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At a recent event, I was meant to give a talk on “Mumbai and the power of collective conscience”. I went prepared for the speech, but the unimaginable happened.Something that has never happened to me before. The moment my turn came, and I stepped on to the stage to speak, I blanked out and lost complete connect with what I had gone prepared to say. With all my thoughts muddled up in my head, I ended up being incoherent, and finally left the stage leaving everyone in the audience surprised, some worried. I apologize to the organizers, most of all Jerry Johnson, of TEDx Churchgate, who completely trusted me and whom I must have greatly let down. The speech which I had prepared to speak and which I blanked out on is below:
I grew up in small town India. I was born in Jammu and grew up in places as diverse as Amritsar, Kota, Jalandhar, Chandigarh, Indore and Ajmer. People in all those places were in awe of Mumbai, and so was I. We would wait to hear stories of Mumbai from those who came back from or went visiting to the land of the sun and sea, the land of movies and the city of dreams. From our girlfriends we would want to hear stories of the freedom they had experienced while they were in Mumbai.
Women in small town or cities, other than Mumbai, didn’t ever know independence, neither did they have any rights to make their own choices. There were certain rules they were supposed to follow, and if they dared to break them, which some have at times over so many past generations, they were made to face the music and pay the price for wearing western clothes and stepping out on the streets. Molestation was justified by all as, ‘oh then, isn’t it her fault?’
Going out after dark with anybody other than her father, brother or husband even meant rape with a battered boyfriend left by the side of the road. Women could be touched, felt, pinched or lynched if men on the streets felt they were behaving indecently. And laughing loudly, walking with confidence as well as wearing jeans was considered to be indecent behavior. That was about 25 years ago. Today it is even worse.
Today, one Chief Minister of a state says that rape can be prevented if women are married of at an early age, and another Chief Minister says that rape takes place because men and women interact with each other freely. So coming to Mumbai and making a life in this city, for a woman in India, is an achievement in itself. To be able to feel the freedom, to be able to make one’s own choices; for a woman to actually be able to negotiate life without being dependent on one man or another, is possible in the city of Mumbai. This is perhaps the only city in India, where there is no consideration of caste, color, religion, language or sex and therefore no question of any kind of discrimination for those reasons.
I came to Mumbai after graduating to become a journalist and found myself in the world of television, growing along with the industry which had just about taken birth in the country at the time when I started. As I became a Mumbaikar, the media, television and entertainment industries in the city grew larger than what could be imagined. Our fiction at the time I began my career, reflected lives and mirrored hope. It celebrated Indian values, exploring and discovering solutions for the confused as India made its way towards becoming a developing country and the churn taking place was left with no alternative but to fracture families, and break traditional habits to prepare a new generation for a globalized world. Rapid urbanization was taking place everywhere in India and because Mumbai and its stories were being carried to every nook and corner of the country by the growing networks, our city had become a sort of model for other cities in India to follow.
Due to uneven distribution of opportunity in India, Mumbai, the land of plenty had attracted the most daring talents from all parts of the country post India’s independence, and therefore become a metropolis defined by its multicultural nature. Can you imagine the collective courage of millions of people who had dared to dream in their hometowns and come to Mumbai, from different cultures and different geographies to realize them? That is how brave a city Mumbai was, and still is.
I worked as an Assistant Director at first and went on to establish my own content production house by the end of the 80’s in Mumbai. Creating a series, a film, a documentary or any other product in the entertainment industry meant bringing together forces from all different parts of the country and jamming with them. So Punjabis, Gujaratis, South Indians, Sindhis, Maharashtrians, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, all merged their influences and cultures, and formed a blend, to tell a story. Here is where diverse cultures would confluence to create the contemporary narrative which was in tandem with India’s development and growth story. It was the vision, the concepts, the blend of ideas that emerged from the multicultural idiom which defined Mumbai that went on to become the basic foundation for a modern India, especially post liberalization. When every other city in India began to evolve and started to throw open its gates to other cultures, languages, people and diversities, Mumbai was leading as example.
