Sunday, January 31, 2016



Unless we agree that freedom of expression must include the right to offend, our society will continue to routinely bow to bigots and punish artists

By Anna MM Vetticad

January has been tough on lovers of the arts. As the first month of the new year draws to a close, fans worldwide are still mourning the loss of David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Glenn Frey in quick succession. These legends were admired in India too, but we here have our own personal losses to mourn: among them, Rajesh Vivek, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Kalpana, and — the most heartbreaking of them all — the death of common sense and a sense of humour.

Though the connection is not obvious, Mumbai-based comedian Kiku Sharda’s recent arrest came to mind as I read a moving tribute to Rickman in The Guardian. It cited this quote from the late thespian: “Actors are agents of change. A film, a piece of theatre, a piece of music, or a book can make a difference. It can change the world.”

Contrast this with Sharda’s obsequious apologies to those offended by his mimicry of the Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) chief, a man who calls himself Saint Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan. DSS has been variously described as a spiritual organisation, a cult and a racket. Insan co-directed, wrote and starred in a horrendous ode to himself called MSG: The Messenger in 2015. MSG2 too came out last year. It is while lampooning these lampoon-worthy films and Insan that Sharda allegedly caused “outrage” to “religious feelings” (quote marks indicate the language of the IPC’s Section 295A).

We have long been a nation of nutcases in the matter of freedom of expression. What makes Sharda’s arrest arguably the final nail in the coffin of free speech is the sub-abysmal quality of the entity he derided.

Seriously, anyone who has seen the MSG films could be forgiven for assuming that the ‘Saint’ was begging to be mocked by comedians, cartoonists, critics and the citizenry at large. How else is one to react to a ‘guru’ who encases his stocky frame in multiple multi-coloured, sequined, flashy, body-hair-baring outfits on screen? How is one to respond when he sings the words, ‘Without you any other, never never…/ Forever you are my heartbeat/ Another name is beat my heart, never never’?

The argument parroted in all such cases is that freedom of expression cannot extend to the right to “hurt religious feelings”. But what does that phrase mean? Who, for instance, decides a legitimate measure of “hurt”?

Earlier this month, I was on a television debate about the Sabarimala shrine’s practice of keeping out women in the 10-50 age group. A representative of the holy place held that opponents of the tradition are trampling upon religious freedom. The same point was made this week about women’s protests against being barred from the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district. The “hurting religious sentiments” contention in the Kiku Sharda-‘Saint’ Insan incident could well be extended to feminists criticising Sabarimala and Shani Shingnapur. Question: does my freedom of expression end where your freedom of religion begins?

Please note that this column is not advocating free speech absolutism. Clearly, civilised discourse requires reasonable restrictions. Since this debate is being dragged down the gutter of low intellect by right-wingers, it is best to spell out the exceptions in black and white: critiques are fine, abuse is not, so you may say “X indulges in sensationalist journalism” but not “Journalist X is a ****ing bitch who should be raped” (this is a sample from Twitter); deliberate falsehoods are unacceptable; so is rumour-mongering (of the kind we saw when mischievous SMSes were circulated in 2012 about possible violent attacks by Muslims against people from the North-east in south India as revenge for the killings of Muslims in Myanmar and Assam); also not allowed should be clearly identifiable threats of violence or calls to violence.

Beyond this, anyone objecting to the words of others should feel free to spread awareness about their objections through all available non-violent means. Write a blog, hold a seminar, sit on dharna in protest.

As a society we constantly bow to bigots and snub artists because we cannot agree on a point that should have been a given by now in 21st century India: that freedom of expression must include the right to offend. Because “offend”, “hurt”, “feelings”, “religious sentiments” and other such cliches are intangibles that can be put to dangerous use to stifle all inconvenient debate

If as liberals we do not dig our heels in on this matter, we will routinely find ourselves in situations like the present one, where a comedian is arrested for ridiculing one of the worst Hindi films in history, simply because the hero happens to be a guru to some.

We are already a society in which the Alan Rickmans among us — actors, directors, writers and other creative people who do not take lightly their power to influence — are abused, threatened, even killed when they act as “agents of change”.

You may be tempted to see this as a misplaced comparison since Kiku Sharda is no Alan Rickman, no Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Rushdie, MM Kalburgi or Govind Pansare either, and his show on ‘Saint’ Insan can by no yardstick be considered high art. It does not matter, because the mindset that seeks to suppress them all is the same: an attitude that certain issues, institutions and people are holy cows.

Freedom of expression has to include the right to diss all holy cows.

