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The onslaught of intolerance

The Madras Cafe row definitely makes for fantastic television debates but underlines just how thin-skinned we Indians really are, and that does not augur well for our cultural life.

india Updated: Aug 27, 2013 12:22 IST
Hindustan Times
madras cafe,The Satanic Verses,Salman Rushdie

Indians are a thin-skinned people; so thin-skinned that a contrarian point of view is guaranteed to elicit a protest from any one of the thousands of linguistic, ethnic, religious and caste groups that make up this nation.

This has meant that some group or the other is always objecting to a book, film or piece of art that offends their fragile sensibilities. Our recent cultural history is marked by battles over Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, MF Husain's paintings, films like Vishwaroopam and even lectures by Islamic feminists like Amina Wadud.

The outrage definitely makes for fantastic television debates but it can't be very good for our cultural life.

"What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist," said Mr Rushdie, who knows a bit about the consequences of offending people.

The latest in the line of fire is the spy thriller Madras Cafe based on the India's involvement in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s. While the film has received favourable reviews from critics, Tamil groups allege that it does not show the atrocities perpetrated on Sri Lankan Tamils.

The success of a protest often depends on who is protesting and how emotive the issue in question is.

The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF)'s misadventure in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s that led to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and the protracted civil war in the island nation that ended only in 2009 with the death of V Prabhakaran, the shocking execution of his 13-year-old son, horrific human rights abuses perpetrated on the country's Tamil population, and the decimation of the LTTE — all very well documented in Frances Harrison's Still Counting The Dead — continue to be highly emotive issues for Tamils.

It's no surprise then that Tamil groups were anxious about the portrayal of Sri Lankan Tamils in the film, which they believe amounts to a falsification of history.

Even though the Madras high court upheld the censor board's decision — and rightly so — the damage has been done: exhibitors in Tamil Nadu and Britain, fearing violence from activists, have decided not to screen the film.

This situation could have been avoided if, as director Santosh Sivan commented, the Madras Cafe team had employed a good subject matter expert. If the team had also included clear references to the atrocities perpetrated on Lankan Tamils perhaps the film would have been running to full houses everywhere.

Producer John Abraham insists creativity cannot be held at gunpoint. If only he had exercised some sensitivity, his creativity would have had a wider audience.

First Published: Aug 25, 2013 23:01 IST