Recently my best friend and I struck upon an idea that elicited many naughty chuckles from our friends. We started with feminist revisions of popular Hindi films and film scenes. Even a beloved and mild-seeming film like Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge wasn’t safe from our critical gaze. It starts with that scene when Simran meets Raj in the train. He pesters her incessantly; she resists his advances, but eventually succumbs to his too-close-for-comfort overtures during the course of the film. And we all rejoice! Had it been filmed from an Indian female gaze, we would have been squirming with discomfort over Raj the lech’s creepiness, and frankly, feared for Simran’s safety. As someone who once loved that movie, I felt foolish for not thinking more critically about how many of the cultural products I endorse, and even my language, reproduce patriarchal and misogynistic mores that go against the core of my being.
After these weeks of public protest and private introspection, it struck me how many of the movies, music, television shows we’re surrounded by represent life through an unquestioned, unacknowledged male gaze. A song I often sing into my hairbrush in front of my mirror, Pyaar Humien Kiss Modh Par Le Aaya from the mazedaar Satte Pe Satta is actually set in the context of the heroes breaking in to their crushes’ home and kidnapping them in the dead of the night. And those women rejoice! And we rejoice! The normalisation of male privilege is not the outlier in our mainstream culture, it is the norm. In Dil too, Aamir wins Madhuri’s heart after intimidating her in a dark, secluded barn. And we rejoice! There’s so much misogyny in our popular culture that it is incumbent upon those of us who resist it to question it audibly. We must also challenge it through counter-culture narratives and ensure that in our contest of ideas, we do not turn to the state to settle our cultural debates for us. I think of it as a long drawn out conversation between different private citizens. A conversation that must occur, and be encouraged, in a healthy democracy.
With these ideas swirling in my head, I saw a plea by a friend on Facebook. She’d published the lyrics of Honey Singh’s song Choot and spared us the horror of lyrics that I imagine make up his other hits, those good ole’ family Sunday lunch ditties: Choot Vol 2, 3 and4.* She also pointed out the insensitivity of the Bristol Hotel in Gurgaon in using him, this unremarkable singer of these remarkably regressive lyrics, as their star attraction at their New Year’s Eve party. I am no prude; I have a gargantuan appetite for ribald and boundary-pushing art and humour. I embraced Marilyn Manson’s violent music, for instance, because his violence was towards established paradigms of power, much like the music of Rage Against The Machine. This song, though, made my ears bleed. Because this song is not ironic nor critical, it’s an aggressive assertion of male privilege. Honestly, it was more galling because of the particular context of the rape and the murder that traumatised this city so very recently. I read the lyrics of the first song; they resonate all too potently with the vaginal mutilation that ravaged the young woman. It was outrageous that this man would sing at a hotel not too far from where her battered body lay discarded on the road on that cold Delhi night; a body that succumbed two nights before the scheduled event to injuries Honey once sang so joyously about. I decided I must assert my right to speak out my outrage to the hotel.
Honestly, it was more galling because of the particular context of the rape and the murder that traumatised this city so very recently.
We’re a democratic society and my wish for the new year, for the years to come, is that we do not remain a humourless society that convulses and violently suppresses dissent and offence. I also wish that public and private, citizens and institutions also consider voices in their decision-making calculus, voices of the kind that howl through the streets of this grieved country today. I just want us all — as individuals, as businesses, as artists, as governments, as politicians, as police, heck even as doctors — all of us, to take a pause and reflect on our role in normalizing and validating the norms of patriarchy. What I do not want is to invoke the state and its instruments of suppression in this debate. I wish we become a society where when two siblings are yelling at each other, we vacate the space for them to settle their difference amicably, and not invoke a mummy-puppa institution to settle it for them.
All we wanted to do was to put our outraged voice out there in the free market of ideas where Honey’s (who named him that, seriously?) exists on a big public platform. So I wrote a letter to the GM of The Bristol Hotel where I expressed only my dismay at their choice and encouraged them to rethink it. It became a petition signed by a measly 2000 people (in a country of a billion) to stop the concert and The Bristol decided to hear our voice. At no point did we threaten them with violence, as is the wont of lumpen lunatics of many oversensitive political parties when faced with culture they don’t like, nor did we attempt to use the state to censor Honey Singh.
For the record, as a private citizen I have no legal authority to censor someone. Censorship flows through the state. I, as a private citizen, do have the right to freedom of speech and expression much as Honey does. His unfortunately yields bilious nonsense, ours yielded measured appeals to the conscience of the management of The Bristol Hotel. At the end of the day the hotel chose to cancel the show. We did not do so. We had neither the right nor the authority to do so. We did have the right to tell an institution we patronise that we dislike a choice they made. The difference lies in the fact that those letters were not undergirded by any overt, or covert, threats of violence. This, to my mind, is what differentiates our expression of displeasure from other calls to curtail expression that have filled our newspapers these past few years, from the anti-Rushdie-JLF protests, for instance, or the Shiv Sena’s harassment of Rohinton Mistry.
All we did was identify one particularly egregious product of mainstream culture and put only our oppositional voice out there. The limits of such activism to me are that misogyny in mainstream culture is very diffuse and difficult to fight — how many letters does one write? Being involved in this moment has got me thinking also about how I can help produce a culture that effectively counters this, instead of pestering some bewildered hotel manager in Gurgaon. We need a media that is more attuned to these issues than exists in the market today, so that young boys and girls in this country have more sex-positive and empowering cultural products to explore their questions of sex, sexuality and gender relations.
That the hotel acknowledged our voice, though, is an infinitesimally minor victory on many levels. We drew attention to Honey Singh’s awful songs. But, as a society we took a step back when someone lodged an FIR against him to shut his speech down. He has the right to his speech and that right must be protected. Our mode of protest though, we hope, also drew attention to the beauty of allowing a contest of ideas to flourish in this society rather than leveraging muscle power or intimidation to seek compliance. We got one institution to re-think their choices and that is what these extended protests in this country have been about. They are about raising our collective voice as women to be acknowledged as equal citizens, to be acknowledged as a force of political reckoning, to be acknowledged — in the design of our families, our cities, our villages, our laws, our governments, our public policy, our mainstream culture and in our minds. Silence is violence, and we will take it no more.
Neha Kaul Mehra is a foodie. cinephile. audiophile. bibliophile. aimless wanderer. opinionated wanton wild-haired woman of the world.