Nandita Das

Moral Policing

  • January 1, 2009

The incident in Mangalore has yet again left us shaken. How many such incidents are needed before we stand up to these self-proclaimed custodians of culture and morality? If we continue to tolerate intolerance, that day is not too far away when we will be told what to wear, what to speak, what to hear and what to see. Even if we only care about our own space and freedom, we have no option but to come down very strongly against such fundamentalism.

I have encountered this it at a very personal level, for a long time now. For me it started with the fatal attack on Safdar Hashmi, while his street theatre group was performing a play about workers’ rights. While the shock and loss was heartbreaking, in that one incident I also realised the power of art. Or else why would a play, a painting, a film or a book be a threat? The fundamentalist groups know that the subtler messages that are communicated through art can make people think and question. I experienced this kind of an attack at even closer quarters with films like Fire and Water. The garb of “it is against Indian culture” is always the smoke screen – convenient because it puts everyone on the defensive because no one wants to disrespect their own culture/religion/nation. However, almost always these strikes are against progressive ideas that threaten vested interests and seldom are they about any slight to Indian culture. In case of Fire and Water, it was about not wanting to bring the realities of human suffering and the lack of choices women have, and in Mangalore, clearly the target was the increasing mobility and visibility of women and their assertion of their freedom.

Moral policing has existed for centuries, often in the name of religion, social values and conducts and has always shown its ugliest face to women of any society. If girls wearing “indecent” clothes are asking for trouble and sexual assaults are being justified, then how do we explain the rape of Bhanwari Devi and Mukhtar Mai, who were both very well clad, and not “westernised” young things? Assaults, sexual or otherwise, have mostly been about power and politics and don’t have anything to do with “moral misconduct of women”. The patriarchal society benefits from finding an excuse to keep their women confined to the four walls of the home. The subtle and not so subtle endorsement that the fundamentalists get from our leaders and also sections of the civil society denouncing the violence but endorsing the evil of ‘pub culture’ says very little for our own faith in liberal society that can give enough space to women to be their own selves.

I am saying nothing that we all don’t already know, but this time around too if we ignore the incident, we will make this new bout of extremism stronger. It will only reaffirm the belief of the right wing groups that the silent majority is actually with them and they can get away with anything. These self proclaimed custodians of morality are not only terrorising the girls they assault, but also the girls and their families who with great difficulty are negotiating through their circumstances to find some space and freedom to just ‘be’. If we don’t stand up against it, we would be doing a great disservice to ourselves and to the already difficult struggles of women? As Martin Luther King said, “In our times, we will repent not for the evil deeds of the bad, but for the silences of the good.”

Virata Parvam


Director: Udugula Venu

Language: Telugu

Character Name: Shakuntala

Key Cast: Kundan Alexzed, Chakrapani Ananda, Banerjee

Feastivals and Awards: NA

Film Stills: 9

BTS: 11