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THIS CIRCUS IS HERE TO STAY

- While Aamir Khan smiles as the nation’s conscience-keeper, it has to be asked, can truth be performed?

It was not Manvinder Singh Bisla who helped the Kolkata Knight Riders beat the Chennai Super Kings in the Indian Premier League final. Evidently, the honour should go to a video presentation full of histrionics. A day before the final, Shah Rukh Khan, the owner of KKR, had marched his players into a hotel room and made them watch a video that featured their wailing families imploring them to win the trophy. The gallant knights, unable to withstand the tearful entreaties from loved ones, charged at the kings and slew them. For Khan, this was an instance of life imitating popular art. In Chak De! India, he had tugged at the heartstrings of a bunch of women hockey players with his famous Sattar Minute speech. After he was done with his performance, the women — screaming like banshees and wielding hockey sticks — pulverized the mighty Aussies.

It isn’t as if only sportspersons — real or imagined — are susceptible to the spell of theatrics. The mass consumption of theatricality in India indicates an unhealthy obsession with melodrama and spectacle. Such a consumption has been aided by the unceasing production — in popular cinema, television shows and the media — of content that relies on excesses. This has led to a steady erosion of realism from the channels of popular culture, leading to a significant weakening of the intellectual fabric of society.

But this escape from realism isn’t devoid of a wicked purpose. The drama in reality shows and saas-bahu serials serves as a camouflage for conformity to overtly patriarchal values or allegiance to consumerism. This raises disturbing questions about the relationship that binds popular culture, aesthetics and realism. Are the constituents of popular culture — cinema, Twenty20 cricket or television shows — then designed to numb our senses to the troubling realities around us?

Not just culture but Indian politics has exploited the people’s fondness for spectacle. During elections in Chhattisgarh, I remember meeting a candidate who was leading a joyous throng carrying a hen on his head. Given the penury of his surroundings, it was improbable that the voters had the means to afford chicken in this part of the state. The voice on the blaring microphone promised free meals of chicken and rice. The bird was an effective, but cruel, symbol of a manipulative democracy that routinely resorts to gimmicks in an effort to hide the persistent problems of hunger, inequality, illiteracy, unemployment and ecological degradation. Such a ruse also transforms the crucial process of electing a government into a bizarre, but colourful, jamboree for the fourth estate: it is common to find journalists — foreign and Indian — eulogizing the sights and sounds of an Indian election.

A spectacle is often more than just a trick to win votes. The debased horror that was witnessed during the bloodshed directed against Sikhs and Muslims in 1984 and 2002, respectively, and against Christians in Odisha’s Kandhamal more recently, had been cleverly turned into a macabre spectacle. The scale of violence and destruction shows that the perpetrators wanted the victims — the nation’s minority communities — and India’s liberal citizens to remember the public character of these frenzies. It laid bare the frightening possibility of an elected government — the supposed custodian of every community — legitimizing the demonization and the subsequent slaughter of minorities by apparently following a silent script.

The insidiousness of a culture that feeds on orchestrated emotions lies in its success in turning resistance to a spectacle as well. Be it Anna Hazare’s campaign against corruption or the candle-lit marches of conscientious citizens, public expressions of outrage against injustice are increasingly morphing into events that are episodic and disjointed.

What does all this say about us, the consumers of propaganda? It looks as though the affluent as well as the middle classes in India are willing to surrender their right to engage in affirmative action and, instead, rely on the cartel of glamorous film stars and charitable corporate organizations to stir their conscience.