Pawan Dhall clearly remembers the day he ‘came out’ to his parents. He was 17, and felt that a letter explaining his sexual preference would do the job. It didn’t — his father was furious, his mother insisted that he take change, and both agreed that Pawan, now 40, should concentrate on his studies. Standard parents stuff.
Contrast this his mother, 66-year-old Pushpa Dhall, way back in 1965, she never spoke much to her “reserved” father. “I was told that this is the man I would be getting engaged to. There was no place for any discussion.”
The contrast between the experiences of mother and son is telling. Clearly we Indians have come a long way in exercising ‘freedom of speech and expression’ — within our homes, at least. Many topics taboo in the past are today part of dinner-table discourse.
Take homosexuality. The Delhi High Court decision overturning Article 377 may have brought it out in the open, but many homosexuals have, over the past few decades, decided to exercise their right to free speech and expression in their personal lives and their parents have had to accommodate them.
You may say that much of this ‘domestic’ liberty is the result of the globalisation of manners and morals that has followed the economic integration of nations into one big mandi. And you would be right.
But equally, no one can deny that in some ways, it’s also grown out of the unique environment of freedom of speech that our 62-year-old democracy has fostered. An environment in which people can, with very few exceptions, say pretty much anything they feel like and about any of the holy cows — god, state, parents, hospitals.
Look at what happened over Sach ka Saamna, which our MPs wanted taken off air because they thought it was “offensive to decency”. The Delhi High Court, coming to the rescue again, ruled — “Our culture is not so fragile that it would be affected by one TV programme”.
Indeed, it’s been the courts we have to thank for defending our constitutional freedoms again and again. Take activist filmmaker Anand Patwardhan’s documentaries, In the name of Ram (1992) on the rise of the Hindu right, Father, Son and Holy War (1995) on communal riots and War and Peace (2002) on the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan, all of which were struck down by the Censor Board. But he took the matter to the courts, which “upheld my Freedom of Speech and the public’s Right to Information,” says Patwardhan.
The battle to screen Father, Son and Holy War lasted 10 years and was settled by the Supreme Court.
Heartily, for Patwardhan, he even managed to get his ‘controversial’ films seen on national television. “Five of my films were screened on Doordarshan. I did do a limited release of War and Peace in two Bombay multiplexes and we ran house full for a week,” he says.
Clearly the markets, too, have matured and give a platform to varied voices. No longer does it merely cater to the lowest common denominator, there are private TV channels and multiplexes which ensure that there’s something for everyone.
Look at filmmaker Anurag Kashyap’s career whose films — Black Friday, Paanch — were held up by the censors; in contrast, his other non-conformist films like No Smoking, Dev D and Gulaal not only got a release, but were greeted in theatres with enthusiasm.
Not that the picture is entirely rosy. The one man who punctures a hole in our pride at being a society and nation that fosters the freedom of speech and expression is M F Husain who continues to languish in Dubai despite the courts giving him the all-clear.
But then much of the barefoot painter’s predicament is a factor of his advanced age and the fact that he’s now become a soft target for all kinds of fringe groups. If Husain were a commoner perhaps he would have had an easier time.