The short answer is “No”. The long answer is below.
(First published on Boom.)
Hate Story 3 and The Good Dinosaur are releasing this Friday. If you choose to watch any of these films at a movie theatre, then there’s a good chance you’ll be expected to stand up when the national anthem plays before the film. Because if there’s a decision that demands you confirm your respect for the nation, it most definitely is choosing to watch Hate Story 3. And what could be more opportune a moment to salute India than before watching a dinosaur and his pet human beat the evolutionary odds in a Pixar film?
In case you think a cinema is not a place to make a patriotic statement and you don’t stand up, then you would be committing an action that at least one court in the country deemed more serious than murder.
Last year, six people in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, didn’t stand up when the anthem was played before a film screening. They were charged with sedition and disrespecting the national anthem. Four went into hiding and two, Harihara Sharma and M. Salman, were arrested. Sharma got anticipatory bail. Salman didn’t. The local police said, “We are also looking into whether Salman has any links with anti-national forces.” It would be a month before Salman would finally get bail, even though there was no evidence connecting him to any seditious activity.
Suddenly, in comparison, the Muslim family that was harassed for not standing up when the national anthem played in a Mumbai cinema seems to have gotten off lightly. All the people in the theatre did was abuse and threaten them. No one has formally charged them of sedition. None of them are in jail. After a few cuss words and threats, “a peaceful environment” (to quote PVR Cinemas’ official statement) was restored. Maximum City really must be liberal and progressive. Depending on your sarcasm radar, you may either roll your eyes or nod earnestly now.
Oh, all this happened before a show of Tamasha. Whether or not you like black comedy, the universe certainly does.
Ever since the video showing the family being surrounded and harassed by belligerent men in a movie theatre was uploaded on November 29, there has been what passes for debate in India these days. On social media, quotes were circulated from the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act of 1971 and people howled about how ridiculous it is that one could go to jail for three years for not standing up during the anthem. Only that’s incorrect: The law says that you must intentionally prevent the national anthem from being sung or cause disturbance while it’s being sung in order to qualify for its prescribed punishments. It shouldn’t take a lawyer to prove sitting down doesn’t amount to disturbance or prevent anyone else from either hearing or singing the anthem. Neither should sitting amount to sedition.
For a vast number of Indians, however, the family’s action is unpardonable because it’s being seen as unpatriotic, rather than simply criminal. As director Raj Konar said to Mumbai Mirror, “People got angry because they [the family] could not even stand for two minutes for the people who sacrificed their lives for us.” Konar is the man responsible for the video of “Jana Gana Mana” that shows survivors and heroes of 26/11. “It took me three years to make this film,” said Konar, no doubt in an effort to underline his patriotic spirit.
And yet, despite all his passion, Konar didn’t notice that in the English version of his film, the slide that exhorts the audience to stand up, the word “martyr” is wrongly spelt. That’s how important the memory of those who died in 26/11 is to Konar. When writing about them, he couldn’t be bothered to run a spell check.
Who decides that this carelessness is less offensive to those who died and the idea of India? Who decides people don’t have a right to register their dissent? Who decides standing up during the national anthem is the only way to be patriotic? Would there be as much furore about the decision to sit through the anthem if the family didn’t have members wearing hijab? Had they not been identifiable as Muslims, would the audience have satisfied itself by only abusing them rather than escalating tension to the point where the family had to be escorted out?
It makes no sense that you have to declare your allegiance to the nation before watching a film. It’s hilariously absurd when you have to do it before watching, for instance, Captain America or a film about a ship’s crew that turns to cannibalism to survive (In the Heart of the Sea also releases on Friday, by the way).
The directive to re-introduce the national anthem in Mumbai cinemas came in 2003, following a demand from the National Youth Congress. At the time, many described it as a political stunt. Few believed the obviously computer-generated Indian flag that waved mechanically on screen in the early “Jana Gana Mana” videos could inspire patriotism.
Soon enough, people figured they may as well make the national anthem work for them. Special videos started being made. Of late, producers have made “Jana Gana Mana” videos featuring stars from their upcoming films. These usually show up a few months before the film release (I’ll leave you to figure out why Farhan Akhtar may have been chosen to do the voiceover for the video that’s currently playing in many Mumbai theatres).
Will standing up to a publicity campaign really prove your love for the nation? One of the recent multiplex anthems is a karaoke version of the song, complete with a bouncing dot. Is that really what will keep national honour intact?
The bitter irony in the way “Jana Gana Mana” is being used to force Muslims and dissenters to cow down, is that it was selected as the national anthem because it celebrated our diversity. If you only know the song as what is played in cinemas, you’re allowed to roll your eyes at this cloud castle of an idea. After all, when the lyrics list the states, “Jana Gana Mana” casually includes a bit of Pakistan and completely misses vast tracts of India, including Uttar Pradesh, the North East and new members of the republic like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.
But if you’d like to feel a little spurt of patriotic warmth, read or hear the second verse of “Jana Gana Mana“:
Ohoroho tobo aahbaano prachaarito,
Shuni tobo udaaro baani
Hindu Bouddho Shikho Jaino
Parashiko Musholmaano Christaani.
Purabo pashchimo aashey,
Tabo singhaasano paashey
Premohaaro hoye gaanthaa
Jana gana oikyo bidhayaka jaya hey,
Bharata bhagya bidhata
Jaya he, jaya he, jaya he
Jaya jaya jaya jaya he.
Roughly, this stanza translates to:
Your call is heard throughout,
We hear its gracious melody.
Hindu, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains,
Parsis, Muslims, Christians,
The East and the West,
All gather around your throne and
Weave a garland of love.
The chorus replaces the ruler (“adhinayak“) with the one who unifies everyone (“oikyo bidhayaka“).
This was the vision of India as a brilliant miscellany that Rabindranath Tagore crafted while writing “Jana Gana Mana“. (Incidentally, it was not dedicated to George V.) When in 1950, Tagore’s poem was chosen as the national anthem over “Vande Mataram“, the reasoning was simple. “Vande Mataram” was a beautiful and rousing cry, but Bankimchandra’s poem had been tainted by Hindu communalism. It was a slogan that divided India along religious lines. Too often violence had flared with one group shouting “Vande mataram” and the other responding with “Allahu Akbar” (or vice versa).
Tagore, with the romanticism that gleams out of so much of his poetry, imagined an India of distinctions, rather than divides. He imagined differences that stood shoulder to shoulder and created a more vibrant, stronger nation. Today, with “Jana Gana Mana” going the “Vande Mataram” way and being claimed by Hindu nationalists to foster animosity, Tagore’s idealism seems almost naive.
Maybe if some of us sit this one down a few times, the rest will remember just what they’re standing up for. Or have we reached that point where we need a new anthem? Is the India that Tagore imagined in “Jana Gana Mana” so out of sync with the India we live in today? This much is for certain: considering how we’re baying for the blood of anyone who dares to dissent or protest, this country isn’t the one Tagore was celebrating in his poem.