Manish Chandra Mishra | May 2, 2019 | 9 min read
A kiss confronts Bhopal media’s moral bend in publishing its perception of art
Manish Chandra Mishra
Bhopal: The morning of 26 April in Bhopal, a thriving hub of Hindi theater, saw the Hindi newspapers published from the city mislaying their moral compass. What had irked the editors of various dailies was an on stage kiss between two actors enacting an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, titled Jugnu ki Juliet. The play was being staged at the 29th Iftekhar Smriti Natya Avam Samman Samaroh, an annual drama festival, and was directed by Wasim Ali, whose shifting stand on if he had directed the sequence has laid bare the threat that artists face at the hands of journalists ready to judge art, rather than experiencing it.
What seems to have teased the sentiments here is also the fact that this adaptation of Romeo and Juliet involves an upper caste Thakur girl falling in love with a boy from the Bhand community, whose family have lost their patriarch in enmity with the girl’s family.
At a time when the Congress’ Digivijaya Singh, a former chief minister of the state, is pitched against BJP’s Sadhvi Pragya in the city, communal currents are thriving while local editions of newspapers are not holding back.
Dayra in dramatics?
With a rich tradition of dramatics, Bhopal witnesses around 300 plays every year staged across various venues in the city. One of the stalwarts of Indian Theatre, late Habib Tanvir, made Bhopal his home in later years, while his daughter and theatre artist Nageen Tanvir continues to reside in the city. Hindi dailies in the city have had a keen interest in art and culture with dedicated teams to cover related events and beats. Reviews of plays staged in the city usually appear the next morning.
Jugnu Ki Juliet was staged at Ravindra Bhawan on 25 April. Headlines of prime Hindi dailies like Rajasthan Patrika, Dainik Jagran, Haribhoomi, Peoples Samachar among others were sensational to the extent that some even invited legal action against performers for their “Ashleel (Obscene)” act.
"Kaun tay karega naatakon ka dayra, Khule-aam ho rahe ashleel drishya (Who will set boundaries for theatre, obscene scenes being staged openly),” wrote Dainik Jagran, adding in the strap: “Ravindra Bhavan me Jugnu ki Juliet men manchit huye aapattijanak drishya, sharmsar hua Rajdhani ka rangmanch (Objectionable scenes staged during performance of Jugnu Ki Juliet at Ravindra Bhavan, Bhopal's theatre ashamed)”. The report carried a clear bias from the reporter who did not bother to include any quotes from the audience or theatre experts.
Similarly, Peoples Samachar commented that “the artists had forgotten their limits”.
Haribhoomi slammed the artists and playwright calling it “an obscene act” and “a crime”. Other newspapers such as Rajasthan Patrika and Naidunia published photographs of the scene.
With the local media sensationalising the story, it soon became a point of discussion on social media, with users taking liberty to drop lewd remarks and judgments targeting the actors.
The controversial kiss comes towards the end of Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo swallows poison and Juliet wakes up to find his body, tries to kiss his lips to poison herself, and when that fails, she stabs herself. An improvised version of the scene was enacted in Jugnu Ki Juliet.
Two days after the play was staged, the actress, who sought anonymity in wake of the onslaught she faced after the controversy, wrote in a Facebook post:
"What is the definition of obscenity in theater? There needs to be some ethics in the hearts of the audience, if they want to judge the scenes of the play."
Promptly justifying its stand, the local media has followed up on the story. In its edition dated April 27, Haribhoomi published a detailed article featuring artists who thought the scene was problematic and included a comment from the local police station (Shyamla Hills) in charge, who said they would take action if anyone files a case.
Organisers sorry, performers not
Hamidullah Khan Mamu, organiser of the Iftekhar Smriti Natya Avam Samman Samaroh, has sent letters (attached) addressed to all cultural reporters, wherein he regretted the scene saying, "It was not intentional. Bhopal media is very supportive for theatre, but this time they objected on the scene. I do not want any controversy and so I have regretted."
Wasim Ali, the director of the play, initially told mediapersons that the scene was not included by him and the actors enacted it in a “flow”, but later admitted on Facebook when countered by the actress that he had said so, as he was afraid of public-backlash and was trying to cool things down.
The female actor, who says she doesn’t want to become “a tool of media for their agenda", interprets: "Obscenity is a personal subject that depends on the awareness from person to person. No one can impose their thoughts on others."
