Big B, Mary Kom, Kangana: Why open letters should be left unopened

Piya Srinivasan
Piya SrinivasanOct 08, 2016 | 10:11

Big B, Mary Kom, Kangana: Why open letters should be left unopened

Open letters are a most interesting thing. Their original purpose was to serve as private missives with public outcomes, penned to start meaningful conversations - whether as papal decrees, letters challenging political actions or juridical decisions, letters in defence of religious rights and civil rights, letters as a means of protest, letters aimed at humour and satire, and even dietary advice, dating back to 1863!


In 2014, a letter by Muslim scholars challenging the religious credentials of the Islamic State or ISIS wrote a point-by-point criticism of its ideology, quoting heavily from the Quran. Some open letters can claim to have changed the world as we know it. No such thing is happening closer home.

India is undergoing an upsurge of open letter writing, possibly due to the fact that the country is so riven along political, economic, social and sexual lines. But to what effect? Open letters are hailed as a hallmark of democracy but it seems that as we become more democratised we also become more gullible.

Turn to Amitabh Bachchan’s letter to his granddaughters, strategically written (or filmed) just before the release of his movie Pink. Lauded as emotion and a "must-read for every girl", its regressive discussion of the "legacy" women supposedly carry makes one cringe.

This is not the legacy of the poet or actor or par excellence but the weight of patriarchal baggage that will be borne by their "tender shoulders". The assertion of carrying a legacy instead of the right to chart one’s own course swiftly removes freedom of choice from the person. The transfer of legacy (read the transfer of the man’s surname) is already present as a benevolent eraser of autonomy.

Amitabh Bachchan's open letter to his granddaughters indicates that they are already "Nandas" and "Bachchans" before they are girls.

His letter indicates that they are already "Nandas" and "Bachchans" before they are girls. Even the category of woman is stereotyped by the much abused "length of skirt as measure of character" argument.  He has already segregated them as persons of privilege. What follows is candyfloss. But as one can see by the adulation following the letter, the benevolent patriarch can do no wrong. And neither can Farhan Akhtar, apparently. Hindustan Times recently invited open letters from eight eminent personalities to discuss the daily abuse of women under the handle #LetsTalkAboutRape.

His open letter and poems to his daughters discussing violence against women launched the HT campaign. While the letter casts a critical eye over the vilification of stalking in movies and its negative repercussions in real life, unfortunately this vigilance doesn’t hold up in real time.

His studied silence over enfant terrible Salman Khan’s preposterous rape comment is hardly befitting of the founder of MARD (Men against Rape and Discrimination), and someone who has been known to condemn rape publicly in the past.  Besides, the word "Mard" itself makes one uncomfortable by alluding to the inflated notions of virility and masculinity that Indian patriarchy suffers from.  Dismantling the signified meaning is a task that requires active intervention, not letter writing.


Kangana Ranaut, who has openly spoken up on behalf of her sister, an acid attack survivor, would have seemed like a more fitting choice. But then again, there’s the fact that Rock On 3 is releasing soon.

So instead of a consensus against the daily violence faced by women, letters like those written by Bachchan and Akhtar more likely allude to thinly veiled film promotions, of which garnering public approval by standing up for women is a component. These letters were probably best left in the private domain because they do not tell us anything we do not know about the state of women in India.

On the other Mary Kom, in part two of the HT series, writes a letter to her sons that touches on meaningful tropes in 21st century India, from racial and sexual discrimination against North-Eastern women, shifting gender roles (mom as boxer and MP and a stay-at-home dad), and the all pervasiveness of abuse.  

Importantly, she also brings up the fact that she will "create awareness on sexual crimes against women" in the Rajya Sabha. But the sad part is that she can only address these concerns when she is in a position of power. Even as a World Amateur Boxing Champion and a Member of Parliament, it took her 33 years to come to terms the sexual violence she faced as a woman. Imagine then, the plight of the voiceless and underrepresented sections of Indian women.  

Kannada writer Shashi Deshpande and politician Shashi Tharoor’s letters also hit home. Deshpande tries to dismantle the implications of shame that accompany rape, and discusses the inadequacy of nomenclature such as stalking and eve-teasing to express the daily humiliation, harassment and even death of women; the casual inclusion of rape and forced intercourse in our ancient scriptures, the horror and cruelty of it all that’s so easily brushed under the carpet.

Tharoor’s letter talks of the inherent patriarchy of self-governing, quasi-juridical bodies that condemn women, unequal treatment of women in the public sphere, the regressive attitude of politicians unable to come to terms with women’s emancipation, a greater understanding required in the political arena around violence against women, and advocacy of a zero tolerance policy for politicians in the implementation of existing rape law. But even Tharoor as a representative of women’s rights is not free from scrutiny, given continuing investigations into his wife Sunanda Pushkar’s unexpected death.

Open letters, like most things, are susceptible to appropriation for different agendas. The ease with which powerful or influential men assume that their message is sacrosanct is only more disturbing because many have fallen for it hook, line and sinker.

When people in power (and Bollywood is power) assume the right to disseminate opinions on social issues, they must do so with the requisite knowledge and authority, else they run the risk of further cementing that which they profess to challenge.

People like Amitabh Bachchan and Farhan Akhtar will always carry more mileage than a Shashi Deshpande, a Mary Kom and even a Shashi Tharoor. If you have assumed the role of role model, then you have to play the part right.  

Maybe public discourse, while becoming more democratic, has become less meaningful because finding platforms and forums to express oneself is so easy now. Worrying about quality and impact is no longer a concern. Twitter has become the ultimate 140-character "open letter", with Facebook and Instagram following closely on its heels.

We have become habituated to airing our views on everything - from the tepidity of the tea to whether India should go to war or Jayalalithaa’s health or the unusual traffic jam on Sunday. There are websites that only publish open letters, with taglines such as "Never be Bullied into Silence".

Talk is cheap, silence is unacceptable. Or maybe some letters are just meant for envelopes, to be sealed and opened only by the recipient.

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Last updated: October 08, 2016 | 10:11
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