Mumbai, being the commercial capital of India with the most vibrant and thriving industry of entertainment, brought together cohesive forces and as the outreach of media grew, the city was able to express itself beyond its borders. But somewhere around the same time the rumblings of discontent began to gather and rise in the interiors of India where media, had reached, the stories were being told and heard, but development, education, health services and political solutions were still very far away.
Politics in India changed and India began to be trapped in a schizophrenic conscience. Globalization could be achieved if there was harmony midst diversity during the process of growth, but politics unable to deliver, began to rely on local leadership which to garner vote banks started to divide people on basis of caste, religion, cultures and languages and tore them apart further. India was trapped in a paradox created by a paralysis of governance and lack of political will.
Media, much against its will, became a pawn and got used by politics to spread hatred and mistrust across the length and breadth of the nation. The layers beneath the earth shifted in Ayodhya, but the epicenter of the earthquake was Mumbai. The shocks felt in Mumbai, shook the basic secular foundation of the city and utter disbelief led people who had co-existed harmoniously for decades, to burn down the edifice which now stood for a lie. Revenge followed, and since then Mumbai has lived in factions retaliating emotionally, laying itself out and open to manipulations of those with political motives and anti national agendas.
Confusion reigned, and like me, many a idealistic youngster in the ’90’s either, corrupted himself, surrendered to cynicism, or else then, settled into a life as a silent spectator. The corrupt became the danger, the cynic and the silent spectators became the hopeless critics. The apathetic silence of a large section of our generation enabled society to debauch further and this, because of the democratization of voice and opinion unleashed by internet and social media in India and the rest of the world with the advent of the 21stcentury, is not acceptable anymore.
The apathy, the cynicism and the deepest divides began to reflect in the expression that sprang out from the industries of television and entertainment from Mumbai, which had not just a pan Indian outreach anymore, but a spread that was touching the entire South Asian diasporas in every part of the world. The land of Amar Akbar Anthony became the land of Saas Bahu sagas. The narrative became religious and those who were not were neither addressed, nor represented in our stories.
Instead of watching its leadership speak of it’s vision for a modern India, the youth of India today, is bombarded with scams, criminal accusations and blatant corruption with politicians and the rivals spewing venom at each other from every available platform. Instead of a robust debate about the future, there is mindless argument about the past. Today, to doctor a battered and hurt India, it is Mumbai that needs to heal.
The leader, the commercial hub, the city which reverberates to the beat of a million plus creative hearts, needs to be made to feel secure and unafraid of destructive and divisive forces, so that it can express itself freely. Cosmopolitanism has to thrive, and reflect through the works of every form of expression which emerges from Mumbai and spreads to the rest of the country. For India, not to ‘have’ to face multiple Partitions, Mumbai and its people ‘have’ to continue to respect their differences like they once did, and celebrate the contemporary fusions of their cultures which provide oxygen to emerging arts, be it music, dance or cinema which have, despite every attempt to quash it, arrived on the world stage today. We have to bring courage to the fore and envision a powerful future collectively.
We have to inspire collectivism through tolerance. Encourage the multicultural spectrum to evolve which in turn can break the ethnic divide created by a corrupt politics and Mumbai can and will be truly secular; opening a whole new world of possibility for itself and for the rest of India.
Vinta Nanda is a film maker, writer and social activist. She has written, directed and/or produced trail blazing TV shows like Tara, Raahat, Kabhie Kabhie, Aur Phir Ek Dinand Miilee and also made several documentary films on women’s issues. Her first feature film, White Noise won acclaim at the Kara Film Festival, Pune International Film Festival, Florence and Seattle Indian Film Festivals. Vinta blogs on www.vinatananda.blogspot.com and has written forThe Times of India, Tehelka, Indian Express, Mumbai Mirror, Sahara Times and Mid Day. Vinta is also the President of the NGO ‘The Village Project India,’ is producing two TV shows and will be producing and directing her next feature Zindagi Paradiso shortly.