A freedom at stake ...
... protests in Tamil Nadu over Kushboo's views on premarital sex appear to be largely a combination of personal animosity and politics.
"The argument was that Kushboo's remarks were offensive and could breach public peace and order."
VENTRING THEIR IRE: The ramifications of the often ugly forms of protest go beyond the trauma the actors have had to endure in the last couple of weeks. PHOTOS: THE HINDU/S.R. RAGHUNATHAN
PERSONAL animosity, business rivalry, and politics have combined to whip up a controversy in Tamil Nadu over some innocuous remarks made by actor Kushboo on pre-marital sex. Frenzied protests, organised with the support of political parties, especially the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Dalit Panthers, now seem symptomatic of a growing intolerance in the State of liberal views on sex and marriage.
Kushboo's ordeal began when she spoke to a Tamil magazine on pre-marital sex in the context of the need to practise safe sex. Initially, the protests against her stated views appeared to have been provoked by personal animosity. Kushboo, along with other senior women artistes, was in the forefront of the campaign against Thankar Bachan, a cinematographer-turned film director associated with the Tamil Protection Movement launched by the PMK and the Dalit Panthers. Bachan, who made some unflattering comments on the "morals" of women working in the film industry, was forced to apologise by the South Indian Artistes' Association (SIAA). The protests thus looked more like a tit-for-tat, a continuation of the agitation of the two parties against Vijaykant, who heads the SIAA.
However, despite an emotional public apology on Jaya TV, where she hosts a successful quiz programme, Kushboo continued to face the wrath of people claiming to be offended by her remarks. The protestors were featured prominently by media houses that saw Jaya TV as a rival. A Tamil newspaper belonging to a rival group mocked her, suggesting that Kushboo's tears during her apology could have been glycerine-aided.
Soon enough, the protests were no longer laughable. Cases were filed against Kushboo in different parts of the State by petitioners who claimed to be offended by her remarks. The intention was to get her to move from one court to another responding to the summons. Things came to a head as protestors threw footwear, eggs and tomatoes at her car when she appeared before the Mettur court in connection with the case.
Regrouping of the film industry
When actor Suhasini came out in support of Kushboo, she too became the target of the protestors. Strangely, the actors' association, instead of backing the two, sought an explanation from Suhasini. Only when things seemed to get out of hand and prominent film personalities voiced their fears, about the threat to freedom of expression posed by the protestors did the film industry begin to regroup in support of the two actors.
PHOTOS: V. GANESAN
IN THE EYE OF A STORM: Kushboo.
The police too did not take any immediate action against the protestors who attacked Kushboo's car. But the tahsildar has submitted a report on the incidents, complete with video clips and photographs. As the protestors were claiming to speak in the name of Tamil culture, political parties, including those opposed to the PMK and the Dalit Panthers, were hesitant to back the besieged actors.
But the civil society responded, slowly but surely. Journalists' associations were quick to sense a threat to freedom of expression, and opposed the moral policing. Among the political parties, the Left organisations recognised the seriousness of the issue and condemned the protests. Eventually, it became clear that the protestors enjoyed no public sympathy despite the wide coverage they got in a partisan section of the media.
Only at this point did the leaders of the PMK and the Dalit Panthers choose to distance themselves from the actions of their party men. Although they continued to criticise the actors, they denied that their parties had anything to do with the protests, which they claimed were "spontaneous".
Suhasini Mani Ratnam
The argument was that Kushboo's remarks were offensive and could breach public peace and order. However, the only threat to public peace came from the organised protests. Even those who insisted that they did not agree with the views of Kushboo on pre-marital sex found the harassment of the actors unacceptable. True, those in disagreement with Kushboo had the right to voice their protest, but the nature of the protests did not resemble any form of democratic dissent. Indeed, the protestors had gone beyond the exercise of such a right by not only indulging in character assassination, but also attacking the vehicle of Kushboo when she went to the Mettur court.
About occupying political space?
Actually, the aggressive position adopted by the PMK and the Dalit Panthers could have its roots in the fight for political space in Tamil Nadu, where actors often make an easy transition to politics. The two parties include in their support base the rural youth, whom they see as easily influenced by "filmy culture". Rajnikant, who was accused of corrupting youngsters through his movies, was the first target of the PMK. Once Vijaykant revealed his political ambitions (he has since started a party, the Desiya Murporku Dravida Kazhagam) and made a veiled criticism of the PMK Union Minister, R. Anbumani, he too was targeted by the PMK cadre. The PMK has also been an active campaigner against "filmy culture" in educational institutions.
Both parties are caste-based (the PMK is dominated by Vanniyars), and they are known to hold the opinion that film stars who try to convert their popularity into political power actually subvert representative politics. Before the Kushboo issue hit the headlines, the Tamil Protection Movement of the two parties had launched an agitation against Tamil movies carrying English names. The pre-marital sex controversy thus was another weapon in the hands of these parties against the film industry.
Oddly, the parties at the centre of the controversy swear by Periyar, the founder of the Dravidar Kazhagam, who had contempt for the social mores that valued chastity. But for them, the social reformist is relevant only for the rationale he provides for caste-based reservation.
Although the controversy was artificially created, it has ramifications that go beyond the harassment the actors had to endure in the last couple of weeks. The film industry sees itself as vulnerable to vandalism, and would not like to antagonise politicians. After all, it takes only a few thugs to disrupt a shooting schedule or damage a cinema. This partly explained why the actors' association was slow to act. However, some of the office-bearers of the association are actively involved in politics, and a couple of them, Sarath Kumar and Napoleon, are leading members of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), an ally of the PMK. Political considerations might also have been weighed in, before the association decided it needed to protect its members from becoming soft targets for political parties.
Surely, if the politicians who play the moral police are not beaten back, they would only be emboldened further. At stake is the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and expression, and not just the right of film celebrities to speak their mind.
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