Exclusive year-end essay by Nandita Das: “Art can trigger conversations, challenge prejudices… that’s why conservatives are threatened by it!”
Censorship by the state is not new in India, but it is time we question its arbitrary nature. The power of deciding what is right or wrong for an entire nation is in the hands of a handful of people. How can it be solely dependent on the subjective discretion of the few censor board members? What’s obscene to one may not be obscene to another. Or for that matter, what is regressive, provocative, violent, distasteful – who gets to be the judge?
Board of contention
At a time when the Internet provides an open space with no real censorship, censoring films seems, at the very least, futile. For instance, my film, Manto, which is now on Netflix, had some audio cuts, which I muted. They were taken from Manto’s own writings! It’s a pity we still can’t use his words and continue to deem them obscene by taking them out of context. It is ironically the same battle he fought 70 years ago. There is a difference between a filmmaker being derogatory and making their character speak the language that is authentic to their context.
Death knell for art: self-censorship
When we create a climate of fear and gag freedom of expression, many tend to censor themselves. No art can flourish with self-censorship. If you are censoring your own voice, what’s the point of telling your story? When it comes to censoring sexual content, one has to make the distinction between sexualising and dealing with issues of sexuality. When a camera zooms on a woman’s cleavage or other parts of her body, even if clothed, she is being objectified. In Manto, I deliberately have no nudity in portraying the characters of his story, even when it is in his writings. I knew it would unnecessarily distract the audience from the essence of the intended story. Some thought I had self-censored. But as a woman and a filmmaker, I made a conscious choice, as we still are unable to see sexuality without seeing it as titillation. Often in India, sexual content becomes the talking point, regardless of what context it appears in, thereby reducing those scenes to just that.
As an actor I have been on the other side of the camera and have experienced it first hand how sexuality on screen is misinterpreted. I did not want to subject my actresses to that or distract my audience from the real conversations that I wanted this film to trigger. When you read a story like Thanda Gosht or Khol Do, your mind creates images. But if the scene is brought to life on screen, the intent of the writer can get reduced to just one imagery.
Not just a movie thing
Not only filmmakers struggle with censorship – writers, painters, theatre practitioners and many who have chosen to speak up through their art have faced various kinds of censorship. The first time I understood these attacks on freedom of speech, was when I was 17, and was part of a street theatre group called Jana Natya Manch. It was shocking when its founder, Safdar Hashmi, a committed writer-actor-theatre director, got brutally murdered while performing a play. I couldn’t fathom why this would happen to an artist. I was aware that he was facing the wrath of some political parties, but I never thought he would actually be killed for simply putting up a play. I still can’t wrap my head around it. But that incident changed many things. For the first time, artists came together and, in large numbers, took to the streets, to defend freedom of expression. This led to the formation of SAHMAT, a platform for artists and writers to engage with issues of identity, freedom and violence.
Freedom of expression – Unconditional
Voltaire said, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Freedom comes with responsibility, but it is nobody’s place to dictate to others. It is a slow process, but it is only through freedom that people learn to be more discerning. For instance, there was a play in defense of Nathuram Godse that justified the killing of Mahatma Gandhi. While personally I would find it appalling and would refrain from watching such a play, I would not want it to be banned. The fight for freedom of expression is for all. It is also to protect one’s own freedom as someone else can find our choices offensive. Censorship is always subjective and selective and therefore can never be truly fair.
People should come to their own conclusions. Errors in judgment are inevitable, but if we encourage more nuanced conversations that go beyond the binary of black and white, we will distinguish the good from the bad. We need to work towards creating more discerning minds that can appreciate good films, good literature, good art. When people have the freedom to express themselves, the good, the bad, and the ugly will come out. We will know what is good by what stands the test of time. There is a reason why the works of Michelangelo or Kabir are said to be great: they continue to move us and impact us. Eventually, it is the good that will survive so there is no reason to fear freedom that also gives rise to the “bad”.
Creating fear to silence us
Today, increasingly, the self-proclaimed custodians of culture have taken it upon themselves to tell us what we should read, eat, watch. But we too are complicit in our silence. We don’t realise that our silence validates the moral police. Today, the atmosphere in the country is such that people are scared to speak their minds or put their necks on the line and this adds to the collective fear. I am often advised to not be so forthright or speak my mind. But I am not speaking out of anger or trying to put anybody down. I feel compelled to speak up against prejudice, discrimination and injustice. I am trolled every time I share my views on any socio-political issue, even when I simply share an interesting article. To disagree is one thing, but what is worrisome is that it is just vitriolic and vicious. I am attacked and called names like whore, a divorcee, lesbian, a kaali bangalan (and I am not even a Bengali!) and much worse. Have we lost all civility and democratic ways of expressing our disagreements?
For a while now, I have stopped reading the papers, going on talk shows, and by choice, have no television. I used to voice my opinion a lot more before. In being ignorant, I am protecting my sanity. I need to keep the negativity at bay so as to be able to engage more constructively with the issues that I care for.
In defense of art
I am often asked, “What is the point of art? Does it even change anything?” There are days that I too feel that it would make more sense to engage directly with issues instead of expressing them through the arts. But we all have to do our bit in the field we know best.
After all, we are the products of the books we have read, the films we have watched, the people we have met, and the experiences we have had. It all subliminally goes into our subconscious and forms our opinions and responses. How would we know what the world would have looked like if those books, films and works of art that impacted us didn’t exist? I think they would have been worse.
Art – sensitive, powerful art can trigger conversations, challenge prejudices, tell inconvenient truths and spark new ideas. And that is why the conservatives, the orthodox are threatened by it and attempt to silence writers, artists, and filmmakers. But it is in such times that they – we – need to speak the loudest.
As told to Ananya Ghosh
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From HT Brunch, December 30, 2018
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