A columnist commits a gaffe but also panders to powerful pressure groups by playing the politics of freedoms and communalising the social space

By Sucheta Dasgupta

Every once in a while, the Indian mainstream media goes and puts its foot in its mouth. Thanks to the social media, however, the culprits are now getting called out—for their breathtaking ignorance as well as for their capricious vying for brownie points with those regarded as core readership as well as management and other entities. Suffice it to say that this said readership is imagined, not only by some writers, but also, and slightly more frequently by subeditors, in their own image—and that turns out to be the lowest common denominator. Did someone ever say, respect the reader?

On Sunday (March 26), a certain columnist with a certain business paper wrongfully accused Tamil actor Kamal Haasan of making what she described as “anti-Hindu” remarks, ascribing it to his alleged Islamic faith. This, quite expectedly, drew derision, and a spike in Google searches for Kamal Haasan—no doubt a windfall for the 65-year-old icon who, his outstanding talent notwithstanding, has lately been looking for attention during interviews and on Twitter, making anti-AIADMK remarks and generally being effusive about his political feelings. An atheist of the EVR Periyar persuasion, Kamal Haasan is a Tam Bam whose name, as he clarified some years back, means something on the lines of “Laughing Lotus”—the last name a derivative of hasya which means laughter in Sanskrit.

This indeed gives the lie to another story that has been doing the rounds, that Kamal Haasan was named in honour of his father, lawyer D Srinivasan’s friend, Yaakob Haasan. The two briefly shared a prison cell during the freedom struggle. The 1952-born actor was, in fact, named Parthasaraty to begin with, after the presiding deity of the Pallava-era temple in Chennai. Srinivasan later changed his son’s name to Kamal Haasan. He is, by birth, an Iyengar.

Given his outspoken nature and thinking—he has named Periyar, Gandhi and left-leaning filmmaker K Balachander among his heroes—Kamal Haasan has been no stranger to controversy. Two of his films, Vishwaroopam (2013) and Uttama Villain (2015), were sought to be banned by fanatics from across the religious spectrum, the first for not using a Tamil title and for ostensibly offending Muslim sentiments, and the second for purportedly slighting Vishnu, of the Hindu trinity. This time, too, his so-called controversial remarks were innocuous enough and did not warrant a debate—he had merely wondered why Indians celebrate a story (the Mahabharata) about a family feud wherein the two factions go to war after gambling away a woman (Draupadi) without her consent—something that has been commented and ideated upon umpteen times in literature and the arts in English and various vernacular languages as well as in popular culture. And this by people from both sides of the sociological divide—the misogynists, who see this as further proof of how women are the root of all evil, and the feminists who are constantly exploring history and mythology for newer truths and meanings. So no need for the writer to have gotten all shirty, talking about the abuse of the freedom of speech which, in itself, is an oxymoron, and then getting all contradictory— “Kamal Hasan [sic] has forgotten the context and the times in which Draupadi lived. The Mahabharata is one of the most time-tested epics in the world, it is modern in its context.” Whatever is she trying to imply here? That placing a bet with a woman as the object of trade is acceptable behaviour?

So what’s the important takeaway from this for journalists? Perhaps that sub-editors should fact-check and not robotically correct grammar? Maybe that it is better to stick to one’s beat than risk inviting hasya? Or, the gods forbid, but, perhaps, that scholarship counts, after all, and Google is not always the answer.