This piece was first published in Newslaundry.com.
Dear Mr Kher,
It pained me to read about you being booed during a debate in Mumbai when you spoke your mind about freedom of speech in the context of the many artistes, scientists and writers returning their awards, protesting against what they feel is a climate of intolerance.
Almost all the films that I associate my growing years with had you playing a major part. Songs and films define periods of our lives. Tezaab, Ram Lakhan, Tridev, Mast Kalandar (even that! We all make mistakes) and, finally, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge defined my teens. I learned to appreciate Saaransh well into my twenties. I admire you not just for your commitment to your craft and outstanding performances, I also find that you demonstrate incredible integrity and grace in your public conduct. At least, until the noise around the award wapsi phenomenon.
While any socio-political issue must be debated and there should be various perspectives, what is unfortunate about the recent discourse on this subject is the level of debate among thought leaders and people from whom one would expect more sophisticated arguments. It appears that what big-mouthed and small-minded political party spokespersons do has become the default debating narrative of those who should know better and show us the way ahead.
I have seen you conduct very dignified and decent debates several times, including the nuanced stance you took during the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as chairman of Film and Television Institute of India. However, in the case of award wapsi, I have seen you trying to discredit individuals with opposing views in petty ways, some of whose achievements are nowhere near yours and some of whose far outweigh yours. But that’s not the point.
Picking on individuals asking them what they were doing in 1984, 1989 and so on is not something one expects from you. You joined that bandwagon by picking on scientists and other writers and artistes. My limited point being, that is a low calibre argument appropriate for Twitter trolls and not for robust and serious debates where people like you lead. (Not to mention that the accusation of many of them being silent was wrong.)
The only person you completely stepped back from commenting on was Gulzar, and rightly so. His body of work and his conduct in his years in public life put him in a stratosphere where he is not dependent on the endorsement of anyone to prove his integrity. Or if I were to attempt a filmi dialogue, Gulzar ki hasti kisi ki tazheer ki muhtaj nahin.
I would like to use this “Where were you in 19XX” logic not to discredit you, but to do exactly the opposite. To demonstrate that it doesn’t take anything away from your stance today.
In 1984, you stunned audiences with your performance in Saaransh. Year after year, you won awards – 1988 Vijay (Filmfare), 1989 Ram Lakhan (Filmfare), 1989 Daddy (National award), 1990 Daddy (Filmfare), 1991 Lamhe (Filmfare), 1992 Khel (Filmfare), 1993 Darr (Filmfare), 1995 Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (Filmfare). A stunning run. The Filmfare awards are one of the most watched TV film shows and back in the nineties it was possibly the most watched.
The whole nation would tune in to watch the Filmfare Awards night. When you accepted any of your awards, did you mention the plight of Kashmiri Pandits in any of your acceptance speeches on any platform? Do you know how many people were watching? You are aware how that would have jolted everyone out of a complacent stupor.
So, over the years, each time you walked onto a stage with the spotlight on you, while thousands of Kashmiri refugees struggled to scrape dignity together abandoned in their own land, you could have said – “Hey. Let’s not forget. This too.” Did you remind us while we waited for the next item number that at that moment a parallel reality was playing out for many? Probably most from the present award wapsi gang didn’t speak because they didn’t care or didn’t know better or lacked empathy. After all they were not Kashmiri Pandit refugees in their own country and didn’t know the pain of being dispossessed. You did. Did you, while accepting the award, tell the audience of your pain, the pain of those the nation had forgotten?
I’m sure you are aware what impact a statement by you on that platform would have had. Did you speak out then with the country watching? All those times? I have researched and googled and asked people who attended many of those events and I have learned that you did not. I know why. And you know why. Not because you exchanged “a walk on part in a war, for a lead role in a cage”. Not because you are a coward, or selectively outraging or evil or selfish or unconcerned or needy for more awards.
It’s called life – it gets in the way of things that matter most sometimes.
We would like to take a stand at certain times but – life, it startles us with a sudden thrill, the hunger to achieve, to savour the reward of a hard struggle. And I have read about your struggle, just how hard it was. But life – it catches us unaware reminding us of our inherent weaknesses and meekness. It gets in the way of always saying the right thing at the right time. That one time we didn’t say something when we should have, didn’t stand up to a bully because we were scared, didn’t stand up for a friend when he needed us most because it was inconvenient, when we didn’t stand up for what mattered most of all because it could alter where life went from there. But why should that disqualify us from ever speaking again?
Also, times change. What democracy meant in 1950 or 1970 or 1990 is very different from what it means today or will in the next 30 years. What was brave dissent 50 years ago is par for the course today. Democracy is not static like a moss-covered pool. It is robust and flows, eroding the banks of stasis and inertia. It expands our expectations from it and raises the bar higher because we can shout louder.
Please don’t tell yourself or us that an award ceremony is an inappropriate forum to raise a political issue. That is a cop out. Maybe you won’t make that argument but I’m closing that option in case someone decides to on your behalf.
Shabana Azmi used the National Awards forum in 1989 to speak about the horrific killing of Safdar Hashmi by Congress goons. It was a film event and she had an audience looking towards her and she took the opportunity, because it mattered enough to her.
Sinead O’Connor tore a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live in 1992, while saying “fight the real enemy”. She was outraged by child sex abuse in the church. It almost finished her career, but it mattered enough to her and she spoke out. The bar in the US for dissent was way higher in 1992 than it is here today. Bruce Springsteen made a point on the Iraq war during his Grammy performance in 2006 about bringing the troops home. More recently, Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu spoke on immigration reform and Mexican immigrants in his Oscar speech.
All these people had a stage and an audience that mattered when the world was watching. They took that chance and spoke about something that was important, for freedom, for justice. You got such chances several times because you are amazing at what you do and deserve the respect, awards and applause. But you didn’t speak up – not once. And now to paint others who raise their voice as cowardly or opportunistic does not behove you.
To respond to an artiste or scientist or regular person who raises their voice for an idea worth protecting, by digging out every silence of their past and rubbing it in their faces is no argument. It is lazy.
It is important people of your stature stop trashing individual acts, but rather discuss and debate the ideas of freedom of speech, expression, liberty, autonomy and how far they will be stretched, contorted, deformed, reformed and pushed to explore what they can really mean. Contexts change. People change. What democracy means, changes. Life changes.
You have much to share with the world. You have an ocean of experiences and emotions to take us on a ride with you on. I am sure you will be honoured with many more awards, as a person of your immense talent must. And when you walk onto stage with the spotlight blinding you and adoring fans watching, holding onto your every word and you take the mike and speak up for something that matters – no matter how unpopular that makes you – I hope your adversaries challenge you with the quality of an idea and don’t attack you for all the times you didn’t speak up, because that would be too easy and too unfair.
This piece was first published in Newslaundry.com.
Editor’s note: Anupam Kher has responded to Abhinandan Sekhri’s letter here.