Looking into the mirror can be very different from being shown it. The latter is usually a consequence of not doing the former honestly enough.
It’s what the Israeli film-maker, Nadav Lapid, did to us — picked us out for who we are, or have revealed ourselves to be, spelling out simply but firmly a few things so fundamental that they should be nothing to even remark upon in a modern democratic society. What Lapid did at the valedictory stage of the International Film Festival of India in Goa 11 days ago was merely face the audience and say what he had to say of Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files as a filmmaker and head of the festival jury. Vulgar, propaganda and very crude were the key words Lapid used for Agnihotri’s film — a juror doing just what he had been called upon to do: judge. “All of us were disturbed and shocked by the 15th film, The Kashmir Files. That felt like a propaganda, vulgar movie, inappropriate for an artistic competitive section of such a prestigious film festival. I feel totally comfortable to openly share these feelings here with you on this stage. In the spirit of this festival, can surely also accept a critical discussion, which is essential for art and life.”
But no, in this India we do not. We do not believe in critical discussion. We seem to have forgotten that we possess the faculty to think, to examine and analyse, and to describe things as they are. We have lost the courage to stand by ourselves. We’d rather be the herd; there’s safety and comfort in it because what we have is a majoritarian herd. We are happy to make sacrifices at its altar. Lapid had set himself up for a belligerent counter-assault — joined notably, and with palpable pique, by Naor Gilon, the Israeli ambassador in New Delhi — because he had done with assurance and poise what we no longer consider the done thing. He had flung rubbish served on his plate back in the face of the Establishment. Later, during the course of responding to irate objections to his manner of flaying The Kashmir Files, Lapid would underscore the deficits of our democracy all over again. “...[I]s a country only about a government?” Lapid asked in response to a question, “… [It was my] duty to speak up… [my] obligation to say things that the people who live there may have a harder time saying… I felt it was my duty to the place that had invited me.” In the course of commenting on The Kashmir Files, two comments were made about India as well — that the critical difference between country and government may be getting lost in India, and that Indians are afraid to speak their minds.
As a people we do not even question atrocities wreaked upon us — we rewarded the havoc of demonetisation, as we did the mindless mismanagement that brought on the devastation of Covid. We do not question the emaciation of our sacred institutions. We do not question the unabashed creation and enrichment of crony capitalists. We remain unbothered about the run on public money and the opacity of political funding. We do not seem to care how parliamentary convention and procedure have been flung onto the piling debris of what will become the Parliament of the new republic, currently being knocked into shape, physically and in the consciousness of a populace that often resembles a compliant herd.
None of this is new. Much of this has been said before. But this may need to be said again and again because the audience for good sense has absconded and we know from history what may happen when absence or scorn or indifference or all of those come to afflict good sense. It is not a happy thing. It is, rather, a tragic thing. Repetition is a small price to pay if attention can be seduced and made to sit through a trailer of what we have already gone through and remain ashamed of. The exclusionist ethic now fashionable and being celebrated is not unlike what we have already attested to being unforgivably sinful. The nation and heritage that Lapid comes from would tell you.
What Nadav Lapid did in Goa was, if you will, put a dipstick into what Hashtag NewIndia is. We failed the Lapid Test, we confirmed what he may only have suspected. But we are worse. We believe the Lapid Test to be illicit because it exposes uncomfortable truths about us.
The Kashmir Files is a mischievous and very often mendacious work. In part, its nature was also revealed by those who applauded and endorsed it. Its screening in various parts of the country was book-ended by impassioned bursts of zealotry, on occasion also calls to violent revenge. At the very core of The Kashmir Files lies the idea that has come to dictate the national discourse since Narendra Modi’s ascent to power in 2014 — toxic sectarianism parading proudly. It is no secret what that parade has inspired and encouraged on its sidelines. Prowling prejudice, daily acts of Othering and exclusion, hounding, even hunting, with a passion, applause and reward for behaviour any civilised society would be ashamed of. We have normalised majoritarianism to the degree that we have become unaware of the directions in which it has prompted us to act. What transpired between teacher and student in a Manipal classroom illustrates just that — stereotyping and then abusing the stereotype come casually and should be allowed to pass as, if nothing, a joke.
The pity is we take the real joke with all seriousness and play it upon ourselves. The ovation and back-patting, for instance, over something so routine as the rotating presidency of G-20 having come to India. It’s not a thing of the slightest achievement, but it has been played as another letter of endorsement for Modi having turned India into vishwaguru. Or the fact that our prime minister has leapt out of all those vaccine certificates he put his photographs on. The moment the adverse after-effects of the vaccine came up for examination, the Modi government washed its hands of any responsibility.
But that may be only a mild fib compared to the prodigious dismantling of the truth Modi was allowed to essay before that all-party sitting on the Chinese incursions into Ladakh.
Never mind. Famous, never-before inroads have been made elsewhere as this gets written. There’s profit to be made from letting off rapists and murderers, the kind of profit that will far outweigh the derelictions of say a killer bridge collapse. Sorry if that sounded vulgar or crude, but none of it is propaganda. It’s who we are.