Whose Freedom Is It?
There now seems no doubt we are living in dangerous times, under the shadow of what’s also being termed ‘cultural terrorism’—a kind of campaign being unleashed against ‘ideas’ and ‘thoughts’ otherwise perceived as birthrights granted to every human being by Nature. Unfortunately, some recent, and not-so-recent events and moments of intolerance by sections of self-assuming power groups and centres have unleashed a sense of fear never experienced in India before. The latest being the demand for ban on actor-producer-director Kamal Haasan’s , one of the country’s finest and conscientious film-makers, contemporary political thriller, Vishwaroopam. By a state of the union of all, backed by an ill-informed section of a religious community. And the joke is, not a single individual from the protesting community has seen the film yet they demanded a ban even though a group of ‘enlightened’ individuals constituting the Central Board of Film Certification had cleared it for public screening.
What actually began as a debatable issue within the film fraternity, arising out of Haasan’s decision to release his latest Rs 95-crore venture on DTH, direct-to-home (Direct Broadcast Satellite)—television (an experiment with far-reaching consequences, no doubt though it takes a lot of guts to do that) a day prior to its theatrical release, something that the distributors found untenable as it was likely to cut sharply into theatrical revenue. Until then no one had raised a hue and cry about the content of the much talked about film, and certainly not anyone from the state government that later entered the fray for banning the film—purely on hearsay. The mute point: a section of the Muslim community in Tamil Nadu “alleged the film portrayed their religion in a negative light” because before indulging in an act of terrorism, the individual utters ‘Allah O Akbar’.
And it all began (and that’s what threatens the nation-state if such a tendency is not nipped in the bud) with the allegations of an ill-informed (did he have ulterior motives?) made by Tamil Nadu Advocate General Navaneetha Krishnan, who while questioning the collective wisdom of the Film Certification Board, raised the first war-cry by saying “film certification is a very big scam” followed by an equally reprehensible statement of advocate Sankarasubu who alleged the board members were “purchasable commodities”. In one’s individual wisdom both gentlemen should have been sued by the group that cleared the film. Films have been subjected to ‘terrorism’ from time to time on the flimsiest grounds though the fact remains that no moving picture in the past 100 years has led to any inciting of violence. Or for that matter a statement or a book by a thinker, unless it has been torn out of context, as has been evident from the events in the recent past. There have, however, been incidents when irresponsible statements by fanatics, religious leaders and politicians have unleashed acts of violence.
What is also emerging from the Vishwaroopam controversy is the very idea of India, the upholding of its Constitution. It is no longer in the hands of the enlightened, but the intolerant, not thinkers, philosophers, prophets of change but a class which is unaware of what is guaranteed to its citizens by the Constitution that seems to think what they perceive to be right is Right, free to interpret and misinterpret without being questioned for their actions since they are the custodians of governance, they have. The Constitution guarantees freedom of expression as long as it is not detrimental to the health of the State itself. But politicians are free to hold Parliament to ransom, even indulge in violent acts that are being watched live by the viewing public, and religious leaders interpret texts to suit their limited means. They can get away with any observation, comment and then deny when consequences take an adverse turn.
What is endangering the very unity of the country is the usurping of power. What happened in Tamil Nadu indicates that every Indian state has the right to determine what is right for a section of its populace, what individuals should read, and what they should watch, and that too purely on the basis of an interpretation of an illiterate or semi-literate political or religious leader thus usurping the right of freedom guaranteed by the Constitution to determine by the individual what he or she perceive is right or wrong, what book should be read, what film should be watched. “Ludicrous at best and perilous at worst,” as actor and rights activist Rahul Bose has observed, and went on to further observe: “Forget states, even nations consider an over-abundance of ideas anathemical to governance. Hand this control over to our religious leaders and the Vishwaroopam controversy will prove to only be the tip of an iceberg that will decimate what is left of our democratic ideals.”
Some years ago a minister in the Central government, going by his personal experience, decided that films with characters showing smoking be disallowed or banned but he did not advocate a ban in the manufacture of the cancer stick. The guy in his wisdom wanted such scenes to be deleted even from old films without even caring to understand the impossibility of the demand. But now it is mandatory to open the narrative of statutory warning that smoking is injurious to health, it can cause cancer. It will not be surprising if in the not too distant a future another wise man or a group may demand the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed in the Indian Constitution to be re-determined as Smruti Koppikar has rightly observed: “Reading this, in whole or part, may cause some people in some places to take offence to some lines and may lead to hurt sentiments. Such warnings, disclaimers, caveats might precede the prose, poetry, films, academic postulations and opinion articles that enter the public domain from now on.”
It seems from now on every written word, a work of art, the frame of a film will have to be subjected to the supreme censoring authority called the whims and fancies of a ‘religious group’. What socialite-columnist Shobha De has come to name as “angry mobs (that) are composed of people who do not read, write, draw, sing act, paint…or even think. Books are judged by a bunch of illiterate goons who may never have held one in their hands. Movies are condemned by those who have not watched the film they are demanding a ban…Speeches are damned by those who don’t know any language—except the language of abuse.” And to quote Koppikar again: “It would be perfectly logical, given the sudden—and seemingly inexplicable—rise in our propensity to take offence and/or nurse sentiments. Film-makers, artists, writers, thinkers would thus save themselves from having to ceaselessly justify and defend their work against motley groups and in courts across the land.”
Returning to the Vishwaroopam controversy, and its tame resolve: just mute the sound at certain places and release the film. That has been the outcome of the great religious-politico debate that has garnered media space for the past week or so. The same had been the case with some other films that suffered the threat of ban and the film-makers had to succumb to the whims and fancies of political or religious determinators in various states: Fanna, Traffic Signal, Kinnaur, Kohram, Zubeida, Jodha Akbar, My Name is Khan, Parzania, Chakravuh, Firaaq, Black Friday, Son of Sardar to name a few. Bans sought on flimsiest grounds. Not one of them had anything to offend the sentiment of a community or religious group. Paradoxically, some of them emerged money spinners.
Can we claim to be breathing in a civilised society?
By Suresh Kohli