(Anna M.M. Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. Twitter: @annavetticad)

(This column was published in The Hindu Businessline on January 30, 2016)

Original link:

Photo captions: (1) Kiku Sharda (2) & (3) Poster and still from the MSG films

Photographs courtesy:

Previous instalment of Film Fatale: She, He, Them and Us

Friday, January 29, 2016


Release date:
January 29, 2016
Sudha Kongara

R. Madhavan, Ritika Singh, Mumtaz Sorcar, Nassar, Zakir Hussain, M.K. Raina, Baljinder Kaur, Kaali Venkat

The rise of the underdog is a favourite theme in sports films. Yet, Saala Khadoos manages to tell us something more than we thought we already knew.    

R. Madhavan here plays Adi Tomar, an ill-tempered retired boxer whose career in the ring was ruined when his corrupt coach conspired to end it. Now a coach himself, he discovers a cantankerous young fish seller from the slums of Chennai and sees in her a potential world champion. Ezhil Madhi (debutant Ritika Singh) is destined for greatness, but to get there she must first overcome her extreme poverty, an alcoholic father, family tensions, her own foul temperament, her self-destructive impetuosity, politics in Indian sports and sexual harassment.

Saala Khadoos is a Hindi first for director Sudha Kongara who made her screenwriting debut with the National Award-winning English film Mitr, My Friend (2002). This latest venture was shot simultaneously in Tamil as Irudhi Suttru.

Half her battle for this film has been won with the casting. Ritika is a professional kickboxer, which explains why her scenes in the ring seem so effortless here. She is also a natural before the camera, and – this is especially disarming – not obviously conscious of her sweet face.

Ritika is not the only one who looks like a real person rather than an actor in the film. Mumtaz Sorcar playing Madhi’s elder sister Luxmi, Baljinder Kaur and Kaali Venkat as her messed-up parents from a mixed marriage all appear as if they were plucked out of a Chennai shanty and planted in Saala Khadoos.

Leading them ably in a role far removed from the wimp he plays in the Tanu Weds Manu films is Madhavan. Adi is constantly on edge when he is not in the midst of a self-induced explosion and Maddy plays him just right. His frustration, bitterness, irritability and anger come across as believable at all times, rather than exaggerated for effect.

Besides, he looks incredibly cute with that beard and fluffy, wild hairdo, which is quite an achievement considering that he is the bloody groucho of the film’s title.

Among the high-profile supporting players are Nassar as junior coach Pandian in Chennai who has a love-hate relationship with Adi, M.K. Raina as Adi’s supportive senior back in Delhi and Zakir Hussain as Dev Khatri, the predator who authored our hero’s exit from the ring and is now targeting Madhi. The veterans ace their roles in a film brimming over with talent.

In terms of performances then, the natural progression of events in the sporting arena, the execution of its boxing scenes, production design and locations, Saala Khadoos has an authentic feel to it. It falters on other fronts though. The film could have done without so many songs. The volume of those numbers and, in places, the background score should have been lowered. And the romantic angle, needless as it is, required better handling.

In a country where mainstream cinema is populated with heroes who have been known to play screen teens when they’re in their 30s and 40s, where Madhavan himself at the age of about 38 played a college kid in 3 Idiots, no doubt it is a pleasure to hear Adi tell Madhi, “Main tere baap ki umar ka hoon,” when she professes her love for him in her typical rough-hewn fashion. The film would have been served better if that element had not been introduced in the first place though, or having brought up the point, if the story had at least just left it at that.

Some of the beauty in Chak De! India (2007) – one of the best Hindi sports films ever made – came from its absolute clarity that hockey coach Kabir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) does not get romantically involved with players Preeti Sabharwal (Sagarika Ghatge) and Vidya Sharma (Vidya Malvade) at least as long as we are with them on screen. After all, every male and female lead do not necessarily have to fall for each other, and it was such a joy to see a film acknowledge that two people of the opposite sex can be something to each other other than lovers. Saala Khadoos leaves most things unsaid on that front in its finale, but even the hint of things to come dilutes the story it is trying to tell.

And a crucial story this is. The insidious manner in which officials pursue their personal agendas through India’s sporting federations is widely known yet more shocking with each telling. The story of a player-coach team blossoming amidst institutional muck, Saala Khadoos rises above the ordinary with its detailing, including the turns in Madhi’s relationship with her sister, the scenes with her parents, Dev Khatri’s chilling shenanigans and the vulnerability of women in particular in this exploitative system. The film’s many impactful satellite characters stay on in the memory even as Madhi throws her last, very very satisfying, well-aimed punch.

So yes, it needed to tone down its pitch in places and stay more focused, but there is so much to recommend Saala Khadoos. The fact that it is a sports film is reason enough to pop open the champagne since the genre is too rarely visited in Hindi cinema. As with most such films, the final outcome in the ring is not hard to predict here. The journey to that moment though is emotionally engaging and, after a point, nerve-wracking enough to draw cheers of delight. Adi and Madhi are worth investing in. That’s what makes this film worth watching.

Rating (out of five stars): ***

CBFC Rating (India):

Running time:
109 minutes