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The very real dangers of sitting during the national anthem in Mumbai

Sahil Bhalla | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:45 IST

It was the evening of 27 October, the last day of MAMI, the Mumbai Film Festival. I had walked into one of the halls at PVR Icon in Andheri for my 30th and final movie of the festival - The Salesman. An Iranian movie with Iranian actors, set in Iran and directed by an Iranian, the movie was as far removed from India as honest politicians.

Yet, despite having nothing to do with India, it was preceded by the national anthem. And, as I had been doing for most of the movies I'd watched at the festival, I didn't stand up. In several of these instances, I was joined by like-minded people who also remained seated. This day though, would be different.

Instead of people minding their business - sitting or standing as they choose to, I found myself on the receiving end on spadefuls of "patriotism" from a theatre crowd that seemed closer to a lynch mob than an audience.

Get up, stand up

Just a few seconds into Jana Gana Mana, and the the woman behind me nudged me and said, "please stand up. it's my national anthem". Another one from afar asked, fairly brusquely, why I wasn't standing up. I simply said, "I'm from Delhi. We don't stand up there". You'd imagine that instead of lecturing me, thereby talking through the anthem, they'd just stand still for its duration and take up any issue after. Evidently though, the only thing more patriotic than standing for the national anthem is standing up to people sitting through the national anthem.

Next up, a man got out of his row to get a better look at me, "Let's take this outside," he said threateningly. Another, emboldened by the thug before him said, "I'm going to find you afterward and slap you". Just as I was starting to brace myself for the inevitable violence that comes with such displays of patriotism, one of the volunteers - one of the few people on my side - told everyone that it was my choice to stand up or not and to focus on the movie instead.

By now the movie was close to starting, but that didn't stop the man next to me from going off on a 10-minute-long rant. Refusing to be drawn in, I ignored him and watched the movie instead.

As I walked out after the movie, I looked left and right, half expecting one of the earlier threats to manifest in the form of a sucker punch. Luckily, none came.

This wasn't the first instance of jibes and harassment I faced at MAMI. The other though, was on a much smaller scale. During the 11 AM showing of John Waters' Multiple Maniacs someone in the back asked me why I was not standing up. Luckily, he shut up when my friend responded, "He's from Delhi. Let him be."

Standing up for sitting down

For those who don't know, the national anthem is to be played before every movie that is screened in Maharashtra. What is not compulsory, however, is for an individual present in that cinema hall to stand up for the national anthem. The rule simply doesn't exist in our constitution, and is only mentioned in a Home Affairs advisory that has no legal binding.

I get that it is a rule in Maharashtra and Goa to play the anthem in cinema halls, but why should I be forced to stand for it? What purpose does it serve? Is it meant as a reminder that we enjoy the privilege of free expression? Because, if so that should only be further reason for me to be allowed to sit.

At the end of the day, it should be the persons' choice, whether they want to stand up or not. It isn't like the national anthem playing inside a stadium is different from the national anthem playing before a movie. It's the same, 52-second version of Jana Gana Mana. It's the same song written by Rabindranath Tagore. Why is it then, that in the stadium we don't stand, but in the cinema hall we do? Mandate?

Some people outraged by those sitting through the anthem, claim it's offensive because standing up for the anthem is a form of worship. To them I point to my freedom to practise religion as I please. Others stand and sing in cinema halls because it's one of the only places they get to do it. More power to them. What I do shouldn't bother them unless my actions directly prevent them from freely expressing themselves. They don't.

It seems though, that people in Mumbai have been conditioned to stand up for the national anthem, but only in theatres. Nowhere else. This is only because they've been 'told' to stand up before the movie plays on the big screen. Curiously, there isn't a uniform application of this law.

The morning after the festival ended, I attended the 9:20AM showing of Karan Johar's latest Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (the movie has created a lot of controversy for casting Pakistani actor Fawad Khan). Somewhat to my surprise, there was no national anthem played before ADHM. A refreshing note to start the day. It's another matter that the movie wasn't much good. A Mumbaikar told me that a lot of the late shows sometimes don't telecast the anthem to try and "save on time".

Shifting goalposts

I am not against patriotism. I am just against false display of patriotism. How is sitting in a dark theatre and standing up a patriotic exercise? If it is, then how is this 'patriotism' and 'nationalism' different than when someone is watching India play a cricket match?

Take for example an India v Australia One Day International (ODI) World Cup match. Your friends and you have decided to go watch the first innings at a bar in South Mumbai. You go to your table, order your drinks and settle in. The players walk out on to the field and lineup for the national anthem. As they start singing, no one, absolutely no one, gets up in the bar. Why, you ask? Because they are all comfortable seated, sipping their beers and haven't been 'told' to stand up for the national anthem. The false patriotism "mandate" is apparently only for live performances. Hence, only the people in the stadium will stand (again, that isn't universally true) and not those watching on television.

Now, this has a lot more to do with India than your average movie. The match involves the Indian cricket team and the players singing the national anthem. Here, one isn't forced, and hence no one stands up, even though there is a much stronger reason to do so than in a cinema hall. It doesn't feel unpatriotic because you haven't been told to do it.

Will the Maharashtra moral police soon come into homes to enforce standing up when the TV plays the anthem? It is this 'forced' patriotism that can get on one's nerves. It should be one's own choice not to stand if one does not want to. Even better if the national anthem is not shown in movie theatres at all.

If one makes a patriotism rule, it should be universal, shouldn't it? It shouldn't be confined just to movies, or just to music concerts. People should be made to stand up for the national anthem, whenever and wherever and whatever time. Else don't have the rule. Patriotism is not a momentary thing.

First published: 1 November 2016, 6:45 IST