Essay on Cultural Affronts — Are they or are they not?

The whole issue has raised questions on whether the film really happens to be a cultural affront and does the picture of the widows as presented in the script of the film militates against our age-old cultural beliefs.

This brings us directly to the fundamental question — what culture actually means — does it mean certain superstitious beliefs and certain blind faiths coming down, though they be from age-old times, or does it mean something deeper, something more basic as giving a shape and a direction to the way of life as had been lived or is meant to be lived.

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India is a country of diversities of faiths and religions and every religion has its own age-old beliefs and faiths.

The Hindu would cremate the dead body; the Muslim and the Christian would bury it in the grave, the Parsi would let it lie on a raised platform to allow it to become the food for the kites and vultures. The Hindu believes in the reincarnation of the soul — for him the soul never dies — it changes its body just as we change our clothes while the Muslim and Christian have no faith in any rebirth — for them once dead is dead for all times-

Therefore these different beliefs cannot be called as the culture of India. These are diverse and different views on life and death.

But inspire of all these diversities there is and has to be some basics which everyone would consider as worth following or worthy of respect. And that is where the cultural affinity definitely determines our concepts and our thoughts. Womanhood has to be respected — no religion would or should deny this and none has done it in its tenets.

That is a common concept that womanhood has to be respected in every form and most, of course, when struck with the misfortune of widowhood. It is here where Deepa Mehta’s film comes up for a critical review. It was shouted from house tops that a handful of Hindu fanatics — call them the RSS people or Shiv Sainiks — who raked up the issue, general public of Varanasi was all in favor of permitting the shooting schedule.

But this might got blasted by the survey conducted by the magazine ‘Outlook1 which interviewed young men of the age group of 15 years to 30 years from the cross-sections of the society at Varanasi and the majority was found to hold the view that Deepa Mehta’s picture was a direct affront to the womanhood — the poor widows. Through this survey, it became amply clear that the common man in the street felt that the society as a whole was being discredited and dishonored through the story woven in the film.

The film actually has for its theme a ‘widow home’ in Varanasi which is a ‘widow home’ only in name hut is actually and virtually a brothel under the supervision and control of an elderly lady — called by the inmates of this home as madam, and the ‘madam’ in her turn remains deeply intoxicated all the time with ‘Ganja’ and ‘Hashish’ and calls the inmates of the home as ‘prostitutes’.

All this portrayal of the poor widows in this despicable manner is a total affront to womanhood — be they of any caste or creed.

This naturally and awfully becomes a cultural affront as presenting India and Indian widows in such a lurid light. Even in the dialogues of the script unbecoming comments have been made against the Hindu gods — they may have been Hindu gods or for that matter the worshipped deity of any religion or the revered incarnation of God like Prophet Mohammad of Islam or Jesus Christ of Christians, if they are painted in such lewd manner, can it ever be tolerated? Ours is a secular country and we are expected to pay due regard to the sentiments of all faiths and all religions and nobody can take the liberty in the garb of ‘freedom of expression’ to resort to blasphemy.

On January 2, 2000, The newspaper ‘New Indian Express’ brought out from Bangalore, a writer, T.S. George quoted Dante — a renaissance writer of the 14th century in which commentary there was some undesirable reference to Prophet Mohammad, on which the Muslim zealots raided the office of the newspaper and caused extensive damage to the building and property. No one then raised his voice to say that there was ‘freedom of expression’.

Freedom of expression, though, is a fundamental right under Article 19(1) of the Indian Constitution but this ‘freedom of expression’ is bound down by considerations as nothing to cause offence to the religious sentiments of any community or militate against the decency of behaviour and ethical conduct or against the integrity of the country.

Therefore anything which is to cause an affront of such a nature as Deepa Mehta’s ‘Water’ did cause, goes against the cultural ethos of our country and should not be permitted otherwise the West, through such surreptitious moves would cause the same intrusion and aggression on our culture as the aggression caused by our neighbouring country in Kargil which was so secretly planned that we noticed it only when it was too late. We defended our geographical frontiers, let us defend our cultural frontiers too from such secret but sure intrusions.