A famous dialogue from The Dirty Picture proclaimed that films were about “entertainment, entertainment, entertainment...”. Similar points have been made about the larger purpose of art in general. This, in my mind, is not just a limiting view of the transformative power of art; it is also a safe view. A view that almost subconsciously recognises the transformative power of art, fears it and thus wants to limit it. Because art at its best does much more than merely entertain. It engages—with its context, with the society it was born in, with the world it wants to create. And art that engages will lay bare the fault lines that lie in any society. And that engagement challenges the audience to think and rethink. And that is where the danger lies because therein are the seeds that will challenge status quo and traditional structures of power.
We have recently witnessed this theory play out for real in a shocking and shameful incident from Indore. Gujarat-based comic Munawar Faruqui was arrested by the Indore police before his show even began! Superintendent of Police Vijay Khatri reportedly claimed that the arrest was made on a complaint by Eklavya Singh Gaur, chief of the Hind Rakshak Sangathan. Gaur said that he had overheard jokes during rehearsal. Khatri added that the lack of video evidence or the fact that Faruqui never actually cracked any joke did not matter because he was allegedly “going to” and had an “intention” to crack jokes about Hindu deities.
Faruqui has been in jail for over two weeks, his bail has been denied twice and latest reports suggest that the Uttar Pradesh Police is seeking his arrest for a similar complaint filed in Prayagraj. This case is a shameful reflection of the harassment of a Muslim citizen of India, quite obviously because of his religious identity, and a case of unconstitutional illegal confinement of a citizen. It also shines a light on an interesting contradiction specific to our time, between art, artiste and society. Not only is Faruqui’s arrest a sign of the vulnerability of the artiste in a polarised society, but it also reflects how threatened power structures are by art that engages with its context. Power structures are scared of the ‘power of art’.
Ours is an age where anyone can be an artiste, thanks to the digital revolution. The various filters and apps on our phones have turned humble selfies into something artistic. Instagram reels have made 15 seconds an acceptable duration for the performance of talent. And, the phenomenon of ‘going viral’ has given unlimited reach to artistes, innumerable possibilities of how far a work of art can travel and how many people it can influence. India today is ruled by a government that is blatantly pushing a very obvious ideological agenda, often to the detriment of the rule of law, and by sometimes illegally compromising constitutional provisions. Faruqui’s arrest and continued detention is a case in point.
While artistes are vulnerable in any polarised society, they have never before had such scale of platform, so many means to create, such a large audience and the chance for their voice and vision to travel beyond any kind of border in a matter of seconds. The artiste has never been so powerful!
And this hyper-accessibility to one and all that now characterises any form of art in our world has made art an opponent of embedded status quoist power structures. The more power structures become totalitarian, invincible and all-encompassing, the more they become deeply insecure and liable to being deflated easily.
When power interacts with ‘independent thought’, it becomes vulnerable. Power is essentially that hot air balloon that feels omnipresent and invincible, until one prick by ‘independent thought’ causes the whole balloon and the perception to deflate.
One potential joke by a lone, young, unknown comic from Gujarat can deflate the all-powerful perception of an increasingly illiberal state, and remind audiences of what skeletons lie in the closet. And that is why Faruqui is in jail. Because art reminds power how power is not invincible.
The writer is an award-winning Bollywood actor and sometime writer and social commentator.