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As the Yo! Yo! Honey Singh controversy shows, artists cannot shrug away all moral censure as illiberal.
If questions are the only thing that matter in these interesting Twitter/Facebook times that we live in, shouldn't we, then, at least be asking the right ones? In the wake of the controversy surrounding the misogynist content of rapper Yo! Yo! Honey Singh's songs, and his overzealous defence - in the name of being liberal - by fellow artists, most of us have seemed to look away from the real questions that need to be answered. For one, what is the root of the blatant misogyny that finds its way into the works of contemporary Indian artists?
To say that all art is a product of its environment wouldn't be totally incorrect, and there could be a great deal of truth in the fact that someone like Singh could be inspired by what's happening around him. After all, crimes against women such as rape aren't uncommon in our society, sadly. But if one were to read the lyrics or hear songs like Ch** t and Main Hoon Balatkari, you'd need to have quite a hard shell indeed to withstand Honey Singh's verbal onslaught;and wonder just what kind of repression he has undergone in order to sing about what he sings. An artist's right to exist, the freedom of expression, and the established trappings of American rap music are some of the arguments made in Honey Singh's defence, but an instance like this leaves no room for argument really.
In a country like India, society may not perhaps inspire popular culture as successfully as popular culture inspires society;and it's minds like Honey Singh's from where misogyny enters our subconscious. Ch** t is an old song, and had it not been for social media many would still associate Singh only with his later work like Angrezi Beat from the film Cocktail.
Moreover, one of the most vocal sources of support for Honey Singh has been filmmaker Anurag Kashyap. His belief that Singh's Ch** t is a musical expression of a boy's rejection demeans the very existence of women. His argument that such crassness has 'an equal right to exist' betrays a very limited understanding of free speech and artistic expression. Kashyap also said that the manner in which some people went after Singh hurt him enough to remind him of the time when similar lynch mobs brayed for his blood when he made his first film, Paanch. The fact that Kashyap would relegate his most personal work, in spite of its limitations, to the level of Singh's song is sad enough, but it makes you want to question the filmmaker too. Especially since his antecedents in this regard are also in question. Consider how in Paanch, Kashyap argued against the Censor Board that his depiction of a character's - played by Tejaswini Kolhapure - cohabitation with four criminals did not make for the promotion of loose morals. The board disagreed and banned the film.
There's also one misconception about the Honey Singh imbroglio. The outcry surrounding Ch** t and Main Hoon Balatkari wasn't about banning the artist, it was a call for him to somewhere acknowledge the error of his ways. It was to shame him, and for the better angels of his nature, if there are any left, to perhaps help him recalibrate his moral compass.
The influence that Bollywood and popular culture wields isn't hidden and when Singh, lauded as a 'youth icon' on many platforms, denies outright any involvement, it shows just how serious some artists are when it comes to being socially responsible in any way at all.
In an article he wrote for a national daily, Kashyap, too, denied 'knowing' the songs in question or even the artist before the controversy flared up. Yet the minor detail of Honey Singh singing a song in his production, Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana, which released almost seven weeks before the hullabaloo began in November, remains a minor technicality. Or does it?
Honey Singh has denied any involvement on songs like Ch** t and Main Hoon Balatkari. While Anurag Kahsyap credits Pakistani band Zeest as the composers of Main Hoon Balatkari, the band has officially denied the same via an email to this writer. Yet Honey Singh washes his hands off the whole thing;Kashyap shrugs off the insidious nature of the content and they both take refuge in the freedom of artistic expression. There's something seriously wrong here.
Many have even suggested that countries like US suffer far more misogyny in art, but that's just half the argument. When Tiger Woods confessed to his sex addiction, top brands like Accenture and Nike ended their association with him. Moral censure is a necessary corrective that all free speech must be subjected to, especially when societies have to deal with the consequences of art inspiring grave crimes, like school shootings in the US, for instance.
As any moral philosopher will tell you, what freedom without limits? And while on the subject of asking the right questions, someone needs to ask Kashyap and Honey Singh just where do they think a 13-year-old boy even gets the idea of raping a woman?
The writer is a Delhi-based author and documentary filmmaker.
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