Many secular people will be dismayed by the reaction of some Muslim organisations to Mr Mani Ratnam’s film, ‘Bombay’. It is important to stress that the protests have emanated mainly from a few communal Muslim outfits, and that many secular Muslims are strongly against banning the film. But no prominent body of Muslims is enthusiastic about a film which, despite many shortcomings, is brilliant at depicting how ghastly and senseless communal violence is, land what an affront to common humanity it is. Riots and threats of violence have led to the film being banned in Andhra Pradesh, while its screening in Bombay has been postponed.
Why has a film that aimed at healing communal wounds ended up rubbing salt in them? Muslim communalists have three main objections. The first is that Mr Mani Ratnam showed the film in advance to Mr Bal Thackeray, supremo of the Shiv Sena, and accepted some cuts. Since Mr Thackeray was the moving force behind the attacks on Muslims in Bombay in January 1993, why should he be regarded as an appropriate censor? Why, ask the Muslim organisations, were they too not allowed to see the film in advance and decree cuts?
Mr Ratnam says he did indeed heed Muslim sentiment — he cut out the original sequence showing the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and instead used shots of newspaper clippings. He might perhaps argue that he showed the film to Mr Thackeray to try and avoid post-film riots, and did not accept Shiv Sena censorship. He refused to accept some of Mr Thackeray’s demands like changing the name of the film to ‘Mumbai’. One of the characters in the film is a caricature of Mr Thackeray, shown as a prime mover of violence who, towards the end, looks aghast and repentant at the havoc he has wreaked. Mr Thackeray himself has objected to this scene, saying he is not repentant in the least.
Mr Ratnam’s defence has several weaknesses. Any film-maker can legitimately try to avoid riots and the banning of his film, which can lose him crores of revenue. But if Mr Ratnam thought that the only side capable of feeling hurt and rioting was the Shiv Sena, he was guilty of bad judgement and worse (he is paying a heavy penalty in lost ‘ revenue in Andhra Pradesh). Giving Mr Thackeray a privileged position was wrong. Mr Ratnam should, in order to maintain his integrity and impartiality, have refused to show the film in advance to any community leader, Hindu or Muslim.
The second Muslim objection is that the film depicts both communities as equally guilty of violence, when the minority community was by far the greater victim. This objection cannot stand scrutiny. No film can or should claim to represent the absolute truth (there is probably no such thing). Besides, the whole point of the film — and indeed of secularism – is that violence is wrong in principle, not because one community suffers more casualties than another. Numbers are not irrelevant – they add another dimension to the injustice of violence. But the fundamental issue is the inhumanity of all slaughter, and it is unwise to get diverted from this by looking at riot statistics. Had ‘Bombay’ been a documentary film, a mention of numbers would have been appropriate. But as a film trying to show that there are no winners in the inhumanity of communal strife, it would have lost its message by going into who did how much to whom.
In any case, the numbers game is dangerous, and leads nowhere. Hindu communalists argue that Muslims killed and raped on an infinitely greater scale during their conquest of India than anything Hindus have done since, and that Muslims are now getting just a mild dose of their own medicine. Arguments on this score can go on forever without being resolved, and can only stoke communal tempers instead of calming them.
All communities need to recognise that the freedom of expression is a vital human right. This is not an unfettered right, and is subject to considerations of public decency and order. Books and films can indeed be banned if they threaten a breakdown of order. But this must not become an excuse for weak- kneed governments to cave in to all threats of violence from fundamentalists, and bans are justified only in the most extreme cases. This is not the case with ‘Bombay,’ which is a passionate plea for humanity to rise above sectarian mayhem. Those who want to ban it respect neither secularism nor fundamental democratic rights.
The debate over secularism is not, as some think, one between Hindus and Muslims. Had it been so, the Hindus would have won long ago -Muslims account for only 11 per cent of the population. In fact, the divide is between secular and communal Hindus. Muslims need to fight along with their allies in this great struggle.
Mr Thackeray is caricatured in the film as a mini-Hitler. But after the Muslim protest, Mr Thackeray is suddenly trying to behave as a protector of free speech, and declaring that he will not permit Muslim communalists to stop the screening of the film. It is a measure of the mindlessness of Muslim communal reaction that Mr Thackeray has seized the high moral ground in a debate in which his credentials are entirely suspect.
The third objection of Muslim communalists to ‘Bombay’ is that it shows a Muslim girl getting married to a Hindu boy. Had it been a Hindu girl and Muslim boy, they say, the film would have been more acceptable. This is deplorable male chauvinism. It shows that protests against ‘Bombay’ represent a gender issue no less than a communal one. In effect, the argument being made is that girls are community property, who must not be transferred to another community.
Some apologists for Muslim communalism (and traditionalism) will say this is too harsh an interpretation. They point out that Muslims feel under siege, and are saying in despair: “You have taken our lives and burned our property, and now you want to take our women too”.
The apologists for this line need to be exposed as male chauvinists. There can be no comparison between a Hindu mob burning Muslim property and a Hindu boy marrying a Muslim girl. A love affair is not the forced acquisition of one community’s property by another, it represents two human beings rising above the narrow sectarian passions that surround them. It ennobles both them and the nation, for it means that they are seeing each other as human beings and not as the property of any community.
Male chauvinists believe that in inter-religious marriages the girl should convert to the religion of the boy, and that the children should be brought up in that faith too. By contrast, ‘Bombay’ shows a Hindu-Muslim couple retaining their separate religions and taking their children to both temples and mosques. This vision is a threat to male chauvinists no less than communalists, and the combination of the two explains the unexpected force of protests.
It needs to be added that most Hindus arc no less sexist than most Muslims. The disease is sub-continental. The old Hindu concept of a married daughter being paraya dhan (another family’s wealth) is a succinct example of a mind-set which views women as commodities that should carry a tag specifying their owner. The concept of women as independent human beings with a right to choose their husbands, jobs or religion is alien to traditional ists of both communities.
Hindu traditionalists will say thatthe concept of women as dhan elevates them to symbols of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, who is worshipped as dhan Maybe / so. I can only say that a commodity that is sometimes worshipped (and more often abused) is a commodity nevertheless.