Nannies rule the roost


As if the intrusive statutory messages regarding tobacco use popping up during smoking scenes in movies and TV were not enough, the censor board has now come up with another diktat: anti-drinking warnings in the scenes in which actors consume alcohol. Unfortunately, the egregious assault on the freedom of expression has largely gone unnoticed by the people. Worse, the entertainment industry, the direct sufferer, has failed to even comprehend the monstrosity of the assault. Typically, filmmakers have opposed the move by focusing on minor points.

The recent move, like the earlier one pertaining to smoking, is egregious on many counts. First, it encourages self-censorship, thus shrinking the sphere of creativity. The filmmaker and writer would now like to avoid characters that drink, for everybody would like to keep the popup as minimal as possible. Second, the censor board’s sarkari fatwa encroaches upon the rights of the movie-goes as a consumer: he pays to watch what the film director wants to show and what the stars do on screen, not to be bored by homilies.

Third, there are cult figures that cannot be conceived without alcohol and tobacco use. Can there be Devdas without the bottle? Can you show Churchill without a cigar and Sherlock Holmes without his pipe? Can you authentically depict a henchman in Bihar without khaini? Can there be a documentary on Albert Camus without a cigarette? Imagine Dev Anand gambling without a cigarette and Clark Gable as Rhett Butler without a cigar!

Fourth and most important, implicit in the rules regarding anti-smoking and anti-drinking messages is the belief that the people of India are not intelligent or prudent enough to be left unguided at any point of time. It is enough to tell an adult what could be dangerous; so there are verbal and pictorial warnings on the alcoholic and tobacco merchandise. Then there are social messages on radio and television informing the public about the ill effects of liquor and tobacco. But the nanny state suspects the cognitive ability of the citizens; it treats them as dimwitted subjects—who should be subjected to relentless haranguing about what is right and what is not—rather than responsible human beings who can take their own decisions.

Hence the incongruity: a person who is considered sensible enough to elect government, become an IAS or IPS officer, or a general in the Army is also (simultaneously) assumed to be so dumb as to need constant reminders about the health hazards of tobacco. Our political masters and self-appointed moral guardians are not satisfied with regular warnings on liquor bottles and cigarette packets; they want to drill into the minds of people that alcohol and tobacco are bad (and, if possible, program the mind to behave properly). Almost in the fashion in which children were brought up in the 1932 novel, Brave New World: phrases were repeated thousands of times while the children slept in Aldous Huxley’s dystopia.

The contradictions inherent in the nanny state are blatantly obvious. Its exchequer receives thousands of crores in taxes from the liquor and tobacco industries, even as it campaigns fanatically against their use. Then there is an element of subsidy involved in tobacco farming, given to the growers of tendu leaves used in bidi-making.

The authorities show sanctimonious concern regarding the bad effects of alcohol and tobacco use, but do little to combat the far bigger dangers to the health of people. There are credible reports suggesting that India is the global leader in the production and supply of counterfeit drugs. As for the prevalence of fake drugs in India, some estimates go as high as 25 per cent, though there are wide variations in them. Little, if anything, is being done to eliminate the menace of fake medicines. Do everything that you shouldn’t be doing, and don’t do anything that you should be—this has become the guiding principle of governance in our country.

So, there is the issue of food adulteration. Over the years, the problem has worsened. One example is the comparatively recent phenomenon of ‘synthetic milk,’ which is a concoction made of chemicals like urea, caustic soda, cheap cooking oil, and detergents.

Those making and selling fake drugs and food adulteration are simply mass murderers, but they go unpunished. There is, however, an effort to keep creative people on a tight leash and subject the citizenry to an existence defined by prescriptions and proscriptions. The nannies, grannies, and fogeys of all ages must be feeling good.