'Kya aap ghar pe behen@#$ bol sakte hain?'
With this sanskari question began India's latest Padma Bhushan, actor and tolerance activist Anupam Kher's mann ki baat on freedom of speech and responsibilities at the Jaipur Literature Festival on Monday.
Freedom of speech is currently Kher's favourite muse. Ever since he assigned to himself the role of the cheer-uncle of India-is-so-tolerant brigade, he is often baited by ideological opponents at public events and debates with provocative questions and counter arguments. And Kher always obliges them with a cultured soliloquy — the kind he exhibited in Jaipur — laced with nuanced arguments and restrained language, on how achche din have come for India's liberal and tolerant values.
Nothing deters him. In October, Kher was booed by the audience at a Literature Festival in Mumbai when he lost his cool while debating, well, India's tolerance.
This is how news agency PTI described the interaction in Mumbai: 'Soon after Kher rose to speak, he was booed when he recalled Shobha De's (a co-panelist) past as an editor of a film magazine "which printed gossip about which film star slept with whom."
As the booing continued, Kher said he had spoken to the festival organiser Anil Dharker in the morning and expressed his apprehensions of a paid audience at the debate. This infuriated several members of the audience who kept on booing the actor.
His wife Kirron Kher, a BJP MP, who was in the audience rose to his defence but the audience did not stop booing Kher who said being a theatre artist he was used to such booing.'
In Jaipur, to pre-empt the booing, Kher started wooing the audience. From the stage, he started exhorting the crowd to chant Modi, Modi, playing to literal perfection his role of a cheerleader.
The Padma award is, obviously, hard earned and well deserved.
The actor may be ecstatic that after a lifetime of being cast as a supporting actor, alternating between the image of a comedian, villain and the hero's best friend, he has finally been offered the lead role of the Narendra Modi government's knight-in-shining-armour, the go-to man every time its critics from the world of art and cinema are to be silenced, browbeaten into submission, and the brand ambassador of Incredibly Tolerant India.
But, with his politics of convenience and flip-flops, Kher has weakened the very basis of the raison d'être of his popularity: his track record as an actor. His impressive body of work alone would have entitled him to the country's love, respect and top awards. But, Kher has undermined his own legacy and frittered away some of his own goodwill with his partisan philosophy and by turning into the voice of his political masters.
He will, as writer Ajaz Ashraf pointed out in a stirring critique, not be remembered as the actor who portrayed the angst of the common man in Saaransh but the husband who obliterated it for his wife's benefactors and political patrons.
'Judging from his political actions over the last few months, it wouldn't be wrong to believe Kher might actually reprimand a woman undergoing in real life the sort of travails faced by the struggling actress of Saaransh.
It is likely he would tell her that there have been many instances in the past of powerful fathers mounting pressure on their son’s partner to abort; that she isn’t the first person whom the politician’s musclemen have terrorised; that her troubles do not indicate that the Indian state has drifted into wilful somnolence,' Ashraf argued.
Some years ago, a Padma award to Kher would have been celebrated as recognition of his contribution to cinema and theatre. But its timing would never silence those pointing out that he got it because of his contribution to the BJP's theatrics and drama of tolerance politics. And that he made an about-turn and accepted with folded hands what he had denounced in 2010 as a mockery of the system in one of his sour-grapes moment. Perhaps the presence of fellow actor Ajay Devgn, who vigorously campaigned for the BJP in the recent Bihar elections in the Padma list, must have convinced Kher that in Modi's India the award is no longer a reward for political leanings.
The paradox of Kher's life and politics is summed up best by his sanskari query--a pointer to the intellectual prowess of the rightwing poster boys-- at the Jaipur Literature Festival. If it isn't ironical enough that Kher used the very language in public-- in front of a lawn full of men, women and children, from the stage of literature--that he doesn't want people to use at home, to know the answer Kher should read the language the right-wing trolls and Hindutva bhakts use to attack those complaining against intolerance.
Yes, Mr Kher, you may have been awarded the Padma Bhushan for calling India tolerant, but there are many others who are called much more than b#@% for not agreeing with you and those you cheerlead.
(You can listen to his speech here.)