ordered the release of the film.  Even then the damage was done as many movie goers stayed away from the theaters fearful of the shadows of the guns and the prospects of bomb blasts. Ultimately both the movies became victim of their controversies.
Coming back to the profiling of the Muslims, the nineties have been full with movies that depicted Muslims as anti social and terrorists. The Hindi – Hindu – Hindustan paradigm of the majority right wing India society that momentarily triumphed following the destruction of Babari Masjid cast its spell on the Indian film makers.

A glut of films with negative shades of Muslim characters was produced by the Bolloywood. In the topics of patriotism and nationalism Kashmir and Pakistan provided the set piece for villainy. If the plot was terrorism, then Kashmir and Pakistan has to be on the fore. The logical deduction was the characters have to be Muslims.

In this added another big picture, the 9/11, and US quest for infinite justice and enduring freedom. The celluloid industry became busy churning out movies of good guys’ verses bad guys theme. The holier than though image was straight jacketed for the US and the audience were made to forget about the creators of the bad guys.

One can understand the Hollywood perspective on such themes, but Bollwwood and Kollywood falling in line needs to straighten out.. It’s often discussed Indian movies produced these days are more foreign in nature and hardly have any Indian connect. The language, the dress, the location and many other such things are all foreign in nature and meant for the Diasporas or such international audience who generate much higher revenue. So taping international market gets priority and the Indian audiences are plated with some sleek visual delight. This formula seems to be working and every film maker seems to be in this race.

The movie Vishwaroopam is a classical example of such visual fantasy. The plot develops in the US, travels to Afghanistan and is plated to the Indian audience in Tamil language. Which Indian audience may relate to such a plot? 

Obviously the audience that most likely to connect with the movie will the Muslims. In the construct of villainy, they found their religion being denigrated in this film. If they chose to protest then what’s harm? It seems the freedom of expression protagonist like to cease the right to cry for being hurt. They want such slapped to sanity. Even in ‘demoncracy,’ this is not permissible.  

Vishwaroopam, as the name suggests tries to portray the shape of the world. According to the filmmaker's world view; “all Muslim are not terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims”.  This is simple message the movie wants to convey.
When the controversy has reached its nadir, the question is being asked, is it the ignorance or the arrogance of the film maker that’s on display padding the anti Islamic visual contents in the movie Vishwaroopam? Belting US agenda, why the film maker did not thought of its viewers sentiments. 

From Iraq to Afghanistan, from Syria to Egypt, the .entire Muslim world is up in flames due to the hegemonic agenda of the US. In this backdrop a Tamil movie tries to blow the trumpet of Stars and Stripes.     

Embarking on such superlative projects with prejudiced world view is bound to ruffle feathers. Can a film maker afford to do this in a market driven industry which judges the success of the movie purely on its cash returns.

 Here a mention can be made about few movies that did the profiling of the Muslims with outmost sobriety. ‘New York’ ‘Kurban,’ ‘My name is Khan’ all tried present the problem of terrorism against the US in a holistic way. The Islamic content in the movie My Name is Khan is beautifully highlighted and this was well appreciated by the Muslims audience as well as others.

 A mention has to be made about a documentary Allah Hu Akbar (Allah is Great). This shows the protagonist Salim taxiwala, a devout Muslim who prays five times a day and firmly believes that Allah’s commandments run supreme on this earth. He carries a white foreigner in his cab to the airport but his follies during the journey make his passenger miss his international flight. Little did this cab driver realize that his carelessness inadvertently saved the life of the passenger whose flight was high-jacked by international terrorists who blew up the plane shouting Allah Hu Akbar. Such plot of good Muslim vs bad Muslim has a straight connect with the Indian audience. 

 ‘Vishwaroopam’ no doubt can be a great feast for the celluloid but its presentation has rough edges that are bound to poke those whom it tries to paint in negative shades. This takes us another area and that is the approval certification for its screening issued by the Censor Board of India. 

 The movie Vishwaroopam has raised eyebrows at the members of the Censor Board who has given it the clearance fit for screening. Their negligence for assessing the repercussions over clearing the anti Islamic content is glaring in this case.  Is the Censor Board a Holy Cow that needs to be worshiped? Can we blindly approve all that it clears for public viewing as an epitome of infallible truth?
The free flow of blood and gore, explicit sexual content finds its presence in the large body of the cinematic art that the Censor Board approves fit for entertainment. There is no control on the screen play, dialogue, lyrics that are full with innuendos and filth. Umpteen examples of highly sexual and lewd content can be cited that the Censor Board has cleared as fit form of cinematic expression.

Can we gulp such pulp fiction without making any hue and cry, just because the Censor Board has approved it? The general view is no film these days is worthy to be watched with family and children. Some argue that growing crime in the society is directly proportional to the immoral cinematic content licensed by the censor board. Who will address such concerns? 

In this money spinning industry where astronomical amount is spent on the making of the movie, a trend has developed that the seal can be bought by greasing the palms and the censor board is reduced to selling certificates.

The way out to the ‘Vishwaroopam’ controversy is found through an out of court settlement with the group objecting to its contents. But is this the right way to do so? How long a movie or any piece of art can lean on the crutches of the government or judiciary’s protection for its viewing. This question has to be addressed by those in the field of the creative art even before they start working on their storyboards.

Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at - Earlier writeup of the author on the same theme can be checked here 

1- Bollywood and the Indian Muslims

2- The new Bollywood Muslim

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