This piece was first published in Newslaundry.com.
Thank you for your letter. It was compassionate and respectful and I believe it warrants a response. I don’t respond to every piece of communication these days because the nature of discourse, as you mention, can get pretty low. However, if there is an opportunity to raise the level of debate it should be taken because that is my intent whenever I speak out; not the contrary, as you seem to suggest.
I agree with some of the points you make and disagree with some. Some I feel I need to explain because perhaps you have not quite understood where I’m coming from and why I bring up what I do.
You have said some wonderful things about me being vocal about my thoughts and bringing dignity to debate. However, you also point out that I didn’t speak up for causes that matter to me (the Kashmiri Pandit exodus) when I was winning all those awards. Yes, life happened to me too. Yes, I was caught unaware. After a considerably difficult struggle I wasn’t expecting things to turn around as well as they did. I wasn’t prepared. Yes, that’s life. But when I did get time to recover and reflect, I spoke up. Perhaps if you search a bit harder you will see that I have spoken out in the World Kashmiri conference in 1993.
It was not an award function but it was important, and I did speak up because yes, as you said, it mattered. And I have been speaking ever since, on this subject that is close to my heart and it matters to me very much.
Yes, life is full of contradictions. You feel happiness and sadness at the same time. There could be violent turbulence within you at an emotional level because of your past trauma while at the same time external laurels and professional success showered on you in the present could bring you joy. There is the pain of what one has lost but there is also the joy that finally something good is happening for you. Yes, that is life.
You mentioned about Shabana-ji speaking out at the National award function in 1989 because she wanted to highlight the murder of Safdar Hashmi. Perhaps she was prepared and had gone over that moment in her mind. She was used to the arch lights and the success it brought and had perhaps played that moment in the window of her mind. It was not so for me. Sometimes you have the luxury of choosing the forum to speak your mind and sometimes the forum chooses you. I learnt, I’m learning, and hopefully will continue to learn. That’s life.
I am no opportunist. When I stuck my neck out lending support to Anna Hazare during the India Against Corruption movement, I wasn’t setting the stage for a political future or to join a party. I genuinely believed in the movement and I spoke about it. Not many actors speak about such things because in our profession people play safe. There is too much at stake. But I have spoken up.
Coming to your assertion that I am trying to discredit or pick on artists and scientists of hefty achievements and accomplishments: that is not my intent at all, but at the same time bringing up the past is necessary. Not to discredit anyone or rub anything in anyone’s face but for the sake of perspective and context. Let me take your letter to me as an example of this exercise to try and explain this part of your criticism. You say in your letter to me that you have had much respect and admiration for my work and public conduct. But you felt let down by the quality of my argument (as perceived by you) on the award wapsi issue. You have never written to me before when you may not have agreed with all I said but you weren’t disillusioned by how I argued my point. This time you were disillusioned and you called me out on it. Similarly, I have respect and admiration for many of these individuals (and their work) who are speaking up now but I am unconvinced of the quality of their argument and logic – just like you are unconvinced of mine at this time. And I am calling them out on it.
This is the first time you have disagreed with my public conduct. It does not mean I have become a small and petty person. I am the same person who you have admired earlier. I have not suddenly become evil or insensitive. Similarly, my view about these award-winning achievers is based on this particular act of award wapsi. Nothing more and nothing less.
Now, why is bringing up the past important? Because today is built on yesterday and tomorrow will be built on today. We are the sum-total of our past. It is because we were ruled by British and Mughals for hundreds of years that independence is so precious to us today. We call a man Bapu. Some call him Mahatma. Why has he been bestowed such a title and stature? Because he was a giant among men, one unlike any other before – “before” being the operative word. Heroes and villains are made of ordinary men based on ones we have encountered in the past. It is with the help of history that we define our present circumstances. The past is our reference point. So if someone feels there is an intolerant environment today, it is important to question: In reference to what? That is why I bring up 1984, the Kashmiri genocide and the Emergency, which were all horrible times in our past. Yes, it is the past and we must move one. But not in the casual manner being attempted. Tragedies pass but the damage lives on. We are taught to move on and we must, but that does not mean the pain is gone; it is still there. We learn to live with it. That too is life.
Finally, I urge you to put yourself in my shoes for a moment and see where I’m coming from. This is in the context of freedom of expression. I was invited to debate at the Mumbai Lit Fest. When I started speaking, the audience there booed me. They showed more intolerance to my words than many award wapsi artists are suggesting they face. The organisers chose Nik Gowing of the BBC as a moderator for my session. Just by that one decision, my freedom of speech was compromised. I can speak fluent English but I think in Hindi. It is my default language setting, it is the language my passion communicates in. My freedom and efficacy of expression was inhibited by that one choice. And in addition to that: a booing audience. You see freedoms are not always snatched in dramatic and obvious ways. They can also be wrenched away in ways that are insidious and invisible. In life too, I have dealt with it. Many times. And will do so again and again and again. It’s a fight we all fight in small and big ways. That’s life. It is not any more difficult today than in the past. And while it changes in many ways, some struggles remain perennial.
I too am an artist. Why should my artistic sensibility and sensitivity not be considered a barometer for the environment of intolerance like others artists’? I too swim in the same ether of creative freedom that stimulates an artist. I value it, Abhinandan. It is my oxygen. It is what drives me. It is what I wake up to every day and it is what has given me my identity, my fame and my wajood. I am Anupam Kher because of my love and devotion to my craft of artistic expression, which only thrives in an environment of freedom of expression. I too would be sensitive if it was under imminent and serious threat. And when the time comes to guard it you will find me standing on your side of the divide. Be certain of that.
I have not suddenly become insensitive or irrational or intolerant. Twitter is an amazing platform even when we are abused and attacked. Because gaali sun-ni bhi aani chahiye. In my four years of being on Twitter I have only blocked two people because they would constantly abuse my father and mother. The rest of the dissent, disagreement and abuse I am happy to deal with. So, I am not a person who has suddenly become intolerant. I am the same person you have appreciated and admired for many years.
Yes, I hope we can raise the level of debate so it is not reduced to name calling and making petty points. But in such a way that in our collective noise and collective wisdom we don’t fail those we have failed before – not once but many times – while creating new villains and new straw men.
I am coming to Delhi to perform my play Kucch Bhi Ho Sakta Hai, and I would like to invite you to it. It is about what you have referred to passionately in your letter – about life. Come, you might like it.
— As told to Abhinandan Sekhri
This piece was first published in Newslaundry.com.