After the media reports were published, she says she has faced harassment through inappropriate messages and comments on social media. “I know that there was no obscenity in that scene and it was the demand of the scene,” she adds.
Nishant Raguvansi, the actor who essayed Jugnu’s character, told Newslaundry: "I'm very upset to see media is raising objection on the scene. It was neither a publicity stunt nor we want to go against our culture. It was demand of the scene and not obscene at all. The director was well aware about the scene and we had rehearsed it many time before going to stage."
Was the scene obscene?
“A big No" is the first reaction of Mainul Ali Siddiqui, a theatre artist and an alumni of Madhya Pradesh School of Drama, who watched the play: "I was present at the show that day and the scene was not obscene at all. It seems those journalists reported the facts incorrectly and do not know about human emotions."
Explaining the scene, Siddiqui says, "Romeo (Jugnu here) goes to stage by crossing audience. Juliet consumes poison and is laying on the stage. Romeo delivers a series of dialogues, concluding he would kiss her to poison himself.
"How can it be a lip-lock if it is not mutual? One character is dead," he asks.
Prasanna Soni, senior theatre director and actor who has worked with the National School of Drama repertory, comments on the controversy: "I talked to directors and some people who watched the act. I know that if the scene demands a kiss, then it is not obscene. Media has created hype."
Preeti L S Mann, a Delhi-based art critic, photographer and artist, who also contributes to media houses such as BBC, says she has seen some sensational reports and followed the discussion on social media and is “very upset” with the way media covered this story. "It is very disappointing to see the awareness level of journalists. I feel that most of the journalists covering art and culture beats are not trained enough to practice media ethics.”
Mann says some articles were one sided and did not include any comment from the people who had seen the play.
“I had experienced the same with Bhopal's media. Some newspaper misquoted me when I displayed my paintings in an exhibition in Bhopal. This time they created a hype and feed people that the scene was obscene, but if they had explored the play or even seen it, they might get another angle. The story was prepared on the basis of photographs clicked by photographers."
Mann alleges that despite having released her statement in both, English and Hindi, journalists had misreported the theme and vision of her paintings when they were exhibited in Bhopal.
Is Bhopal upset?
LGBTQ activist and artist Kokila Bhattacharya believes that if the act was relevant to the scene, it can not be obscene.
"Bhopal's media hasn’t got an understanding of gender and sexuality. I never thought Bhopal would be a city like this, but it is getting worse day by day. Instead of talking about real issues, media here is trying to censor art. If artists are comfortable with the scene, who are media to comment about the act?" she asks.
Anurag Upadhyay, a senior TV journalist from the city, however, feels the scene was obscene and the actors must put behind bars for this act. “Our society is not ready for this type of scenes. If the artists want to enact a kiss scene, they must bring it to the notice of the audience before the act. I remember there was a play, Can't Play Won't Pay (originally written by Dario Fo) staged at Bharat Bhavan in which there were a few obscene acts. The director announced these scenes before the play."
Arif Mirza, a veteran journalist and columnist whose column Media Mirchi reviews articles published over the week, declares: "It may sound orthodox, but I feel the media has done its job. Our city is not ready for this experiment."
Editors in Bhopal now have a mixed reaction about the controversy.
Mrigendra Singh, editorial head of Dainik Jagran in Bhopal, says he is aware that a newspaper has to have ethics and be mindful of certain things, “but a newspaper cannot be held responsible every time. The scene was very obscene in that play and we have done our duty. Theatre people have to take care about such a thing”.
When asked about his editorial stand on “such content”, Manish Dixit, state editor of Peoples Samachar, says, "I think our society has access to this type of content from different sources, that's why we decided to not to blur the picture of kissing scene. We need to accept these things now."
About the controversial kiss, Dixit says: “Play's director did not take a stand when he said that the scene was not planned and actors did it in a flow. Director should have taken his stand if he feels the scene was not obscene."
Wasim Ali’s phone has remained off and attempts to reach him for a comment were futile. Did Jugnu and Juliet and their director need to hibernate? Are their careers being tarnished? Why is Bhopal angry over an enacted kiss in a Romeo and Juliet adaptation? Or is it?
If Bhopal has seen the drama, it shall discuss.
(Author is a Bhopal-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)
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